Deep dive: Fashion has a waste problem. Here’s what you can do about it.

Have you ever wondered where your shirt goes after you’ve tossed it, or where it came from before you bought it? The answer might scare you. Fashion has a waste problem that’s costing the environment dearly, and your shirt is probably a part of it. 

But there ARE solutions to the problem, and explain did some digging to find out how you can help. 

But first, here are some fast facts about the fashion industry, according to the United Nations Environment Programme:

  • The fast fashion industry (it’s a thing – more on this later) produces 20% of global wastewater and 10% of global carbon emissions – that’s more than planes and shipping COMBINED. 
  • Textile dyeing is the second largest water polluter globally.
  • It typically takes around 7600 litres of water to produce a single pair of jeans.
  • Every second, the equivalent of one garbage truck full of textiles is burned or landfilled. EVERY SECOND.
  • Some materials can take up to 200 years to break down and when they do, toxic gases and chemicals are emitted into the atmosphere, or filter into the soil and groundwater, damaging the environment. 

Fast fashion vs slow fashion

Clothing production goes through a long process, from design and extracting resources to manufacturing, distribution and sale. Sometimes, it’s done inexpensively and quickly, to keep up with seasonal trends. Huge global companies run the industry, and the clothes are made to last only a season – that’s fast fashion as GoodOnYou, an organisation which rates clothing brands according to their sustainability level, describes it. 

Then there’s slow fashion, the opposite of fast fashion, where the production process takes longer and considers the planet every step of the way. As northmist, an eco-friendly clothing brand describes it: “The idea behind slow fashion is to reduce consumerism by giving more preference to the environment. From style to design, quality to the intention behind its make, everything gets considered under slow fashion.” 

What is sustainable fashion? 

Like slow fashion, sustainable fashion considers the planet, but also the people. As sustainability consultancy firm Green Strategy puts it: “Sustainable fashion can be defined as clothing, shoes and accessories that are manufactured, marketed and used in the most sustainable manner possible, taking into account both environmental and socio-economic aspects.”

In practice, it means extending the life-cycle of a product by using, reusing, repairing, remaking and recycling products to reduce the adverse effects on the environment. From a socio-economic perspective, it means everyone involved in the process should follow fair and ethical working conditions for workers on the field, in the factories, transportation chain, and in stores, Green Strategy says. 

How do I get into slow fashion? 

One of the simplest ways to get into it is by thrifting. Thrifting means shopping for second-hand items at a garage sale, flea market and now, even online. Thrifted items have been loved and used by the previous owner, are usually in good shape and come with a discounted price, according to Goodwillaz.org – a charity that takes in pre-loved items. It’s one of the ways of extending the life-cycle of a product so it doesn’t end up in a landfill somewhere. 

How does thrifting work? 

Explain spoke to Mahon Dibakwane, the owner of Singles Boutique, an online thrift store, who broke it down for us. 

Step 1: donate

If you’re planning to toss clothes that you don’t wear anymore, don’t. Instead, collect all of the clothes that you, your family and your friends no longer wear and put them in one big box. You can either sell these items at a discounted price at a flea market or from home, or donate these items to a charity or hospice. These items will then be given to the disadvantaged (and that’s you giving back) or get picked up by a seller.

Step 2: find your treasure

A thrift seller will look for their treasure in your trash and resell it at a discounted price. There are hundreds of items to choose from, but Dibakwane said that, as a seller, a downfall, and what also makes it exciting, is that you don’t know what you’re going to find. It may not be exactly what someone asks for, so sellers can’t make promises to customers. But she says, you can promise them “good quality stuff.” 

Step 3: resell 

Now that the reseller has the items, usually, they’ll wash them, mend any damaged goods, and package them to resell either at a flea market or online. The options are many, especially as thrifting has grown more popular. You can research the places or the platforms and find one that suits your needs and style, be it vintage, hipster, branded, plain or classy. It may take longer than popping into Mr Price or Woolworths and getting exactly what you want, but part of the thrifting experience is also finding something that’s pretty unique. 

One thrifter, Leigh Ann Carey, told explain that she got into thrifting because of the uniqueness of the clothing she found, and also found it to be economical. 

“I have saved quite a lot of money – I have tops and blouses that were R5 in my wardrobe…It really is a great way to save and channel your money into other things,” she said. Duncan Nortier, another thrifter said he paid R100 for Gucci jeans before at a second-hand shop, adding that the most expensive things they sell generally are branded items, suits and blazers which would usually not be over R200.

What if I’m not THAT into thrifting? 

If thrifting is not REALLY your thing but you still want to help the environment, then you can, by shopping sustainably. This simply means buying from brands that keep both ethical production processes and the environment in mind. When we talk about ethics, we mean fair wages and good working conditions for garment workers. 

The materials are usually made to last, these clothing manufacturers are mindful of the natural resources used and the whole process is carried out sustainably, as we said above. The price of products from sustainable brands may not be cheap, but they are made to last, so even then, you’re helping the environment by buying clothes that don’t get thrown away after just a few wears. If you’re sold on sustainable shopping, GoodOnYou.com has listed brands in terms of their environmental impact, labour conditions and animal welfare.

Pro tip: You can also swap items with friends and family. You can keep your basics, like jeans and jackets and thrift the rest. If you can, get clothes that are made as sustainably as possible, but if they have to be from a fast fashion place, the quality should be really good, and the clothes must be made to last long, says Masego Morgan, advocate for sustainable fashion and co-creator of @cnscs_ on Instagram. 

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