These days, sales are too good to pass up, trendy looks are priced to sell, and stores are designed to entice us to over-consume. But how long will those products last us before we’re urged to rush out the door and replace them? Are they high quality, or simply cost-accessible? Where do our clothes go once we’re through with them? Is there any system in place to recycle them efficiently? And how often do we reflect on these questions, if ever?
The answers, I’m afraid, are not pretty.
What really happens to clothing waste?
Over the past few decades, Americans have upped their consumption of clothing in drastic ways, aided by the explosion of fast-fashion companies such as H&M, Zara, and Primark. It has become almost unbelievably easy to walk into a store with a small budget and still walk out with an entirely new wardrobe.
While there is something appealing about this as a customer, the environmental impacts of this type of consumption are truly massive. In less than two decades, Americans have managed to double their clothing waste, from 7 million tons each year to 14 million. And while a small fraction of our clothes are donated to charities, the majority of these donated clothes still eventually end up in landfills. According to the EPA, in 2012, 84% of our clothing went directly into dumps or incinerators.
A toxic decomposition.
Once in landfills, our clothes decompose in a way that creates hundreds of metric tons of methane, a greenhouse gas that is many times more potent than carbon dioxide. And our clothes are filled with dyes, bleach, and harmful chemicals that can be pulled into groundwater over time. If incinerated, these harmful toxins get released into the air.
Synthetic fibers like nylon and polyester are increasingly common in our clothes, too. The manufacture of these materials has risen from 5.8 million tons in 1980 to around 100 million tons in 2015. These fibers are fundamentally plastics derived from petroleum, so they take hundreds or even thousands of years to fully biodegrade, and during that process, they release inorganic compounds that harm the environment. The creation of these fibers is incredibly polluting for the local ecosystems and the communities that produce them, frequently in Southern Asia. Dyes and chemicals leach into the local water supply, toxic compounds pollute the air, and the heavy machinery used to assemble our clothes releases massive amounts of greenhouse gases into our atmosphere.
From start to finish, the life cycles of our garments have truly devastating impacts on the environment- but the cause is not a hopeless one. The EPA has estimated that diverting our clothes into an efficient recycling program would have the same impact as removing 7.3 million cars from the road.
The simple equation.
As with anything we purchase, we are faced with a fundamental choice – quality, or quantity? Quantity when it comes to clothes has become increasingly accessible. But when we make the choice to pick quality over quantity, we are benefiting from having a product that lasts, that we can depend on and feel confident in.
However, just as valuable as these positives is the knowledge that choosing clothing that lasts means that we’re contributing less to landfills, and decreasing demand for cheaper clothing. As with anything, if you reduce the demand for something, the supply will eventually reduce as well. Though it may not seem like much of an impact, making the decision to buy quality clothes plays a huge role in shifting how we consume and how we treat our environment.
The thing is, we do have choices regarding our footprint on the planet — and these decisions matter. We can create a new trajectory in every aspect of our lives, and becoming more aware of our impacts allows us to change them. Let’s own up to these facts together, make smart choices that benefit us and the world around us, and create a new paradigm for others to follow. Let’s choose quality over quantity. For ourselves, for planet Earth, and for the future.