You may have removed last season’s hot fashion trend from your closet, but the effect of that item still lingers, from the energy used in its production to its continued presence in one of the nation’s landfills. The total environmental impact of our outfit choices are a growing concern because, buoyed by the rise of so-called fast fashion, we’re consuming and discarding more clothes than ever before.
In 2015, the last year for which the Environmental Protection Agency has data, the United States generated 11.9 million tons — or about 75 pounds per person — of textile waste, most of which ended up in landfills. That’s more than a 750% increase since 1960. For reference, that’s nearly 10 times more than the increase in the country’s population over the same time period.
This growth in clothing waste coincides with the dominance of fast fashion brands such as H&M and Zara, whose business models are based on selling low-priced items at high volumes. Zara, for example, releases 20,000 new designs a year, according to a spokesman, unveiling new lines during micro seasons beyond the traditional winter/fall and summer/spring lines. The strategy is designed to encourage customers to shop regularly for new looks.
The company is in step with broader industry trends, which saw clothing production double between 2000 to 2014, according to a report released by the consulting firm McKinsey & Co. Over the same period, according to the report, the number of garments the average person purchased each year also increased by 60%. A separate study found that fast fashions are constructed so that they typically last no more than 10 wearings.
Even though many retailers say they’re addressing sustainability, “the clothing that they make still doesn’t have any greater longevity,” said Elaine Ritch, a senior lecturer in marketing at Glasgow Caledonian University.
Faced with this reality, the concept of “slow fashion” has emerged over the past decade as a kind of counterbalance to fast fashion. The idea: slow down the rapid pace of clothing consumption and instead buy fewer more durable items. It’s an idea championed, for example, by the fashion blogger Cat Chiang, Natalie Live of the brand The Tiny Closet, and Emma Kidd, a doctoral researcher in Britain who launched a 10-week “fashion detox.”
They are sounding the alarm, in part, because the negative impacts of clothing extend beyond the landfill. The chemicals used in making, dyeing and treating many fabrics are so harmful that the EPA regulates many textile factories as hazardous waste generators. And overall, apparel and footwear produce more than 8% of the global greenhouse gas emissions associated with the harmful effects of human-caused climate change.
The recent announcement that Forever 21, the brand perhaps most synonymous with fast fashion, is planning to file for bankruptcy protection, along with the emergence of brands that say they explicitly focus on quality, suggests that shoppers themselves may be weary of the churn. Which raises the question, in a culture accustomed to the ephemeral, how can shoppers select clothes that are built to last?
Here’s what to consider.
When deciding on a shirt, or a pair of shoes, ask yourself: Do I really like it? Does it fit well? Is it versatile?
“I always say if you’re going to buy a pair of boots for the winter, buy winter boots. Don’t go out buying a $2,000 pair of Chanel winter boots that look really cool because that’s not something you want to be wearing in the snow,” said David Mesquita, co-owner of Leather Spa, which repairs shoes and handbags. “It might look like a winter boot, but it’s not.” You’d be better served buying boots that are insulated and waterproof and designed to actually tromp around in the snow.
We can rewear an outfit that our friends saw us in on Instagram.
“People feel that if they have their photograph taken wearing a dress on social media then they can never wear that dress again,” said Ritch. According to a survey commissioned by the credit card company Barclay, 9% of shoppers in Britain admitted to buying clothes online for Instagram. After posting pictures of themselves wearing the item online, they return it.
Given that even British royalty rewear clothing, and actress Tiffany Haddish wore a $4,000 Alexander McQueen dress so many times to public events that it became a pop culture reference, we can rewear an outfit that our friends saw us in on social media.
Does it feel good to the touch?
“If something feels rough to the touch, it’s not going to feel comfortable on your body,” said Cora Harrington, the author of the book “In Intimate Detail” and the founder and editor-in chief of The Lingerie Addict website.
This is especially true for undergarments, like bras, but it extends to all garments. “If it doesn’t feel comfortable,” said Ritch, “you’re going to dispose of it more quickly.”
If wool sweaters make you itch, for example, don’t buy them.
Of course as with much of navigating the current fashion landscape, this means factoring in trade-offs. Growing cotton, a comfortable fabric mainstay, is one of the largest uses of agricultural pesticides. And while organic cotton uses fewer pesticides, it uses more water. And while cotton can be recycled, it tends to lower the quality of the resulting fabric.
Can I see my hand through it?
As a rule of thumb, thicker fabrics last longer than thinner ones. For T-shirts, you should look for a fabric weight of around 6 ounces per square yard.
“Imagine a 36- by 36-inch piece, and when you put it on a scale, it will weigh 6 ounces,” said Sean Cormier, a professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology.
Since most of us don’t go shopping with a scale, it’s easier to simply put a hand between the top and bottom layer of the T-shirt. If you can see through it, it’s too thin. The hand rule applies to things like button-down shirts and sweaters as well. If you can see your hand through it, it’s too thin.
And while jeans tend to come in heavier fabric weights (typically 10 ounces per square yard for women’s jeans and either 12 or 14 ounces per square yard for men), the general idea still applies, Cormier said.
“If you were to buy jeans and they were heavier, they would definitely be more durable,” he said.
Shoes also get a durability boost when constructed by thicker materials, which is partially responsible for men’s shoes outlasting women’s. “The men’s shoes are just made with different materials and they also have thicker soles,” Mesquita said.
It’s important to make sure your clothes are stitched together well.
For bras, Harrington recommends, “making sure your stitches are even, that you don’t have skipped stitches or loose stitches or places where you already see the stitching coming apart.”
For other items, like shirts, the norm is about eight stitches per inch according to Cormier.
Since that would be hard to measure while shopping, he suggests tugging on stitches and buttons. “Not too hard, you know, but just to pull on it and make sure that it’s not going to fall apart,” he said.
Do the pockets square?
When buying a patterned shirt, a good tip is to check whether the pattern on the pocket lines up to that on the body. Also check to see if there are a few centimeters of additional fabric outside of the stitching.
These details may seem small, but mismatched pockets suggest that the manufacturer prioritizes volume, not quality. And a little bit of excess fabric in a hem or seam gives a tailor space to take a garment out if you gain a few pounds, or to fix a tear, allowing you to repair a piece or extend its life, instead of discarding it.
“If it was a cheaper fabric, then they would just flick it to one side and put the overlocker through it, whereas if it’s more expensive than they would be to either side of the seam,” said Ritch. “When you buy kind of cheap fashion from H&M, the seams never lie right, and they just don’t seem to fit you as well.”
Is it a good blend?
When it’s appropriate, a lining can go a long way toward helping a garment last. For dress slacks, Cormier recommends a lined wool pair. For everyday work pants, he recommends a pair made of tencel fabric, citing its strength, durability and comfort. (It’s made from dissolving wood pulp.)
When choosing a sweater, pilling is often a major concern — no one wants to be covered in those small balls of unsightly fluff. Synthetic fibers and blends tend to pill more than natural fibers like cotton or wool, while loose knits pill more than tighter ones.
But when it comes to things like T-shirts and dress shirts, a tension emerges. That’s because many cotton items are made from shorter-strand cotton, which is more likely to pill. Clothes made from a long fiber cotton, like Pima cotton, tend to be more durable but more expensive. A third option is to buy shirts that mix those short blend fibers with polyester to make them stronger.
Cormier’s recommendation for a dress shirt is to keep the polyester content between 20 and 40% so the shirt is absorbent and soft but reasonably durable. He added that jeans can contain some polyester for added strength while still maintaining the look and feel of denim.
But the use of polyester can be a problem, said Céline Semaan, founder of The Slow Factory, a sustainability agency and lab, because “polyester is made out of oil. It’s plastic, essentially.”
And that plastic ends up in our waterways when we wash our clothes. Microfiber filters for washing machines (or so-called guppy bags for those of us who use laundromats) can help reduce the amount of microplastics released when we wash clothes.
Can I maintain it?
Buying quality clothes is the first step in ensuring that your outfits last. Once they make it into your closet, you also have to maintain them.
Fine fabrics like silk, for example, “require a lot more attention and a lot more care,” said Harrington.
As an example, bras last longer when they’re hand washed — or at least placed in a lingerie bag and washed on the gentle cycle.
They should also be hung to dry, because “the worst thing for your underwear is putting it in the dryer,” said Harrington. “And that’s because heat destroys elastic.”
That is a rule of thumb that extends to other elastic items, like workout gear, and even T-shirts and jeans. Wash in cold water and hang to dry, or at least tumble dry at low temperatures.
And it’s not just clothes that can benefit from a little extra care. You can extend the life of a pair of shoes by spraying them with a water and stain-repellent spray. “It’s just an added layer of protection on the skin or the suede and what it basically is going to do is create a little shield,” said Mesquita.
He also noted that proactively putting protective rubber soles on shoes can also extend their life. Of course, the soles can cost between $20 and $40, which means the shoes have to be worth the added expense. And if they’re not — maybe that’s a signal you shouldn’t buy them?
These steps, when taken together, will not single-handedly solve the fashion industry’s waste problem. According to Semaan, of The Slow Factory, much of the responsibility lies with clothing manufacturers. Companies need to introduce broad changes, like clothing that is designed to be recycled, reused or redesigned into a circular system where today’s fashion discards are tomorrow’s raw materials, she said. After all, planned obsolescence, or the intentional practice of designing items that aren’t built to last, is not limited to fashion.
But buying fewer, longer-lasting items is one way of reducing your impact, and signaling to the industry that those bigger changes are valuable. Semaan, who was born in Lebanon, recalls fondly her experiences in the country before the introduction of fast fashion.
“You would just basically edit and remix your closet as the fashion and trends would evolve, or you would make things custom and it wouldn’t be that crazy because the idea was not to purchase something new every week,” she said. “The rhythm was completely different in purchasing. There was a slowness to it and a beauty to it.”