Sustainable Living: The Hottest New Look in Fashion? Nothing

Beware of corporate “greenwashing.” While this Fendi purse is made from reclaimed material, if an “eco-friendly” clothing line accounts for less than 1 percent of overall business, that’s not environmental. Jenny Noble photo.

By Jenny Noble

If you’re like me, and about 258 million other Americans, your closet is where clothing goes to die. Traipsing through this burial ground of impulse decisions, I’ve often wondered, ‘How did we get here?’

We’ve always been a nation of consumers, but in the past several years our addiction to shopping has reached a feverish pitch. Between 2000 and 2015, clothing production doubled in volume, while the number of times a garment was worn before being thrown out decreased by 36 percent.

How did we end up in a world where a pair of pants can cost less than a cappuccino?

Everything changed with the advent of what’s called, “fast fashion” — poor quality clothing that’s produced at breakneck speed, by workers who are paid impossibly low wages, which is then shipped in bulk across the planet to be sold at disposable prices to us feckless shoppers who usually don’t need or really even want it.

In the scheme of this planned obsolescence, clothes go out of style almost as fast as they fall apart. Brands that used to roll out a traditional four seasons a year, now operate on 50 micro-seasons, creating a new line of clothing pretty much every week.

Doubling the life of clothing reduces greenhouse gases by 24 percent. This hand washed, air dried McGregor shirt is still in good shape after 60 years. Jenny Noble photo.

The  clothing industry belches out 1.2 billion tons of greenhouse gases per year and according to the World Bank, generates 8 to 10 percent of annual carbon emissions (more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined).

A single cotton T-shirt puts into motion a global chain of events, spewing pollution every step of the way. Growing cotton for just one shirt consumes 713 gallons of water, 150 grams of pesticides, and bleeds chemical dyes into rivers and farmland. Its carbon fueled journey from raw material to shop floor takes an average of 18,000 miles.

Then after the nano-second that I’m interested in wearing my new shirt, its destructive voyage continues.

Let’s look at the donating myth. That somebody out there wants my old clothes is magical thinking. Once an item is “donated” to charity, it plays a game of hot potato, first going to a thrift store where it’s sorted, hung on a rack and passed over. Then its sorted again, shipped to a bigger thrift store in another state, and passed over again. Finally when even the Salvation Army can’t unload it, the worst of our rejects are shipped in massive bundles to countries like Ghana.

We pay the government of Ghana to take our mountains of threadbare shirts where they end up piled onto make shift landfills with such a behemoth acreage that they displace local people, spew methane into the atmosphere and occasionally even catch on fire.

Needless to say, people in Ghana don’t want the dregs of our bad fashion decisions.

Mind Offline in Sag Harbor offers mostly organically grown, locally sourced, and durably chic threads. On December 11, 15 percent of all sales will be donated to the conservation group Defend H2O. Jenny Noble photo.

So how do we step off this sartorial merry-go-round?

Start by considering what triggers your shopping spree. A bad mood? A good mood? Yet another end of the pandemic? Clothing sale FOMO? With the current breakdown of the global supply chain, you might never be able to buy these shoes you don’t need again?

Instead of heading to the mall, shop your closet. This is the very best place to find sustainable fashion. It offers bargain prices, a variety of sizes, and who knows what you’ll find? If you’ve got full-fridge-can’t-find-anything-to-eat syndrome, have a  friend help you excavate in your closet.

If you still can’t find a thing to wear, trade. In high school, my friends and I bartered clothes relentlessly, fine tuning the delicate art of ripping each other off. Today, our nefarious trade policies have morphed into more generous movements everywhere online, especially Facebook. Whether you’re asking for a winter coat on FREECYCLE, selling it for a pittance on Bonac Yard Sale or joining the Buy Nothing Project, there’s a collective cleaning out of closets going on that just makes sense.

Never underestimate the joy of stealing clothes from loved ones. I come from a long line of sweater snatchers. We used to play a game called “Tour of the Decades” where we’d raid my mother’s closet, heisting 1970s leather vests, 1950s saddle shoes and 1940s shirtwaist dresses. Today, my daughter wears entire outfits pilfered from my closet. This too, my little sticky fingers, is environmental.

The Times Vintage and Vinyl Store in Greenport is ground zero for fashionable and funky as well as repurposed items. Sales woman Elodie Keating notes, “We may put an item on sale, but we never get rid of anything.” Jenny Noble photo.

If shopping is the competitive sport you don’t want to stop playing, try thrifting. The most fashionable people I know thrift. Exhibit A: My friend Franny’s mother is a life-long thrifter who lives by the notion that fashion is where you find it. She was once voted best dressed woman in San Francisco by The Junior League, a distinction that usually goes to patrons of haute couture. Now in her 80s, she buys the likes of Sonia Rykiel on eBay and according to Franny, “Is still the best dressed woman in Costco.”

The upside of obscene amounts of disposable income in the Hamptons, is that thrift stores and estate sales here are in a league of their own, offering everything from $10 blouses to $6,500 Channel bags on consignment.

Clothes you really love never go out of style. Buy one good quality item that you love and that’s made to last, and you’ll be wearing it for years. Disclaimer: Clothes as an investment take some getting used to. The first time I saw a $200 tag on a sweater, I wanted to run out of the store screaming. Then I thought, ‘If I wear it 400 times, it’s only 50 cents a wear.’

Fortunately, there’s a burgeoning slow fashion industry that employs sustainable practices such as making chemical free dyes and using renewable energy in the production process. Some brands create long lasting fabrics, use only vegan leather and recycle old scrap fabric and even plastic bottles into new garments. What you want to look for is a brand that doesn’t do the token environmental gesture, but that employs most of these practices.

No matter where you shop, look for more environmental fabrics. The best choices are Tencel, hemp, linen and jute, all of which can be organically grown. Avoid synthetic fabrics altogether. They break down into microplastic that floods oceans that contaminating the water, seafood, soil and even the air we breathe.

Finally, we need to stop confusing Amazon with Santa Claus. No matter how much you like seeing packages land on your doorstep fast, the traditional two day delivery uses five times as much fuel as slower ground transportation. This Christmas, order your slow fashion more slowly.

They say we only have until 2030 to reduce carbon emissions in order to minimize the worst effects of climate change. That’s only eight years. I say, challenge yourself to be sustainably chic — buy little, mostly thrift, shop from your closet, and take care of what you already own until at least 2030. That’s only eight years.

Merry Christmas Planet Fans!

The Good Guys:

Eileen Fisher: Pioneer in ethical clothing, whose environmental initiatives are legion.

Offers mostly organic fabrics, mostly made in the U.S. Takes clothes back that are worn, ripped  or stained for $5 a piece to resell at a lower cost.

Patagonia: Leads in its effort to offset CO2 emissions. The company also repurposes clothes and fabric.

As climate activist Paul Hawken points out, “If  ‘certified pre-owned’ stickers can apply to a used car, they can be applied to well-made clothing, since most of Patagonia’s outerwear lasts longer than a car anyway.”

Adidas: Agreed to only use recycled plastic in its products by 2024. Makes a line of running shoes with the lowest carbon footprint of any sneaker.

Levi, Strauss & Co.: Announced that by 2025 it will reduce the greenhouse gas emissions of its own facilities by 90 percent, and those of its entire supply chain by 40 percent.

Ralph Lauren: Now practicing something called “de-growth,” which essentially means making less stuff. A good move since according to a 2020 industry study, roughly one fourth of fashion’s resources are wasted on leftovers.

Asket:  Swedish company embracing “slow fashion” by offering only one permanent season of clothing. Online Impact Receipt details carbon, water, and energy usage for each item. Also itemized are number of wears per garment, plus the cost and impact per wear.

Jenny Noble is a writer and mother who enjoys food, water and clean air.