News flash: There’s an alarming amount of fashion waste pilling on in landfills, incinerated or settling on oceans beds. If this is news to you, don’t feel bad. Most of us aren’t aware that fashion is one of the most polluting industries in the world, generating 10% of humanity’s carbon emissions (that’s more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined). As I write this, there’s been over 3.3 billion views of the hashtag #sheinhaul on TikTok. The amount we buy, and subsequently throw away, has never been higher. And this fast-paced, dangerous cycle of buy, Instagram, throw, repeat, shows little evidence of slowing down.
Until the moment Nat Geo releases footage of last season’s strappy sandals strangling sea turtles, we’re really not waking up to how pivotal a role we play in fashion waste. It’s not just the direct implication of our purchases (and throwaways) that affect the planet, but the indirect incentive for fast fashion companies to become even faster, cheaper and easier to discard. Just how we’re now aware of the impact of single-use straws, we need to unsubscribe from the idea that fashion can be single-use, too.
How did fashion become so cheap (and disposable?)
Clothes have never been cheaper than it is now; we can buy clothes that’s cheaper than a sandwich and replace our whole closet with a 500 dollar SHEIN haul. Even when it’s more than we need or can possibly wear, consumers still want everything in the ‘new to sale’ category. So when did fashion go from being affordable to dirt cheap? In short, the faster fashion gets, the more corners they have to cut – poor-quality fabrics, fewer durability tests, haphazard sewing, low wages. Especially since the industry isn’t producing clothes with the intention of lasting for generations, customers find it hard to value their latest buys. When customers would rather buy more of something than repair or extend the life of the existing item, it’s clear the priority isn’t sustainability.
It’s become increasingly easy to part ways with the very items we once excitedly purchased. This means we’re crossing the point where our clothes get old and boring sooner than usual. It’s one thing to democratise fashion so more communities have access to expressing their individuality. However, it’s another to make cheap and poor-quality fashion the default to which we’ve become desensitised, and constantly crave novelty. If this is where fashion is headed towards, we should’ve slammed on the breaks yesterday.
The rise of the #OOTD phenomenon
Social media is capable of accelerating any new trend into the peak of popularity. However, it’s not long before that very trend tumbles into the troughs of ‘cheugy’ status. Shopping haul videos moved away from 30-minute Youtube videos and personal blogs to short, snappy Instagram stories and TikTok videos. There lay all of this season’s collections; from Abercrombie to Zara, immortalised by the endless lines of codes and algorithms of the Internet. So what happens once we post, share, like and retweet those outfit photos? They become ‘last season’ and can’t be worn (read: posted online) again. The fear of someone online commenting the dreaded words ‘outfit repeater’ looming over.
On the topic of outfit repeating, the ones most suffering from this phobia are celebrities looking to stay relevant. Shoppers are no longer waiting for the latest runway show or style magazine. They’re looking to micro or large influencers to tell them what’s in. Studies show that our frequent use of social media correlates to the time and money we spend shopping online; exponentially more if we follow any influencers. However, what we don’t realise is that most of what these content creators post are sponsored aka paid for by the brands, hoping to sink their hooks into a new customer demographic. But that still leaves influencers with more clothes than they can possibly wear and a gnawing feeling amongst consumers eager to chase the latest trends.
The pursuit for more, simplified
Even during the beginning of the pandemic, more people searched for sustainable fashion, but fast fashion wasn’t exactly slowing down. Whether it was some mindless scrolling on ASOS or a pick-me-up gift to yourself, it’s likely you might’ve impulsively clicked the checkout button a few times too many. TLDR, this isn’t to shame you into not buying things you want. It’s a commentary on how easy it has become to buy things we don’t need just because it’s convenient. Free shipping over $50, free returns or exchanges for 30 days? Add to cart. Shop from your own wardrobe and make the most of what you own? Move to wish list.
We discussed the many problems of fast fashion, but there’s obviously a difference between high-street brands such as H&M and Topshop, and ultra-fast and real-time fashion brands such as Boohoo, Fashion Nova, and SHEIN. These ultra-fast fashion brands run without physical shops, so they capture their audience on their own turf – online. Considering that these brands offer thousands of new styles every week (or few days), consumers have ample products to choose from. E-commerce isn’t just helping fashion get faster but is offering a better user experience, making the entire journey from start to finish easier and more rewarding. Especially since the price of clothes has reduced, we’re actually accumulating more clothes for the same amount of money. Add on the misconception that we’re saving money by buying fast fashion, the ease of mass consumption feels like an escape from the world’s real problems.
Facing the (fashion waste) facts
- We consume 400% more clothes now than we did 20 years ago, yet we keep them for far less long as we used to.
- The average number of wears before a piece of clothing is tossed is just 7 times.
- A study in the UK found that 33% of women consider their clothes old after 3 wears.
- A Huffington Post Survey finds that the average woman has $550 of unworn clothing in her closet having never worn at least 20 percent of the items in their wardrobes.
These facts are not only true, but they highlight one symptom that’s harder to treat: feeling detached from our clothes. Here’s an experiment for you: try to count all the clothes you have in your closet without looking at them. Yes, even the ones piling on your work chair or heading out for laundry. Now, this isn’t a tricky way to test if you remember what you wore two weeks ago. It’s more to test the value you’ve assigned to each individual item of clothing. According to the average closet size today, if you can guess even a third of what you have, it’s a win. It’s okay if you forget a pair of trousers or a button-down here and there. However, one thing’s for sure, we’re all a little guilty of not knowing what we have.
Mend, repair and upcycle before you closet detox
However, this is not a sign to KonMari your closet of all the clothes you happened to forget about. In fact, it’s the contrary – revive what you have by giving them the TLC they haven’t received in a while. Try to shop your closet more often, wear different outfit combinations, and make the most of what you have. After a few months, if there are still some pieces that aren’t working for your lifestyle, mindfully part with them. The biggest mistake you can make at this point, after taking so much effort to rekindle the relationship between you and your wardrobe, is to dump your old clothes at the H&M recycling bin.
If you haven’t heard, H&M isn’t actually recycling your old sweats and shoes, they’re dumping them in developing countries, destabilising local economies. But H&M aren’t the only ones; most recycling initiatives aren’t equipped to recycle everything they receive. The industry recycles less than 1% of textile and fashion waste. Plus, when big brands say they’re using recycled materials as one of their sustainability efforts, it’s usually just greenwashing. Until companies properly address the issue of fashion waste, recycling is just a staggering oversimplification of a much bigger problem. We can’t justify shopping endlessly by saying they can be recycled or donated, it’s not justified. Even if you can save an old shirt from the bin by mending any ripped seams, sewing back any buttons, it makes a world of difference.
Mending our mindsets
More often than not, we tend to buy things that are very similar to what we own. It could be intentional, say if you were Steve Jobs and have a uniform outfit. Or perhaps you just reach for clothes you recently laundered and forego the styles you don’t see front and center. But instead of looking for what we like within our own closets, we head to the nearest mall or online. It’s no surprise that when a new trend is popular, we suddenly suffer the ‘I have nothing to wear’ syndrome. If stopping yourself from shopping the latest trends is hard, tell yourself to wait it out or find it secondhand. You could rummage through your and your parents’ closets for something similar. Trends are cyclical so we constantly see them coming back in style from time to time. So chances are you’ll find the original edition of the over-saturated trend sitting in your grandma’s closet.
Yet, the underlying message is that when we have too much, it’s hard to love each item equally. There just aren’t enough days in the year to wear all our clothes enough times. It gets especially harder to remember what we own if someone asks about our closet headcount. Marie Kondo was right – it matters a lot whether something ‘sparks joy’ for us. It becomes the reason why we choose one strappy tank dress over another. When we have a connection with our clothes, it becomes hard to say goodbye, even to tattered jeans. Personal style doesn’t mean wearing trendy clothes, it’s about expressing identity with the clothes that speak to you. Especially with social media, learn to distinguish between clothes you actually like from the outfits with the most likes.
Clothes are meant to last but aren’t treated as such
There seem to be two pivotal solutions to ending fashion waste: either we stop making new clothes altogether or learn to value what we have better. While the first option veers on the impractical side, it’s something the industry (and the environment) would benefit from. It’s true, there are too many garments in our closets that we don’t appreciate enough. However, there are ways to make the most of our clothes that also make our lives easier. Whether it’s renting out your clothes, selling your extra fancy pieces to consignment stores, or just donating them to those in need, our old unworn clothes can fulfil a new purpose. When it comes to unfixable clothes, that’s when advanced textile recycling comes in handy. Hopefully, in the near future, there will be better infrastructure to separate natural from synthetic fibres. Fashion as a whole would benefit from moving towards circularity: reimagining what waste looks like and use existing resources to make anything ‘new’.
For the latter option, it’s a mix of valuing the clothes we already have and demanding better for the clothes we want to add on. If they’re comfortable, flatter you, and generally make you excited to get dressed for the day, it’s a success. However, it’s a tall ask for the majority of people who buy clothes online from brands they haven’t tried. Especially when it comes to fast fashion – where sizes are wonky, the clothes fit better on the model than on you, or the material feels scratchy or unpleasant – we’re putting too much on the line. While not everyone has the privilege to prioritise high-quality natural materials when there’re bills to pay, it’s something we can be more conscious about. Buying good quality clothes equals clothes that will last a lifetime (if taken care of properly!)
Loved clothes last
If passionate activists, regulation, and smart marketing can spotlight the devastating effects of single-use plastic, why can’t we do the same for fashion? We’re buying bamboo straws to reduce waste and yet we opt for fast fashion made from fossil fuels. More than anything, we have to stop blaming individuals for the actions of companies. Especially those producing over a billion pieces of clothing. So when overproduction becomes over-pollution, the ones with the most responsibility go silent and start to point fingers. Contrary to popular belief, low-income communities aren’t the ones instigating throwaway culture. Instead, it’s the oil companies producing polyester, CEOs of fast fashion brands, celebrities with endorsements – aka the benefactors of overconsumption.
The bottom line is – when we buy less, we throw away less too. However, everyone has their own way to translate what ‘buying less’ means to them. Whether it’s swapping, borrowing, or upcycling what you already own, or buying fewer but better quality clothing that can possibly be passed down generations. There are plenty of clothes in circulation; but unless we can value them better, we’ll always find new clothes more exciting than our old-but-gold clothes. It’s ironic how it’s easier to shop for new clothes than reinvent your closet, all a ploy to promote overconsumption. But, if you challenge yourself to be more mindful with your wardrobe, it has far more benefits to the environment and to your life than can be advertised on any fast fashion website.
With a background in fashion and textiles, Durva is an ardent photographer and advocate of social justice. She enjoys writing about fashion, socio-political issues within sustainability and partakes in the occasional 'who wore it better' banter on Diet Prada.