I love a good thrift store—always have. I grew up in the '80s and '90s in a largely preppy small town. It had a solid preppy vibe (think rolled jeans and Ralph Lauren button-downs in every color imaginable). It was also the height of Seattle grunge fashion—baggy jeans and shirt tied ‘round your waist—a variation of the ‘too cool to care’ vibe. Though I had my share of J. Crew roll-neck sweaters, I also gravitated toward fabulous estate sale finds—and a vintage hat now and again. I love fashion, and I used to think that I didn’t care where it came from. Consignment and thrift stores? Yes, please. As long as the quality is good, I’m down.
Within the past ten years, though, I’ve started to learn more about the darker side of fashion—supply chain issues, mistreatment of workers, and the environmental impact. I realized I do care where fashion comes from; I'm concerned about the effects of my choices. Of course, giving fashion a second-life is always a good choice—and thank goodness, because my estate sale obsession might require a self-help book.
I'm not foolish enough to assume I can make perfect decisions. Still, I am hell-bent on making better, cumulative choices. I'm learning and open to making changes. The best way for me to share this quest with you is to partner with Sandra Goldmark, Barnard College's Sustainability Director, to provide these bite-sized fashion-sustainability facts.
- It’s estimated that the fashion industry is responsible for up to 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions. If we continue on this same trajectory, this will increase by more than 50% by 2030.
- The EPA reports that more than fourteen million tons of clothing are incinerated or landﬁlled every year—8% of our total landﬁll tonnage is clothing.
- Buying used clothing is a great option—or sustainably and ethically produced pieces designed for longevity and repair.
Sandra Goldmark, the author of Fixation: How to Have Stuff Without Breaking the Planet, explains that:
“In addition to the [social and environmental] impacts of our clothing, we need to think about the amount of clothing we buy. In the United States, we buy an enormous amount of clothing, but we don’t keep it for long. The United States is the leading exporter of used clothing worldwide, sending $700 million worth of used clothes overseas.”
The good news is, this is an area where each of us can easily make improvements. In the wise words of Sandra, we need to “reduce the impact of our consumption is to rebalance our “stuff diet” to include a significantly higher proportion of used clothing.” Rather than buying several new clothing pieces—on the cheap, buy one high-quality, ethically produced item and supplement with gorgeous used items. That one ethically produced wardrobe boost is the beginning of a long, equitable fashion journey. When you finally shepherd it along to its "next life" by way of donation, consignment, or selling on a used fashion app—you'll be paying forward cumulative improvements in the fashion realm.
Q&A with Sandra Goldmark
Why do we need to be more mindful of our fashion purchases?
The only way to transition away from our broken throwaway culture and build a sustainable, equitable system is to commit to buying used whenever possible and to owning a smaller number of high-quality items that we keep in good repair and use as long as possible before passing along to someone else.
What are the most urgent priorities for consumers to execute in their fashion choices that will directly impact sustainability?
Here are my five simple steps: Have good stuff, not too much, mostly reclaimed. Care for it. Pass it on.
What’s the future of fashion look like?
In looking towards a more sustainable circular economy, it’s interesting that the fashion industry is home to some of the more exciting startups. The massive public pushback against fast fashion and the attendant environmental and human rights devastation forced some in the industry to push hard and build alternatives.
So, for now, let's baby-step our way into our good intentions. We live in a time when—with a few clicks—we can find almost anything we want. Click with purpose. Demand and seek-out ethical, sustainable fashion brands, buy more used clothing, and give your fashion pieces a new life when you’re ready to part ways. Fast fashion is quickly impacting the planet, but our cumulative choices are the most powerful fashion statement we can make.
-- Melanie Carden is a Boston-based writer and editor. Formerly a newspaper columnist, she writes about food sovereignty, cooking, culture, pro-age beauty, fashion, fitness, and social justice. Mel has way too many cozy mugs, loves hiking, and is clinically obsessed with picnics. Sandra Goldmark is the Director of Campus Sustainability and Climate Action at Barnard College.
Melanie Carden is a Boston-based writer and editor. Formerly a newspaper columnist, she writes about food sovereignty, cooking, culture, pro-age beauty, fashion, fitness, and social justice. Mel has way too many cozy mugs, loves hiking, and is clinically obsessed with picnics.
Sandra Goldmark is the Director of Campus Sustainability and Climate Action at Barnard College.