Climate Change...But Make It Fashion
Updated: Apr 9, 2020
There is nothing more synonymous with the "American Dream" than a pair of Levi's jeans. In the wake of climate change, the link between the brand and American culture has never been stronger. One pair of Levi's jeans produces the same amount of greenhouse gases as a car driven for 69 miles, a fitting representation of the United States: the world's second-largest emitter of carbon dioxide.
The clothing industry is the world's second-largest polluter and plays a major role in the climate crisis. According to the World Wildlife Fund, the industry emits 1.7 billion tons of carbon dioxide annually, which contributes to the warming of the planet. It also has a detrimental effect on the world's water supply, using up to 20,000 liters of water to produce one kilogram of cotton and pollutes water sources near factories with toxic runoff from the dyeing process.
The rise of fast fashion has made the clothing industry what it is today. Society is more concerned with appearance than ever before, so people are buying more clothes and wearing them less. Garments are only worn an average of seven times before being tossed in the trash. Designers put out 52 micro-collections annually instead of two seasons to keep up with the demand for new looks. Social media has heightened this obsession with appearance and demand for new styles. Most members of Gen Z would not want to be caught dead wearing the same outfit in two different Instagram posts.
With the detrimental effects of the fashion industry on the environment in mind, some young shoppers have found a way to keep their look fresh while still being sustainable: thrift shopping. Sophie Wyniemko is a 19-year-old environmental policy major at Loyola University Chicago who says she goes thrifting at least once a month.
"You always know what next season's color is going to be based on the color of, like, this river in China," she said, referring to water sources contaminated by factories. "The runoff from dyeing clothes is just so crazy." Wyniemko said that her awareness of the environmental impact of clothing is a factor in her decision to thrift her clothes, but many people do not know the true cost of making new clothes. "Most people just don't want to wrap their heads around it," she said.
Wyniemko said that social media and influencer culture has helped make sustainable clothing more popular. "Sustainability itself can be considered trendy, but I hate to use that word because it can have a negative connotation," she said. "Just because something is trending doesn't necessarily mean it's a bad thing." She noted that Emma Chamberlain, a Youtuber and social media influencer, creates thrift shop haul videos, which introduces more people to environmentally-friendly fashion. Wyniemko said this creates a chain reaction where someone sees the good another person is doing and tries to incorporate it into their life.
Wyniemko shopping for clothes at Green Element Resale.
Delaney Sauer is a 20-year-old bioinformatics major at Loyola who is also an avid thrifter. She says that in addition to shopping in physical thrift stores, she has also found ways to buy secondhand clothes online.
"When I'm bored I'll go to apps like Depop and ThredUp," she said. "That's my version of online shopping." As sustainable clothing has become more mainstream, apps where users can sell their gently used garments and buy from others have become increasingly popular. According to ThredUp, secondhand clothing is expected to grow 1.5x the size of fast fashion by 2028.
Even when Sauer does buy new clothes, she tries to make sure she buys from sustainable brands. "I at least try to do research," she said. "I bought a new coat recently, so I looked at all the brands I could buy from and I bought an Eddie Bauer coat because I know that if it ever wears out I can go get another one and they'll replace it, and I like that ethos."
Like Wyniemko, Sauer is also motivated to buy sustainable clothing by the harm that fast fashion does to the planet. "What gets to me is the waste," she said. "When I walk into stores, I get kind of sick because I think about how many things in the store are actually just going to go into the trash." In 2019, Business Insider reported that 85% of all textiles end up in the dump annually.
Keeping clothes and other goods out of landfills is what motivated Brian Haag to open Green Element Resale in 2010. Located just steps away from Loyola's campus, the thrift shop has been a destination for students and residents from all over Chicago looking to shop more sustainably on a budget.
The front of Green Element Resale on North Broadway in Edgewater, Chicago.
Haag said students make up between 5-8% of the store's business, with the number increasing annually. He worked with Loyola law students to open the store and hopes to collaborate with the university on a project to build a greenhouse to house more furniture to sell. Haag also hopes to eventually pass the store on to Loyola when he retires and create an opportunity for students to gain experience managing a nonprofit.
Green Element operates under Big Medicine, Haag's 501(c)(3) focused on educating the public about green economics. "I wish they would create more economic incentives for those of us doing this kind of work," he said. "Right now we get treated just like a regular retailer." He suggested that being able to waive sales taxes for Green Element and other resale stores would allow for better prices on items and encourage more people to shop secondhand.
Even with the rise of online resale retailers, Haag does not expect brick and mortar thrift stores to become obsolete. "Sometimes people will buy things they didn't expect because they saw it," he said. "You might see something that you want that you weren't looking for because everything is always so unique in resale shops."
With the planet in an age of unprecedented climate change, sustainable clothing and lifestyles continue to become more popular. Because of this, fast fashion brands are under pressure to adopt more environmentally-friendly practices. Inditex, Zara's parent company, has pledged to make its garments with sustainable materials by 2025. The consumers of today will have an impact on the planet of tomorrow through the kinds of clothes they buy and the brands they choose to buy from.