As I make choices in my life (all choices - food, beauty products, buying furniture etc) I am trying to take a pause, be present in the decision making (thanks Indie :) and ask myself “is there something that I could be doing better?” Lately, I have really been trying to focus on this with my fashion choices.
When clothing pieces are tossed, they either clutter our landfills, or are burned; both of which come with their own negative effects on our health and environment.
In the US, roughly only 13.6% of clothing and shoes that are thrown away are recycled.
An article released by BBC Future states that, globally, the fashion industry contributes around 10% of all greenhouse gas emissions and 20% of water waste!
Why is recycling clothing so difficult?
A wide combination of materials are used to produce each garment. Thread types can range from natural fibers, synthetic fibers, or a blend of both. For example, the components of jeans are usually a blend of both natural and synthetic yarn, threads, and buttons made from plastics or metals. Attire that relies on heavy dyes pose environmental and health related threats and can be challenging to recycle. Just like with recycling plastics, the materials need to be separated before heading to the correct bins.
It is important to take a close look at the pros and cons of each fiber form used to make clothing and textiles in order to make the best consumer decisions.
Materials derived from natural plants, animals, or minerals make up natural fabrics by being spun into thread and sewn into textiles. Natural fabrics that are plant-based typically use cotton, linen, and jute whereas animal-based natural fabrics use silk and wool.
Eco-friendly: Natural fabrics are the most eco-friendly of the three categories because the production process uses far less chemicals than when creating synthetic fibers.
Durable and absorbent: Natural fabrics also tend to be super durable, soft, and absorbent due to the true nature structure of the resources.
Biodegradable: Natural fibers like linen and wool, when un-dyed, are actually completely biodegradable!
Not always 100% natural: Some forms of natural fabrics aren’t as natural as you might think. For example, even though cotton is a natural fiber, it may be produced using genetic modifications and insecticides. Genetically modified cotton crops cannot reproduce, so new crops must be planted each year, which decreases top soil quality faster.
Not always land or animal friendly: Animal-based natural fabrics require livestock grazing which can cause mass land clearing and degrading. Some farms have been found to hold unethical standards for their animals. Sheep raised for wool may face harmful practices like mulesing, which is when rear-hind skin is removed during shaving.
Synthetic fabrics are man made through chemical processes in which the fibers are extracted with special machinery known as a spinneret. Some examples of synthetic fibers are spandex and polyester.
Cheaper: Synthetic fibers are easier and cheaper to make than natural fibers, especially during mass production.
Stain and water resistant: Because they’re man made, synthetic fabrics can be treated to be completely water resistant and non absorptive to liquids and stains. This is good for weather resistant and fitness gear.
Harmful production process: Creating synthetic fabrics uses vast amounts of water and energy. Speedy production processes increase greenhouse gasses in our air. Not to mention, the use of chemicals and dyes can be harmful to employees and surrounding areas of water and land.
Difficult to recycle/Non-biodegradable: Most synthetic fibers will never truly break down, adding pollution to our landfills. In order to recycle synthetic fabrics, the item must be made 100% of the specific material. Otherwise, a new alternative is being tested by researchers who have found that synthetic fibers, like polyester, can sometimes be extracted from synthetic blends and used to create new textiles.
Skin irritation: Depending on allergies and skin sensitivity, Synthetic fibers could cause negative reactions to the skin, like a rash. Those effects could be more severe if the individual is allergic to materials, like latex or spandex.
Cheap and easy to make: The ease of producing synthetic fibers vs. natural fibers is enticing to companies; especially those who mass produce. The more fast fashion production, the more pollution to our Earth and negative effects to our health.
Natural vs. synthetic fabric:
The comparison between natural fabrics and synthetic fabrics isn’t good vs. evil. The few benefits of synthetic fabrics do make them favorable for certain types of clothing. However, recycling synthetic materials involves much larger challenges and issues than recycling natural and organic fabrics (some of which are 100% biodegradable anyway!).
Fashion doesn’t have to cost us our world and sustainable fashion doesn’t have to put a hole in our piggy banks.
Thinking deeper about our next clothing purchase supports a full circle cycle rather than one that ends at the landfill. Purchasing clothing with quality and intent sometimes requires more of an up front investment, but in return for pieces that will last. Nonetheless, there are several affordable options for taking part in fresh fashion.
Don’t engage in fast fashion:
Fast Fashion is a term used to refer to clothing companies that quickly replicate high-end fashion for a low cost. Though this sounds like a great option for your wallet, fast fashion items cannot be easily recycled and largely contribute to clothing pollution. Fast fashion items are normally of poor quality, have a short rack life, and use large amounts of non-renewable resources during production. Other issues related to these fast fashion organizations include unfair employee wages, work environments that are toxic to land and staff health, and stealing fashion ideas from small creators.
Keep an eye out for certifications:
Look for certification labels from programs like the Global Organic Textile Standard and the Responsible Wool Standard. These certifications ensure that the brand is being conscious of their social and environmental responsibilities.
Choose the better alternative:
Purchase the most organic version possible (certified organic cotton vs. natural cotton). Choose 100% material over blends of synthetic materials because they are easier to recycle.
Some of the eco brands I have found and love:
Christy Dawn (dress in pictures is from Christy Dawn)
TIP: Good On You is a GREAT resource for tracking which brands are eco and ethical and to get introduced to new ethical brands.
Shop your mother's closet or second-hand clothing:
Shopping vintage and thrifting can be super fun and unique to your wardrobe. Check out some thrift shops and vintage boutiques local to you. There are also several online options as well through resale companies like Poshmark, The Real Real, ThredUp, Let Go, Facebook Marketplace, and Etsy.
Upcycling is another word for repurposing an item that would go in the recycling bin to give it a second life, with the idea that the cycle of reuse can continue.
Upcycling fabrics could be done by using old socks to clean shoes, reconstructing a t-shirt into a halter top, or turning a pair of jeans into a new handbag.
Before tossing a piece from your wardrobe, tap into your creativity to think of how it can be re-styled. There are SO many cute DIY clothing ideas that can be found on Youtube, Tiktok, and Pinterest!
Not feeling crafty? No problem! There are many creators who are willing to give a new life to your clothing. Try visiting your local alterations shop, or browse on the Etsy marketplace to discover a clothing re-designer.
There are several true investment pieces that I have had for 20+ years and they are still relevant. Shopping classic, timeless pieces that will last a lifetime, if not generations, is a great option.
Recycle when possible:
A search for textile recycling programs online will unlock lists of initiatives held by companies large and small. These types of programs involve clothing drop-offs/at home pick-ups in exchange for their recycling services and/or store rewards. Each program may differ based on the brand, type of clothing being recycled (undergarments, jeans, etc.) and the location.
For Days is a recognized sustainable full circle brand that offers a really easy recycling avenue with their Take Back Bag program. The Take Back Bag is $6, in which you may fill it up with old clothing in any condition, from any brand, any size, any material, and For Days will make sure none of it ends up in a landfill. When the bag is full, just print the shipping label and send it away. For the good deed, customers are rewarded store credits that can be applied when shopping the For Days clothing collection.
Upparel is another celebrated company for their extreme environmental efforts. Upparel will provide clothing boxes that can be shipped when full. Simply choose the amount of clothing by weight that you would like to recycle and the number of boxes to be filled. One 22 lb. box starts at $25. A list of accepted textiles can be found here.
Donate or sell:
If the item is still in good condition, it can be donated, or sold. Store chains like Plato’s Closet will actually buy your old clothing from you. Local consignment shops accept gently worn clothing as a donation- and you may even be able to use your donations as a tax write-off!
Compost natural fabrics:
Bio-degradable natural fabrics, like organic cotton or hemp, can be placed in compost piles for break down. Ensure that the fabric is 100% natural with no dyes and separate any non-biodegradable accessories on the item. Shred the clothing and place in the compost pile. It is best to limit each pile to 25% clothing materials.
BBC Future: Why Clothes are so Hard to Recycle
Synthetic Fabrics vs. Natural Fabrics
Global Organic Textile Standard