Clothing companies are making more clothing than we can wear. As a result, millions of garments produced every year are never worn before heading to a landfill or incinerator. When fashion brands are hyper-focused on endlessly pumping out the next trend, massive amounts of waste are inevitable.
Waste is a design flaw
The fashion and clothing industry generates massive amounts of waste — and emits pollution in the process. Producing just one cotton t-shirt requires more than 700 gallons of water and releases the same greenhouse gas emissions as driving a car for about 10 miles. Clothing and other textile waste is the fastest growing waste stream in the country. Around the world, the equivalent of one dump truck filled with clothing is sent to a landfill or incinerator every second, and more than $100 billion worth of materials are wasted each year.
In the United States, we generate enough textile waste to fill the Mall of America-- the largest shopping mall in the country-- every six days.
What makes this waste all the more outrageous is that millions of these clothing items are never even worn. A staggering 30% of all clothes made around the world are never sold.
It’s one of fashion’s “dirty open secrets” that many retailers destroy, landfill or incinerate the clothing that was never sold and has never left the store to make way for new merchandise, creating a serious waste problem.
The massive amounts of waste alone are cause for concern. But, throwing away brand new clothes means that the resource-intensive process required to make new clothes must then be repeated over and over again as brands update their stock for the next fashion cycle.
The fashion industry has a huge negative impact on the environment and climate change
Water pollution: Manufacturing clothing consumes a lot of fresh water, which is often released back into the environment containing large amounts of hazardous chemicals used during the dyeing and treating processes. The fashion industry is responsible for 20% of global water waste.
Plastic pollution: Synthetic clothing is also a huge contributor to ocean plastic pollution in the form of microplastics. Recently, scientists discovered the highest level of microplastics (tiny pieces of plastic less than 5mm long) on the seafloor ever recorded, and clothing production and use could spew up to 22 million metric tons of microplastics to the ocean between 2015 and 2050.
Climate pollution: All of this merchandise pollutes the environment long after it winds up trashed. Incinerating garments creates harmful air pollution. Clothing releases methane in landfills, a powerful greenhouse gas. The fashion industry overall is responsible for 10% of global carbon emissions.
Bottom line, clothing overproduction is polluting our water, exacerbating climate change, and wasting precious natural resources.
Get waste out of fashion
Given the impact that overproduction of clothing and other textiles has on the planet and human health, we should no longer allow it to happen. In particular, manufacturers and retailers should stop trashing or burning their overstock. Instead, when there is overstock, brand-new unsold clothing should be kept on shelves for longer, sold to outlet stores, second-hand stores or thrift shops, donated, repurposed and reused in other products, or recycled into new garments.
It’s time for clothing companies to commit to ending the wasteful practice of overproducing clothing then destroying overstock. And as consumers, we can use our power to call on these companies to change, while also reducing our own environmental impact.
Tips for embracing slow fashion and reducing your impact
Reduce and Re-wear
Despite what pervasive advertisements or social media influencers might have you believe, you don’t actually need to buy new clothes all the time. Opting out of buying new clothes is one of the most powerful ways you can reduce fashion waste. As an added bonus, not buying new clothes may encourage you to wear some items of clothing that are in your closet that you haven’t worn recently and/or keep your clothes in use for longer.
Thrift stores, vintage shops, yard sales and online secondhand marketplaces are tried and true ways to find second hand clothing. But another way that people have refreshed their wardrobe with used clothes is by organizing a clothing swap. A clothing swap is where people gather and bring some of the clothes, shoes and accessories they no longer wear (but that are still in decent shape) and trade them with other people. That way, you can get new-to-you clothing without having to spend any money. This is especially great if you have friends and family with similar fashion senses.
Consider repairing your existing items to get some extra life out of them instead of buying new. Visible mending gives you the opportunity to give your clothes their own unique style. You can also find a lot of repair guides and tutorials on iFixit or YouTube.
One way you can get rid of your old clothes is by recycling them. You can search for “[your city] textile recycling” to see if your city offers any recycling services. You can also spend some time repurposing old clothing into other household items like a pillow, quilt, reusable shopping bag or rag.
There are a lot of ways you can resell your clothing. You can go to a local consignment shop or higher end thrift store or you can find an online clothing resale shop. Popular sites include thredUp.com, poshmark.com, swap.com and ebay.com, but there are a lot of others as well. Do some research into each one and figure out what will work best for you. If you don’t want to go through the process of reselling your clothes, you can also donate them to a thrift shop and/or a charity.
As consumers, we have a lot of power. Where you spend your money can help determine how companies operate. So before buying new clothing, do some research about the company to see their environmental track record and decide whether or not you want to support them.
Executive Director, MASSPIRG
Janet has been the executive director of MASSPIRG since 1990 and directs programs on consumer protection, zero waste, health and safety, public transportation, and voter participation. Janet has co-founded or led coalitions, including Earth Day Greater Boston, Campaign to Update the Bottle Bill and the Election Modernization Coalition. On behalf of MASSPIRG, Janet was one of the founding members of Transportation for Massachusetts (T4MA), a statewide coalition of organizations advocating investment in mass transit to curb climate change, improve public health and address equity. Janet serves as Chair of the Board of Directors for the Consumer Federation of America and serves on the Common Cause Massachusetts executive committee, Alliance for a Healthy Tomorrow board of directors, and Department of Environmental Protection Solid Waste Advisory Committee. For her work, Janet has received Common Cause’s John Gardner Award and Salem State University’s Friend of the Earth Award. Janet lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with her husband and two sons, and every Wednesday morning she slow-runs the steps at Harvard Stadium with the November Project.
State Director, Environment Oregon
As director of Environment Oregon, Celeste develops and runs campaigns to win real results for Oregon's environment. She has worked on issues ranging from preventing plastic pollution, stopping global warming, defending clean water, and protecting our beautiful places. Celeste's organizing has helped to reduce kids' exposure to lead in drinking water at childcare facilities in Oregon, encourage transportation electrification, ban single-use plastic grocery bags, defend our bedrock environmental laws and more. She is also the author of the children's book, Myrtle the Turtle, empowering kids to prevent plastic pollution. Celeste lives in Portland, Ore., with her husband and two daughters, where they frequently enjoy the bounty of Oregon's natural beauty.