Staying Fashionable While Making Sustainable Clothing Choices
As the environmental crisis continues to worsen, people are looking at the industries they interact with and digging deeper into their impact on the planet. One such industry that is getting scrutiny for its environmental impact is the fashion industry. Fast fashion, including brands such as Forever 21 and H&M, is defined by Wikipedia as the “clothing industry business model of replicating [...] trends and high-fashion designs, mass-producing them at low cost, and bringing them to retail stores quickly while demand is highest.” It has influenced our fashion practices, the clothes we wear, and where and how we buy them.
The impact of fast fashion on our planet is vast. Producing clothes at this rapid rate is resource intensive and often entails unsafe labor conditions and low wages. Huge amounts of discarded clothing are ending up in landfills as clothes become more disposable and shoppers expect constant turnover of new clothing items. According to the World Economic Forum, the fashion industry is responsible for 10% of the world’s carbon emissions, and it is the second-largest consumer of water in the world.
As sustainable fashion brands, such as Girlfriend Collective, Veja Sneakers, and Patagonia, are becoming more popular, they bring up new questions to ponder. Where should we turn to get new, more sustainable clothing? How do you know if a company is truly sustainable? How do we balance the often higher price of sustainable clothing with a small budget? These are difficult questions to answer, and they don’t always have a simple solution. U-M School for Environment and Sustainability (SEAS) students are tackling these questions while reflecting on their own sustainable fashion choices.
Annie Zaro (MBA/MS ’22) opts for shopping secondhand. Zaro is heading to Nike this summer, where she will join the company’s Sustainable Operations team. Since “it is quite challenging to navigate how brands align with my values and to reduce the need for production of new materials, I like to shop used,” she said. Purchasing secondhand clothing helps reduce your carbon footprint and keeps clothing out of the landfill. “Secondhand [clothing] is generally cheaper!” Zaro also noted.
Sustainable fashion brands tend to have higher prices to account for fair wages and environmentally friendly materials, so shopping secondhand is one way to combat the higher price tags while still shopping mindfully. Kacey Eis (MS ’22) likes to use secondhand clothing websites such as Poshmark to buy and sell pieces.
To increase the sustainability of her fashion habits, Eis also tries to limit the amount she shops. “I try not to buy things that I don’t need,” she said. Annie Linden (MS/MURP ’23) echoed this sentiment. She emphasizes “quality over quantity” when she shops, saying she would “rather pay a slightly higher price for a better-made product” so she can buy less overall while getting more wear out of things.
One tip Erika Frondorf (MS ’23) finds helpful is reducing the brands she gets marketing emails from and follows on social media. This “has really helped me curb my consumption of clothing,” she said.
Eis stressed the importance of “investing in your closet,” both financially and in the way you treat your clothes. Buying things that are nicer quality can mean they will last longer, although “higher price doesn’t always mean higher quality,” she noted. But taking care of the pieces you have rather than throwing them away and replacing them is a more sustainable habit. This can look like sewing up holes in your clothing or limiting the amount you wash something. “If it’s not dirty and it doesn’t smell, don’t wash it,” Eis said. “You can usually get multiple wears out of something before needing to wash it again, prolonging the life of your pieces and reducing water and energy use from the washing process."
Linden’s top tip for practicing sustainability in fashion is clothing swaps. She’s a similar size to her mom and sister, and will rotate clothing and shoes with them so she can get new pieces without purchasing them. You can do this with your friends, too, she noted.
Eis had another mantra for the way she sustainably approaches fashion. “Find your uniform,” she said. Frondorf put the idea another way: “Hone your personal style!” Find what you like to wear, what you feel comfortable and confident wearing, and run with it. This allows you to stop buying pieces you only wear once and increases the sustainability of your whole wardrobe, they emphasized.
As we look toward creating a more sustainable fashion industry, SEAS students envision some changes happening. Zaro thinks that the “resale economy will continue to grow,” and that “traceability and transparency will be a top priority for brands” as they strive to “be more environmentally and socially responsible.” Linden also hopes to see more brand accountability in the future, so we can hold companies accountable for their harmful practices. Frondorf would like to see “an industry that is less focused on consumption, and more focused on inclusivity, responsibility, and empowering the people that make our clothes.”
While these industry changes continue to be implemented, both Eis and Linden noted that they look to the students around them for sustainability inspiration. “I look at other SEAS students and their different passions, and [...] learn from them about different ways to be sustainable,” Eis said.
Local Thrift stores:
Salvation Army: https://centralusa.salvationarmy.org/washtenaw/
Ann Arbor PTO Thrift Shop: http://www.a2ptothriftshop.org/
Ann Arbor Thrift Shop: http://www.annarborthriftshop.org/