The planet is currently in a crisis. Every day we hear news about how climate change is affecting us, from raging fires in the Amazon to the melting ice caps in Antarctica. Climate change is a top issue for young people in the United States and activists, like 16-year-old Greta Thunberg, are showing us that we can do our part to help the planet too. Some small habits are easy to adapt to. For example, some of us have switched from using plastic straws to using paper and metal ones, are more conscious of using reusable water bottles instead of plastic ones and are recycling and reusing items.
Earth-conscious consumers are also turning to thrifting instead of shopping at traditional stores. In fact, a recent report from ThredUp, a resale company, projects the resale industry to rise to $51 billion in 2023.
Why the shift? The fashion industry is one of the world’s largest polluters. Fast-fashion brands like Zara and H&M have been called out for the toll they take on the environment through their sweatshop-esque conditions and the waste they contribute making their garments — fast fashion emits 1.2 billion tons of carbon emissions per year. Thrifting and re-wearing clothes aren’t new concepts, but many college students are incorporating these ethical fashion choices in their everyday shopping routines to help the environment through fashion.
DePaul University senior Lavonn Ackerman said that you can thrift and stay on trend at the same time.
He recently bought a Polo shirt while thrifting, which Ackerman said he wears all of the time.
“Some people get discouraged about thrifting because they haven’t found a store that matches their style,” Ackerman said. “Look around for some, search Google, look at Yelp reviews. It’s going to take some time, but you will find one.”
Ackerman also encouraged college students to reuse outfits instead of buying a new outfit when you have an event to go to.
“There’s so many ways to style a simple shirt and pant,” Ackerman said. “Accessories really help me with this. A cool belt or chain can really spice up an outfit and make it look different. Rely more on accessories and you can find a multitude of ways to wear different outfits.”
On a small scale, our everyday fashion choices and practices can help eliminate the fashion industry’s large role in the climate crisis, but what about the big fashion brands? They, too, play a big role in sustainability.
Over the past few years, awareness about fashion’s impact on the environment has increased significantly, and sustainability has become a buzzword in the industry.
Some big fashion houses have switched to using conservative fabrics, such as recyclable cotton, and more sustainable production practices to decrease their contribution to the current climate crisis. Dior’s creative director Maria Grazia Chiuri decided to make her Ready-to-Wear spring 2020 show sustainable, using real trees throughout the runway — to be replanted — and reusable fabrics in the clothing. Gucci recently announced that it is now entirely carbon neutral, reducing its emissions and switching to renewable energy in all of its stores.
Columbia College fashion studies professor Dana Connell often uses her fashion classes to encourage sustainability in the industry. Before teaching at Columbia, she was the bridal manager of the Marshall Field’s on State Street.
She said that sustainability initiatives on an individual scale vary between generations and socioeconomic class. “Millennials and Gen Z are very concerned about the environment and are paying more attention to waste and climate change. They are also saddled with significant debt that has led them to say no to materialistic culture,” Connell said.
Younger generations want to spend less and conserve more. The downfall of several fast-fashion brands is testament to that. Connell said “Forever 21 is bankrupt and others will follow. It starts with closing stores and eventually leads to bankruptcy and selling off stores.”
According to Connell, the fashion industry is already seeing the shift towards sustainability as more and more models of fast fashion are proving they cannot work given today’s climate.
When thinking of sustainability, Connell considers Patagonia a top brand. Patagonia aims to become completely carbon neutral, transition to only renewable or recyclable materials and reduce energy during the supply chain, all by 2025.
Recently, the brands typically thought of as leaders in the fast-fashion industry are appearing to try to be more sustainable. In 2018, H&M introduced a Conscious Collection, releasing clothing made of recyclable polyester and organic cotton. Zara also announced in December that all of its polyester, cotton and linen will be sustainably produced by 2025.
Even given the environmental pledges these companies make to reuse materials, they (and others like them) still participate in the mass production of clothing, which uses a lot of resources, such as water, and produces a substantial amount of greenhouse gas emissions. One T-shirt alone requires 594 gallons of water to make.
“In H&M’s case, having some ‘sustainable’ materials in the mix makes little difference when in 2018 they overproduced $4.3 billion worth of goods,” Timo Rissanen, associate professor of fashion design and sustainability at Parsons, told the Huffington Post. Fast-fashion companies may appear to be making strides toward sustainability, but still fall short due to mass consumption and overproduction.
Fashion may be a big contributor to the climate crisis, but by changing to more sustainable models of production and consumption, retail companies can begin to decrease their negative environmental impact. Fashion consumers can also switch to more sustainable brands or choose to thrift their clothing options.
Header image by Jenni Holtz, 14 East