Be the Change

We learn practical steps to supporting sustainable, ethical businesses, making permanent changes to the way we shop.

The fashion industry is one of the world’s biggest polluters and that’s just one of its many issues. Every time you buy a fashion item, you’re faced with a choice of who to support.

Fashion is having a moment, and it’s one of reckoning. Our clothes are one of the first things we think about each day, but once we’re dressed, we usually don’t give them a second thought. This has to change. Clothes are a powerful communication tool. They can transform our mood and provide belonging and connection. Our clothes also play a huge role in some of the fundamental issues of our time: modern slavery, poverty, pollution and climate change.

Clothing production is often outsourced to developing nations, where a lack of enforced regulations mean wages are kept artificially low and contaminated wastewater can flow freely into waterways. Textile dyeing is the second largest polluter of clean water globally. The clothing industry is responsible for a third of ocean microplastics. The industry relies heavily on fossilised carbon, for materials such as polyester and nylon, and coal used for power, while complex and fragmented supply chains create extensive carbon emissions. And trees are cut down at a rate that far surpasses our ability to replant, causing loss of both habitats and biodiversity.

At the core of these issues is the sheer amount of clothing produced and consumed in the name of fashion. We produce in excess of 100 billion garments each year, but many are designed with neither durability nor recycling in mind. Every second around the world the equivalent of one rubbish truck of textile waste is sent to landfill or incinerated. In fact, less than 15 per cent of clothes are collected for reuse or recycling, and less than 1 per cent are recycled into new textiles. The vast majority of our clothes simply end up in landfill and become waste. This way of working is not sustainable.

We are buying more clothes than ever, twice what we were buying 20 years ago, with the average item only worn seven times before we toss it out. This is not
just a fashion problem. This is a clothes problem. Whether you participate in the world of fashion, or just wear clothes, these issues affect you.

What can you do?

A lot it turns out. It starts with a shift in mindset. Our clothes aren’t disposable, they’re a valuable asset. Making conscious decisions about the way we buy, use, care for and part with our clothes, can make an enormous difference to their overall footprint. A study in the UK found that keeping clothes in active use for just nine months longer reduced their carbon, waste and water footprints by 20–30 per cent.

When you need something new, approach it in a responsible way. Try to avoid buying on a whim. Do your research, buy less, and buy the best you can for your budget. Beware of buzzwords. Look to see what the company’s values are, and how active they are at reducing their impact on workers and the environment. Every time we buy something, we advocate for it, so support one of the companies working to make their clothes in a better way. Some areas to consider are whether a garment is made locally, made in a Fairtrade or certified factory, or made by a social enterprise. Then check materials. Look for products made from organic fibres, or low impact natural, recycled or waste materials.

The most sustainable thing you can do is take good care of your clothes: wash them less often, avoid the tumble dryer, repair when needed and keep them in active use.
What’s the deal with denim?

Let’s consider a pair of jeans. They are ubiquitous, but have one of the biggest footprints of any piece of clothing. Both the cultivation of cotton, and the dyeing and finishing of denim use vast quantities of water and chemicals. Once jeans are made, they are subject to a further variety of treatments to fade, soften and texturise. All this for what is sometimes just a couple of dozen wears. The good news is the denim industry is transforming, with some companies now using organic cotton, laser technology, waterless dyeing and plant-based indigos to lessen their impacts, so look for denim brands that are working in this way.

Golden rules

Fit and function Does it fit well, and is it designed and made to perform its function. If it’s a good fit, you will wear it more and take care of it.

Materials Choose based on function and impact. Look for more sustainable materials such as wool, linen, hemp, organic cotton, Tencel and lyocell (from trees), and recycled or repurposed materials. If you require a synthetic material for performance, choose recycled, i.e. recycled nylon or recycled polyester.

Quality Good quality construction and materials will make it more durable and long lasting.

Company Does it walk the talk?

Consider buying second hand. At consignment and second hand stores you can pick up great pieces or unique styles that would usually be well above your budget. If you need something for a special occasion, such as a job interview, event or function, or just a wardrobe refresh, there are many options for rental or borrowing, or consider a clothes swap with friends.

The most sustainable thing you can do is take good care of your clothes: wash them less often, avoid the tumble dryer, repair when needed and keep them in active use. When it’s time to pass them on (or down to your kids!), do it in a responsible way, preferably through reselling or swapping so you maximise your investment.

Change starts with one person. Do your research, ask questions and understand we all have the power to make a difference.

Nisa, an ethical underwear label, employs women from refugee backgrounds
Kowtow is a strong ethical brand
Find out more

Good On You Brand rating app that helps you to shop and support sustainable labels.

Conscious Closet By Elizabeth L. Cline. An in-depth guide to editing your wardrobe and how to buy better.

To Die For by Lucy Siegle A great look at the rise and impact of fast fashion.

Fashionopolis by Dana Thomas The state of fashion today and how the future might look.

Conscious Chatter podcast

Wardrobe Crisis podcast

fashionrevolution.org for the activists among you.

Jacinta FitzGerald is the founder of Make Good, an organisation that works with clothing businesses on product sustainability, and designing for a circular and regenerative future. makegood.world

Story by Jacinta FitzGerald