How Our Clothing Choices Can Help the Earth
By Diana J. Ensign
When considering the ethical, ecological, and spiritual imperative to care for our planet, fashion apparel may not be the first thing that comes to mind. It certainly wasn’t on my radar until a recent meeting with a group of students at Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School to learn about youth-led environmental activism. One young woman, Madison, spoke up saying, “If I could wave a magic wand, I’d have a lot less fast fashion and more people shopping sustainably and knowing what impact their individual actions have on the environment.”
After listening to her concerns, I decided to dive deeper. What is “fast fashion” and what does it have to do with our environmental crisis?
In a nutshell, fast fashion is inexpensive trendy clothing made with synthetic fibers, like polyester. These synthesized chemicals (known as polymers) are derived from petrochemicals (i.e., oil), making the fashion industry heavily reliant on fossil fuels. Moreover, most of this clothing travels across the globe, produced in poor countries with textile practices that pollute the water and air while also exposing workers to dangerous chemicals.
Nowadays, the peer pressure to “look good” with stylish outfits occurs not only on special occasions and at public gatherings but also takes place relentlessly on the never-ending stream of social media posts. Fast fashion fills this desire to stay on top of chic clothing trends. Because the clothing is cheap, people are quick to discard it and purchase new outfits.
But all this discarded clothing isn’t easy to recycle due to the interwoven materials like zippers, ornamentals, buttons, and tags. According to the EPA, approximately 85 percent of textiles end up in landfills (an estimated 11 million tons in the U.S. in 2018). Moreover, these synthetic fibers are not biodegradable and create harmful microfibers that threaten the land, marine life, and human health.
So, what can we do?
At the high school I visited, students are pushing back against fast fashion. They started a school-wide clothing drive for redistribution to local nonprofit organizations serving the youth. Similarly, many nonprofit organizations accept clothing donations for people who need job interview attire or basic clothing as a result of a domestic violence or homelessness emergency. Another young woman posted on TikTok™ offering an option where people can mail in old clothes, and she will cut the fabric and create new clothes.
Sewing or knitting our own clothes is an additional way to avoid fast fashion. YouTube™ tutorials offer advice for making, repairing, or reusing clothing. If we lack such skills, we might consider taking our clothing to a professional for alterations. When we do shop, we can go to thrift stores, buy locally, and select clothing made from organic natural fibers, such as hemp.
Innovative companies also provide opportunities for people to shop sustainably. Rent the Runway™, for instance, offers clothing rental options. My daughter used that service for her prom dress. Other companies produce clothing using recycled plastics. Nube is an excellent example of a woman-owned company fighting climate change through sustainable activewear. Their goods are made from recycled polyester and include plastic-free shipping.
For those of us with decades-long commitments to social change, it shouldn’t be a surprise that clothing can be a powerful, revolutionary statement. Feminists in the 1960s clearly understood the connections between patriarchy, oppression, and the fashion industry when they threw their bras, high heels, and girdles into the trashcan during the women’s rights movement. Mahatma Gandhi likewise engaged in the radical act of boycotting British fashion apparel by instead wearing cloth from India that he wove himself. Even Jesus adorned himself simply and plainly, unimpressed by fine attire.
Although our current climate crisis won’t likely be remedied by one person or with one solution, these efforts toward more sustainable clothing—by both individuals and industry leaders—signal a crucial message for us all:
We create a better world through our daily collective choices.
Diana J. Ensign is an award-winning author who writes about spirituality, nature, mindfulness, healing, and compassion. Learn more at DianaEnsign.com.
This essay will be submitted to several denominational publications.