When I returned home after packing up my last semester of college, I opened up my parents’ garage ready to unleash my many boxes of stuff, only to find that there was not a square foot of room in sight. I was greeted by years’ worth of bags labeled “to donate” that we had just never gotten around to. This was the time to finally declutter my life, I decided, and make my way to the local donation store.
But as I looked through each bag, call me sentimental; I saw a glimpse of a new life for each item. My mom’s old clothes from the ‘90s had come back into style, and with some basic sewing skills I could turn any dress into a shirt and cut up the scraps into hair-ties. For those projects where my sewing skills weren’t up to par, I knew my local tailor could fix my clothes often for less than it costs to buy new ones. Here it was — my perfect lock-down project: repurposing everything old into something useful and new.
In doing so, I could avoid buying new clothing that would contribute to the monstrous carbon footprint that is the clothing industry, which is responsible for 10 percent of our global carbon emissions as well as 20 percent of industrial wastewater pollution worldwide, according to the UN Alliance for Sustainable Fashion.
And that’s only the beginning of the clothing life cycle. The EPA estimates that only 14 percent of clothing ends up being recycled, with over 11 million tons ending up in landfills in 2017 alone to sit and emit greenhouse gases.
From 2000 to 2014 the number of garments purchased per capita in the U.S. grew by 60 percent, yet consumers kept each item for about half as long as they had 15 years earlier, indicating that Americans are buying more clothing than we need. It seems that we have forgotten that the life span of a piece of clothing is not the couple of years we plan on wearing it, but the up to 200 years that it takes for the synthetic fibers found in the majority of our clothing to decompose. With that in mind, I’m opting to make the most out of my clothing’s life.
You might be thinking — really, you turned everything into something worth wearing again? Even those neon green summer camp t-shirts? Well no; but that doesn’t mean I’m going to consign them to the landfill just yet. One way to put these clothes to good use is to turn them into plastic alternatives, such as reusable beeswax wrap or grocery bags. These projects are shockingly simple and can help you cut down on single-use plastics.
Even if you don’t have the time to repurpose your unwanted clothing you can still find ways to be a part of the bigger solution. We need to slow down the production of non-biodegradable clothing by encouraging producers to create fewer products with synthetic fibers and incorporate recycled materials into their new products.
One route is to require that clothing manufacturers collect back the used and unwanted clothing they sell (that’s now sitting in your garage) and recycle it into new products. We can accomplish this by instituting policies for the clothing industry whereby producers are required to take responsibility for the entire life cycle of their products, including the waste these products will become. When France implemented such a policy, collection and recycling rates of textiles increased threefold, with some manufacturers successfully recovering as much as 90 percent of their post-consumer material, of which 50 percent can be reused.
As consumers we have the power to slow down the clothing industry and pressure producers to make clothing that is better for the environment. If you’re about to buy a new piece of clothing, ask yourself: Is this going to end up in my garage in just a couple of years? And is it made of a material that will sit in a landfill for hundreds more? If so, it’s probably time to take a second look at your closet and donation bags and make the choice to reduce, reuse and recycle — and ask the clothing industry to do the same.
Photo Credit: Matthew Henry, via Burst (CC0)