Sustainable Fashion: Why It Matters + What We Can Do

Growing up, it felt like every seasonal change must also come with change of wardrobe. Fall was the beginning of the school year, so of course everything had to be new — new grade, new you. Winter brought with it holiday dresses. Spring was the beginning of sundresses and shorts. And summer meant bathing suits! Or at least that’s what I saw everyone else doing. Not so in my house.

The author age 4

While my friends would have 4 or 5 different bathing suit tops and bottoms to mix and match all summer long, my mom let me get only 1. When buying shoes, it seemed everyone had multiple pairs of Nikes to run around in. My mom would only buy my one pair of New Balance a year.

Why? I asked. The answer always had something to do with sweatshops, child labor, and the importance of being made in America, where those things were less likely to happen. (In researching this piece, I found out that only about 70% of the value of New Balance’s Made in USA shoes reflects domestic content and labor and Nike’s history with fair labor practices and environmental impact continues to be patchy at best.)

The author in a dress made by her mom in the 80’s

It didn’t exactly help assuage my pre-teen wish to be cool and buy my clothes from Target, Kohl’s, Old Navy, and other shops where my friends did, but it taught me a valuable lesson that has stuck with me every since — fast fashion may seem cheap on the pricetag, but it actually has a high cost. What do I mean by this?

Here are a few statistics from the World Resource Institute on the social and environmental impact of fast fashion:

The Societal Impacts

Clothing production has helped spur growth in developing economies, but a closer look reveals a number of social challenges. For instance:

  • According to non-profit Remake, 75 million people are making our clothes today, and 80 percent of apparel is made by young women ages 18 to 24.
  • Garment workers, primarily women, in Bangladesh make about $96 per month. The government’s wage board suggested that a garment worker needs 3.5 times that amount in order to live a “decent life with basic facilities.”
  • A 2018 U.S. Department of Labor report found evidence of forced and child labor in the fashion industry in Argentina, Bangladesh, Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Philippines, Turkey, Vietnam and other countries.
  • According to the ILO, ~170 Million children are engaged in child labour, with many making textiles and garments to satisfy the demand of consumers in Europe, the US, and beyond. (Read more)

The Environmental Impacts

Apparel production is also resource- and emissions-intensive. Consider that:

  • Making a pair of jeans (PDF) produces as much greenhouse gases as driving a car more than 80 miles.
  • Discarded clothing made of non-biodegradable fabrics can sit in landfills for up to 200 years.
  • It takes 713 gallons of water to make one cotton shirt, enough to meet the average person’s drinking needs for 2.5 years.

So, what can we do?

To be effective advocates for a better, more sustainable tomorrow, we need to be more conscious of what we buy, where we buy from, and how often we’re shopping.

We can do our part to minimize our contributions to fast fashion by slowing it down. For example, purchasing fewer items of higher quality that will last you longer and buying second-hand (you can donate your old clothes too!).

There are also lots of really awesome sustainable and ethical fashion brands out there, including Bottletop, Good Guys Don’t Wear Leather, Woron, Everlane, Rothys, and Zady. Sites like Good On You and Re/Make help by rating high street brands on their sustainable and ethical practices and giving tips for how to join the sustainable fashion movement. And Emma Watson has a great instagram account, @the_press_tour, where she highlights her favorite sustainable fashion brands!

There’s also lots we can do without spending a dime: Repair the clothes you have. Recycle them if they’re beyond repair or reuse (old sneakers, for instance). You could even have a little fun with it and organize a clothing exchange with your friends to revamp your wardrobe without spending a dime!

Image Source: Hyattsville Wire

I personally am hosting a clothing swap with a few friends in March. Anything that doesn’t get a new home? We’ll donate it! I also discovered a few startups like Swap Society and And We Evolve that help you to swap and/or shop secondhand.

Got other ideas or tried one of the ones above? Comment below! I’d love to hear from you ❤

Interested in learning more? Check out some of these articles and reports on sustainability in the fashion industry:

World Economic Forum Global Shapers San Francisco Hub

The Global Shapers Community, an initiative of the World Economic Forum, is a network of Hubs developed and led by young people who are exceptional in their potential, their achievement and their drive to make a contribution to their communities.

Meghan Stevenson-Krausz

Written by

Meghan is a Global Shaper @ Global Shapers SF and writes about human rights, entrepreneurship in emerging markets, and using film to create change.

World Economic Forum Global Shapers San Francisco Hub

The Global Shapers Community, an initiative of the World Economic Forum, is a network of Hubs developed and led by young people who are exceptional in their potential, their achievement and their drive to make a contribution to their communities.

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