When we think of our individual impact on the environment, we tend to think of how many paper towels we use. Or how much gas we put in our car. Or how many plastic forks we’ve thrown away. But we rarely think about how our shopping habits affect the environment.
Everyday, clothing is churned out of factories in Asia to support our insatiable, national appetite for the latest styles and trends. Fashion retailers have streamlined their processes so finely, that they can design and produce a new garment within 3 weeks.
But what does this mean for the environment?
First, most of the clothing is made with synthetic fibers which are basically plastic – and plastic is oil. As in, drilled from the Earth, just like for fuel. As you probably know, once any item of plastic is discarded into a landfill, it takes literally eons to break down. We demonize plastic shopping bags and water bottles, but a polyester blouse is just as harmful. Even if a garment is reused then recycled into a rag, that rag will eventually make it into a landfill somewhere.
Next, this method of clothing production results in dramatically-high levels of pollution. In “Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion,” writer Elizabeth Cline tells of a factory town in Dongguan, China which she describes as a “land of continuous factories” all filling the air with noxious emissions. The pollution is so bad, that the People’s Daily Online reported that 1.2 million Chinese died from air pollution in 2010.
But, as you can imagine, air pollution over China doesn’t simply stay over China – it’s carried by stratospheric winds all over the planet.
Finally, because these mass quantities of clothing are being produced overseas for the Western world, they must be somehow transported to us. And that is done via ocean freighters. These giant vessels burn the cheapest and dirtiest of all fossil fules, and there are now over 100,000 of these ships moving back and forth across the globe. Their sheer size requires so much fuel that just 16 of them make as much pollution as all the cars in the world.
Yeah, let that sink in. We are killing our planet in the name of fashion.
So, what do we do? Most of us aren’t willing to forego sartorial additions to our closets. Clothing is how we define our personalities and make ourselves look appropriate for work to support our livelihood. The answer to this problem is clear: secondhand clothing.
The major environmental benefit of buying secondhand clothing is that it’s already in circulation. It doesn’t need to be unsustainably produced from unsustainable materials and shipped unsustainably across the planet. That firsthand dress or top is instantly absolved of its original sin and perfectly fine to wear guilt-free.
Of course, and perhaps more importantly, when you’re shopping secondhand, it allows you to buy quality more affordably.
In 2010, I conducted an experiment based on the idea that it was possible to build a complete wardrobe exclusively from Goodwill of Orange County. For 6 months, I shopped only at Goodwill. At the end of that 6 months, I had a new-to-me wardrobe which cost me all of $500. Clothing, shoes, accessories – all from Goodwill, all in near-immaculate condition.
If you don’t believe me, check out this extensive list of blog posts I did completely dedicated to thrifted style I found at Goodwill of Orange County.
It wasn’t the same experience as shopping at the mall, though. At times, it was a bit overwhelming because there was so much selection. But I taught myself how to be patient, thorough and have some focus. If that meant I only shopped a few sections at a time, so be it.
Fast-forward 3 years, I still shop mostly at Goodwill of Orange County; they get amazing donations from the community and it’s so insanely inexpensive. My wardrobe looks fantastic – no one knows I shop only secondhand unless I tell them, which I do often.
But, best of all, I’ve moved my financial contribution away from companies which pollute the Earth and toward an organization which does so much good for the community.
*Disclaimer: This post does not reflect the opinions of Goodwill of Orange County*
Nicole Longstreath is a wardrobe strategist. She helps clients all over the world build wardrobes they love at a sensible cost. Check out her website, theWardrobeCode.com for your dose of wardrobe wisdom.