How to shop for clothes responsibly
This article was produced by CNN Style's editorial team in partnership with Fashion Revolution, an international non-profit campaigning for a clean, safe, fair, transparent and accountable fashion industry.
On the whole, the fashion industry as we know it is an environmental nightmare. In 2018, it was responsible for the emissions of 2.31 billion tons of greenhouse gas emissions, as well as extensive water pollution from textile dyeing and plastic microfibers. In the US, around 85% of textile waste ends up in landfills or incinerated, per data from the Environmental Protection Agency. This is to say nothing of the lasting social implications of the system, which sees developing nations saddled with the harmful effects of waste and cheap labor.
Though some fashion brands are slowly changing their practices and messaging to sell clothes to more conscientious consumers, shopping less and buying with a mindset toward longevity -- keeping your clothes for as long as possible -- is one of the easiest and most effective ways to reduce your own contribution. According to a 2017 report from the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP), a UK charity that helps companies and communities act more sustainably, wearing a garment for just nine months longer can substantially reduce its carbon footprint.
Shopping second-hand also has its benefits: In 2019, a study commissioned by online thrift store ThredUp estimated that if everyone in the US bought just one used item instead of a new one, the carbon saved would be equivalent to taking half a million cars off the road for a year.
While we can't shop our way out of the climate crisis, we can be more discerning in our shopping practices and reduce our own footprints with these small but impactful changes.
Shopping second-hand is a great way to give a second life to a garment. But you don't have to rummage through the racks of your local thrift store. Newer online platforms like peer-to-peer app Depop, and luxury resellers The RealReal and Vestiaire Collective -- along with more established marketplaces like eBay and Etsy -- make it easy to treasure hunt from the comfort of home.
You may be buying items that would otherwise be donated and shipped abroad to countries like India and Ghana, ultimately flooding their secondhand markets, the excess of which winds up in landfills or incinerated.
Rent instead of buying
While the concept of renting an outfit for anything but the rarest of occasions was once unheard of, the idea has firmly taken hold. The global clothing renting market was estimated to be worth $1.26 billion in 2019, according to market research firm IMARC Group, and is projected to hit $2.08 billion by 2025.
If you're looking to refresh your wardrobe, consider a subscription from sites like Rent the Runway or the plus-size service Fashion to Figure. Major brands Ann Taylor and American Eagle, as well as URBN -- the parent company of Urban Outfitters, Anthropologie, Free People -- have also launched their own rental services.
Embrace slow fashion
Much of fashion's waste can be traced back to the rise of the fast fashion industry, as brands like Zara and H&M utilize speedy production models and cheap labor to keep stores freshly stocked with enormous amounts of cheaply made merchandise. (In 2018, Zara's parent company Inditex released 1,597,260,495 products to market.) But spending more money on clothing doesn't guarantee sustainability -- many luxury brands have their own giant carbon footprint and poor practices to reckon with.
But if you're keen to buy new, opt for "slow" fashion brands that produce fewer collections and prioritize ethical and sustainable production models. Lifestyle sites like The Good Trade and Ego-Age regularly feature stylish brands making waves in this space, while influencer-activists like Aja Barber and Aditi Mayer provide plenty of inspiration and shopping tips on Instagram.
Ask the right questions
Before purchasing a piece, research the brand online to find out more about their sourcing and manufacturing practices, as well as their social responsibility commitments. However, prepare for a bit of a challenge: While some brands are forthright about these things (in 2011, Patagonia launched an entire interactive experience inviting readers to learn about their supply chains) others are not.
Thankfully, Fashion Revolution publishes a Fashion Transparency Index each year, reviewing and ranking major fashion brands based on their transparency around their environmental and social policies and impact. The 2020 edition examines 250 brands, from Armani to Zara.
Though more expensive than buying off the rack (especially in the West), commissioning a tailor or an independent designer to create something just for you is a wonderful indulgence, as well as a great way to support a local business. Tailors can also be called on to refit or customize your old clothes if they no longer fit or are in need of a refresh, thus extending their lifespan.