As Covid rates decline and Americans increasingly get vaccinated, physical stores are reopening their doors. Like many of us, you may be eager to shed that pandemic clothing you have worn repeatedly for over a year now. Or maybe you want to scratch that browsing ‘itch’ you have held at bay during the pandemic.
But, when purchasing that trendy new outfit or shiny device, will you ask yourself how you will dispose of it when the item has outlived its usefulness? Considering that North Americans trash 99% of what they buy within six months of purchase, perhaps we should be asking ourselves this and other eco-conscious questions before handing over our hard-earned cash or pressing the “submit payment” button.
- Do I need to buy something new?
According to the United Nations, the fashion industry accounts for 10% of global greenhouse emissions. Before shopping, go through your closet and see what you already have. Do you need another pair of jeans when you already have several pairs? Do you need to purchase a pair of shoes or a bag to match every outfit?
When the pandemic hit, sheltered-at-home Americans purged their homes of unwanted ‘stuff.’ Donation lines snaked around the corner at second-hand stores when they reopened. Take advantage of the second-hand clothing boom and search for clothes and products that have outlived someone else’s usefulness. Craigslist and the Facebook Marketplace are great avenues for buying or trading used items. If you are shopping for a wedding or special occasion, consider renting.
2. Why Am I Buying It?
An advertiser’s job is to convince us that we need to own the latest style or device, even if the one we have is perfectly functional—a strategy known as perceived obsolescence. The fashion industry, in particular, thrives by constantly introducing new styles and colors—honing into our desire to not appear outdated or by wearing clothes that are so ‘last year.’
Apple releases new iPhones every year, even if the changes are minor — they count on customers always wanting the latest and greatest their brand has to offer.
Ask yourself if you need the latest version of high-tech products or if your current device will suffice for a year or two longer. Use second-hand accessories to create a new look for the outfits already in your closet. Research how long a particular product will last.
3. Am I buying to fill an emotional need?
Had a breakup? Upset with your boss? Lonely? ‘Retail therapy’ not only drains your pocketbook but creates a false sense of increased self-worth or status. In a Harris Interactive poll, 31% of women admitted they shop to elevate their mood—the experience of buying triggers the release of dopamine in our brains, causing a temporary high.
Online purchasing in the US skyrocketed during the pandemic when 70% of Americans increased their online shopping, with well over half that number planning on continuing to make purchases online post-pandemic. For many, buying online helped alleviate the pandemic blues and provided a sense of normalcy amid the Covid chaos.
The next time you feel the urge to hit the stores or the online shop, ask yourself if you may be falling prey to emotional or psychological spending. If so, try starting a new hobby, exercising, or talking with a friend or therapist to help raise your dopamine and keep clothing and products out of landfills.
4. What is my purchase costing the planet?
When we buy new products or clothing, we look at the price tag to see how much the purchase would set us back. But do we ever think how much it would cost the planet? China and India, countries dependent on coal-fueled power plants, manufacture much of the world’s clothing and textiles.
When you consider that it takes over 2,600 gallons of water to make a single pair of jeans, what it costs the planet far outweighs what you paid for those new jeans.
The most tragic cost of manufacturing and production is the human cost. In Asia, so-called cancer villages have sprung up around denim manufacturing plants that pollute rivers with toxic dyes, metals, and chemicals. Families in the African Congo filed a landmark legal case against large tech companies alleging that children forced to mine cobalt, an element used to power rechargeable lithium batteries in electronic devices and electric cars, have been maimed or killed.
Next time you want to buy an electronic device or new pair of jeans, ask yourself how much your purchase might cost the planet in terms of natural and human resources.
5. Is it sustainable?
If you decide to buy new, think sustainably. Synthetic textiles such as polyester are produced using large amounts of coal, oil, and water. Even if you have to spend a little more, clothing made from durable material such as organically-grown cotton will ultimately wear better and last longer than synthetic materials.
Find out how long your potential purchase takes to decompose in a landfill. According to Down2earth Materials, cotton takes one to five months to decompose, whereas nylon can take up to 30 to 40 years to break down.
Prioritize brands that are committed to sustainability. Patagonia’s Worn Wear offers traded-in and recrafted gear. Revtown using shrimp shells, nutshells, and orange peels to dye denim for their stylish jeans.
6. What is the likelihood that you might return an item?
Sometimes returns are inevitable. The item is too small, not of sufficient quality, or doesn’t fit your needs. Amazon and other major online retailers have made our lives easier and more convenient with free returns and speedy refunds. But at what cost to the planet? We may love getting our package within a day or two after we order but rarely do we consider the astronomical amount of fossil fuel it takes to power the jets and trucks it takes to deliver them right to our door. If we decide to return the merchandise, the amount of fossil fuel used doubles.
The associated risk of buying clothing online has spawned the trend of purchasing several items with the intent of just keeping what fits or works for us, doubling the amount of CO2 emitted from delivery vehicles to account for the return. Buying to return also inflates the need for more production, leading to increased CO2 emissions from factories.
Not to mention, only 50% of returned clothing goes back on the shelves or racks. The rest ends up being liquidated, incinerated, or decomposing in a landfill.
Minimize returns by asking yourself before you buy if you need the item to fulfill a purpose or if it sparks joy. If you do have to return the item, make sure it is in new condition to increase the likelihood of it being resold. Avoid buying multiple items with the intent to choose one and return the others.
7. How will you dispose of the item?
Globally, we use resources and absorb waste as though we have 1.6 Earths. Thrift retailer Savers surveyed 3,000 North Americans to assess how much clothing they discard a year. The results were astounding — North Americans discard 81 pounds of clothing a year, clogging landfills with 26 billion pounds of textiles.
The EPA states that landfills of municipal solid waste are the third-largest producer of methane emissions in the US. Methane accounts for 50% of landfill gas emitted from decomposing material. Although the lifespan of methane is much shorter than CO2, it can pack up to 84 times more heat-trapping potency over 20-years.
When making a new purchase, think about how you will dispose of it when it has outlived its usefulness. Will you donate it to a consignment shop or second-hand store? If you are handy with a sewing machine, can you repurpose the item into something you will use or wear more often? Or recycle them through programs such as Ridwell (available in the Pacific Northwest)?
Before you buy, envision the life-cycle of the product from purchase to disposal. Rather than viewing it as paving a one-way trip to the landfill, think about how you ensure that your purchase can retain its usefulness after you no longer choose to hold onto it. The longer we can keep the products in circulation and out of landfills, the better it is for both the planet and humanity.