Trash Talk: Sustainable Clothing

It’s been a hot minute since we talked about trash, y’all.

I’ve already made a few blog posts about how you can generate less waste in the kitchen and in the bathroom, but there are plenty of other ways to live a more sustainable lifestyle. Today I want to share what I’ve learned about how wasteful the fashion industry is, as well as what you can do to reduce your “trash footprint” while shopping for clothes.

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When I was first exposed to the zero-waste lifestyle and started digging into sustainable living practices, clothing didn’t even cross my mind. It’s easy to understand why we need to reduce our waste production when the impact is blatantly obvious, such as when turtles suffocate in six-pack rings or birds build nests out of plastic straws, but the fashion industry rarely airs it’s dirty laundry when it comes to the creation of trash.

With the onset of the fast fashion industry, (which we’ll dive into more later) the amount of clothing that people bought and subsequently threw away grew exponentially. The materials that clothes are made out of don’t necessarily lend themselves well to being broken down naturally due to the chemical treatments that occur during production. An article that I found on breaks down the decomposing process for clothing:

“When natural fibers, like cotton, linen and silk, or semi-synthetic fibers created from plant-based cellulose, like rayon, Tencel and modal, are buried in a landfill, in one sense they act like food waste, producing the potent greenhouse gas methane as they degrade. ‘Natural fibers go through a lot of unnatural processes on their way to becoming clothing,’ says Jason Kibbey, CEO of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition. ‘They’ve been bleached, dyed, printed on, scoured in chemical baths.’ Those chemicals can leach from the textiles and—in improperly sealed landfills—into groundwater. Burning the items in incinerators can release those toxins into the air.

Meanwhile, synthetic fibers, like polyester, nylon and acrylic, have the same environmental drawbacks, and because they are essentially a type of plastic made from petroleum, they will take hundreds of years, if not a thousand, to biodegrade.”

With that in mind, it’s easy to see how the waste is piling up from the clothes that we throw away. When you factor in the amount of fuel that it takes to create clothing in a factory and then ship it to stores across the world, as well as the amount of water and land that are required to grow the raw materials in the first place, the impact the fashion industry has on the environment is quite large. There have also been studies about how textile dyeing methods and pesticide runoff from cotton production are polluting our waters.

We know that fashion takes a huge toll on the environment, but how did it get that way in the first place? Here’s a very brief history lesson about the evolution of the fashion industry. In the early stages of textile production, seamstresses and tailors worked directly with the customer to create custom pieces that were made specifically for them. The amount of time and effort that went into making clothing – both on the part of the person who was creating the item and the consumer who had to stand for measurements – resulted in a piece that was intended to last for a very long time. There were still trends that fluctuated over the years, but they were far less dramatic than what we see today.

As the Industrial Revolution rolled around, various technologies were created to speed up the textile creation process. The introduction of the sewing machine in 1846 increased the amount of clothing that could be produced by a company while simultaneously reducing the time that it took to make said piece of clothing. Fashion became less about creating a unique article of clothing for a single individual and more about generating ready-to-wear pieces that could be worn by a variety of people. The term “fast fashion” was coined to illustrate how quickly trends move from the catwalk to the retail store in the modern fashion industry, as well as how rapidly trends change. The two seasons of fashion (spring/summer and fall/winter) evolved into a shocking fifty-two seasons – one for every week out of the year!

When more clothing is being created to fill an already oversaturated market, the result is an overwhelming amount of material that is thrown away. An article that I found on the BioMedCentral website estimates that “approximately 500,000 tons of used clothing are exported abroad from the United States each year.” That same article states, “clothing not sold in markets becomes solid waste, clogging rivers, greenways, and parks, and creating the potential for additional environmental health hazards in low and middle-income countries lacking robust municipal waste systems.”

Photo courtesy of WTVOX.

I am a person who cares deeply about nature, but even I can acknowledge that the environmental impact of the fast fashion industry pales in comparison to the ethical issues. Like most industries, clothing companies outsource their garment production to facilities in low income countries where the cost of labor is cheap and there typically isn’t enough infrastructure to enforce occupational safety standards. As a result, the workers who produce the clothing we buy are rarely able to support themselves or their families, and are forced to endure horrific working conditions. An article from the Institute for Human Rights at the University of Alabama states that, “many of the factories [in the clothing industry] cut corners on a regular basis to reduce production costs. Work areas are frequently found to have poor lighting, which can be damaging to the workers’ sight, and toxic chemicals, which can be harmful to their respiratory systems.”

What first popped into my mind when I learned about how big of a monstrosity the fashion industry has become was, “how were various companies able to convince us that we need to buy a new dress for every occasion or hoard graphic t-shirts until our dresser drawers won’t close?” Through strategic advertising and a never-ending onslaught of messaging via the media we consume, the industry was able to convince us that our societal value is intrinsically tied to the clothing that we wear. Status and prestige are quickly gained or lost based on a person’s fashion sense, and to a certain extent modern American’s derive a sense of self-worth from the clothes that they own.

Let me paint a picture for you: when I was a little girl I thought shopping for clothes was supposed to be fun. After all, that’s what all of the women in the TV shows and movies I watched did whenever they had any free time to spare. Whenever I walked into a store I could sense a pressure to buy something, almost as if the trip would be a failure if I walked out empty handed. In the dressing room light almost everything looked like a perfect fit, but I would often get home only to realize that what I bought wasn’t right for me at all. These are the subliminal thoughts that are present for most women and girls in American society, and I can imagine men and boys feel the same way to some degree.

Those are the direct consequences of the fashion industry; the environment is deteriorating, human beings in developing countries suffer, and people in wealthy countries are stressed out about the clothes they do or don’t own. It’s time for a change, y’all.

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Like most people who live in a capitalistic society, I had never made the connection between the clothing that I wore and the detrimental effects from the industry that created it. I understood that certain products were created in sweatshops that employed disenfranchised women and children, but I wasn’t sure what I could do about it. That all changed when I read Yvon Chouinard’s book The Responsible Company and was exposed to the idea that a business could implement sustainable practices. My eyes were opened to what could be done – both by a company and by consumers – to reduce their impact on the environment and on human communities.

Shortly after I read that book, I was introduced to the idea of living a minimalist and sustainable lifestyle. I started researching zero-waste and plastic-free movements, and two documentaries in particular sparked my interest in the clothing industry: Minimalism and The True Cost, both of which are available on Netflix. To top it all off, I saw a post on Instagram from Lee from America that talked about how mentally freeing it was for her to get rid of most of her clothes.

After coming across all of those mediums, I was finally educated enough to take on the daunting task of reevaluating my wardrobe. The tricky part from there was finding out where to start.

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Creating a sustainable wardrobe isn’t nearly as intimidating as it seems, especially because it only requires being conscious of what goes into the clothing you buy (both in terms of the working standards of the people who made it, and the environmental toll from it’s creation). Once you acquire the mindset that quality is better than quantity, you can start to minimalize your closet and try to only support sustainable fashion when you purchase new pieces.

Let’s go ahead and break down those two steps and elaborate on them more.

Step 1: Minimize your wardrobe.

This step is entirely voluntary and can be skipped if you want. The only way to create a more sustainable closet is to make better decisions when you buy new clothes in the future; getting rid of something you bought in 2010 doesn’t undo the damage that was done to the environment.

I chose to minimize my wardrobe because I was unhappy with the clothes that I owned, and I rarely wore certain pieces. Getting rid of the things that were just taking up space in my closet freed up some space for me mentally, and it allowed me to truly love every piece of fabric that I owned. If you don’t believe that thinning out your wardrobe will benefit you, then don’t do it. It’s as simple as that.

Lauren Singer (aka the zero-waste queen) wrote a great blog post that includes tips for how to assess your closet to determine what you don’t need, and it was a tremendous help for me when I started to get rid of my clothes. Some of the tips involve inviting an honest friend over to help you with the process, thinking about when the last time you actually wore it was, and asking yourself “am I holding onto this because I want to be the kind of person who would wear this?”

Before I moved out of Tallahassee I went through my closet with those prompts in mind and filled over two trash bags with things I no longer wanted to keep (pictured above). If you feel inspired to similarly assess your closet, there are several different avenues for getting rid of your used clothes that doesn’t involve throwing them away to rot at a landfill. The easiest option is to donate your used pieces to a thrift store, a vintage shop, the Salvation Army, or Goodwill. Certain companies, like H&M, will even give you a discount to use in the store if you bring in clothes for them to recycle.

It’s easy to donate the clothes that you no longer love, but it’s a bit harder to say goodbye to a piece of clothing that you don’t wear as often but still feel attached too. Whenever I have quality clothes that I’m reluctant to say goodbye to, I always organize a clothing swap with my close friends so it at least stays in the family. This is hands down my favorite way to minimalize my closet, because I usually walk away with something that isn’t new but feels new to me, and if I decide later that I actually really loved that article of clothing that I traded with a friend I can always negotiate visiting rights. Most clothing swap nights involve snacks, wine, and lots of laughter, which you can’t always find at a Goodwill.

If you want to make some cash for your clothes, you can try selling them on secondhand fashion sites like Depop or Poshmark. In my experience, listing clothes on Poshmark means playing the long game and holding onto it for several months until you get an interested buyer, but for pieces that are in great condition and are still in style the extra money is worth the wait.

If having a minimal wardrobe is something that interests you, the next step after you’ve gotten rid of the clothes that no longer bring you joy is to create a capsule wardrobe. A capsule wardrobe essentially consists of a few staple pieces of clothing that can be combined to create numerous outfits. People with capsule wardrobes try to have one “capsule” for each season, and typically limit the number of pieces within each capsule to 30 items. Ideally, articles of clothing from your summer capsule wardrobe can easily transition into a winter outfit. When I first reduced my closet – and even now as I slowly and intentionally expand it – I had the notion of a capsule wardrobe in mind, but that wasn’t necessarily my intent; I just wanted to truly love and wear everything I had. That being said, the idea of being able to mix and match a few simple items to create a variety of outfits is extremely appealing.

There are plenty of resources out there that can help you create the perfect capsule wardrobe – Google has so many articles about it! – but here are some of my favorite ones:

  • Hailey Devine has great videos on YouTube about her capsule wardrobes, and currently has videos detailing her summer, winter, and fall capsules. I love how Hailey is able to create totally different outfits while maintaining a consistent style, and her statement pieces are absolutely adorable.
  • Caroline Joy’s blog Un-Fancy is the perfect inspiration for creating a simplified wardrobe. She writes detailed reviews of sustainable brands and even has a free printable wardrobe planner for creating a capsule wardrobe.
  • If you’re struggling to visualize how the various items in your closet will look together, consider using an app to plan out outfit combinations. This will help you develop your style and get rid of anything that can’t be used multiple times. This article discusses eight different apps that are great for planning outfits.
Step 2: Prioritize sustainability when purchasing new clothes.

If you decided that thinning out your closet wasn’t necessarily, then this is the first step towards creating a sustainable wardrobe. This was by far the hardest thing for me to come to terms with, especially as a broke college graduate, but at the end of the day owning a few quality pieces is so much better than having a lot of cheap clothes that you never wear.

The best way to prioritize sustainability when shopping for clothing is to practice intentional buying. As I mentioned earlier, the fast fashion industry was only able to grow because it convinced us that we need to own different clothes for each week of the year in order to keep up with the trends. If you take a moment to be true to yourself and determine what style makes you the happiest, you can avoid falling into the trap of never feeling like your clothes are cute enough. Being purposeful with the clothes that you own means you’ll own clothes that you actually love and wear, and when you have to buy new clothes you’ll typically know exactly what your closet needs to be balanced.

Becoming intentional as a consumer isn’t alway easy, so if you aren’t sure what you’re style is and are worried that you’ll fall prey to the fashion industry, consider joining a group that will keep you accountable. Hanna Way created a group on Facebook called the Thankful Closet Project in order to help emotional shoppers avoid buying things they don’t need. If you’re hesitant to join a group of strangers then consider creating a group with your friends, family, or significant other! Having someone to keep you accountable can really help if you struggle with over-shopping.

Intentional buying is better for the environment, but it can be pretty hard on the wallet. It seems simple, but I highly recommend saving your money so you can afford to buy clothing that lasts. There are a lot of sustainable and ethical brands out there but they are usually more expensive than Forever 21 or H&M. That being said, when you support a sustainable brand you know that your money is going towards a good cause. Here are some of my favorite brands for purchasing quality, eco-friendly clothes:

  • Girlfriend Collective sells activewear that is made from recycled plastic bottles. The leggings, sports bras, and shorts all come in gorgeous colors and are available in a wide range of sizes. The company also talks in depth about their recycling process on their about page.
  • Patagonia is by far the leader in the sustainable clothing industry. They use recycled fabric, traceable down insulation, and organic cotton, and are a certified fair-trade company. Patagonia also supports environmental conservation efforts and grassroots activism groups, so when you purchase from them you know your money is going towards a good cause. All of their clothing is backed by their iron-clad guarantee, which means they’ll repair it or replace it for you. If you want to learn more about how Patagonia makes their clothing sustainable you can read about it here.
  • Reformation is a carbon neutral clothing company that prioritizes sustainable practices. Their clothes are ridiculously expensive, but if you can afford them they’re super cute.
  • Re/done is another crazy expensive company, but they give you free repairs or replacements for life.
  • Kaetlyn Anne has a company called Calico and Twine where she alters vintage pieces for a more modern look. She also sells various beauty and home items to encourage a sustainable lifestyle.
  • ThredUp is an online consignment shop that takes the hassle and searching out of vintage shopping. Their collection of clothing is always changing, so be sure to check it out!

When you spend a lot of money on a piece of sustainable clothing, you want it to last for a long time. This article has fifteen great tips for making your clothes last longer.

Those are all of my tips for creating a more environmentally-conscious wardrobe. I want to wrap up this post by reminding you that living a more sustainable lifestyle is a journey, but taking small steps everyday can make a huge difference. I also want to acknowledge the fact that I come from a place of privilege that allows me to prioritize quality goods when I shop for clothes, and that not everyone is able to do the same.

I can’t wait to share more about my zero-waste and plastic-free journey with y’all. Who knows, maybe I’ll have a capsule wardrobe series up in a matter of time. Until then, I hope this post empowers you to reevaluate your closet and make a positive change for the environment and human communities.

Was this helpful? Have feedback for me? Let me know in the comments, or shoot me an email at All photos in this post were taken by me unless otherwise specified in the caption.


I'm a climber, dog mom, and a hater of plastic. I like seeking wild adventures and sharing them with people.

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