You’ve probably heard of food miles, but have you considered the environmental cost of your wardrobe’s “clothing miles”? Check the labels of what you’re wearing and you’ll probably find your clothes have travelled further around the world than you have!
While the environmental issues associated with clothing manufacturing are not uncommon to other industries, there’s a larger cost at the consumer level. Fast fashion, inexpensive trend-driven clothing that arrives weekly in stores, has bred a throwaway consumer mentality that would rather see clothes and footwear become landfill than mended. To make matters worse, fast fashion is dependent on cotton and polyester (which have sustainability issues), and relies on cheap labour in countries that often lack fair working conditions.
According to Lucy Siegle, author of To Die For: Is Fashion Wearing Out the World? (Fourth Estate, 2011), about 80 billion garments are produced each year. With the earth’s resources under enormous strain and fashion consumption at unprecedented levels, she says “it has never been more critical to consume with care and intelligence”.
“The old way of buying clothes, in harmony with one’s income and with nature’s changing seasons, the way people wore, washed carefully and darned, has absolutely nothing in common with the way we now consume,” writes Siegle.
In Australia, fashion-forward thinkers are doing their bit for the environment, and saving money, with clothing swaps. The Clothing Exchange, now in its sixth year, has grown from a greenie start to a mainstream event attracting people from all walks of life.
“We believe there’s enough material out there for everyone to clothe and express themselves as much as they want to, it’s just a matter of redistributing that out of people’s wardrobes and reactivating it into new usage,” says Juliette Anich, director of The Clothing Exchange.
The swaps, held in cities around the nation, are drawing people who not only enjoy the thrill of the hunt, but the social aspect, too. “People use it as a wardrobe dump: they’ll clear out their wardrobe and want to see it being used in an exciting way,” says Anich. “Other people use it as a rotationary wardrobe: they’ll take a clutch for a wedding and bring it back at the next swap. We have quite a few items that keep circulating, which is really exciting—it’s what we wanted The Clothing Exchange to be functioning as.”
The clothes, footwear and accessories are all in good condition, and some still have their price tags attached. “We just swap everything on a one-to-one exchange,” explains Anich. “When you come along with your $250 Sass & Bide jeans, they are no longer worth $250 because you don’t wear them anymore, so they’re valued at nothing. With that, it takes away all the pretentious brand stuff and the style of that piece becomes king—your way of styling it and personal expression becomes most important.”
Of course, there will always be a need for new clothing, and there’s no fun in taking the puritanical view and avoiding buying fashion altogether. “If you really love a piece of clothing and you’re going to wear it for 10 years, by all means buy it,” says Anich. When shopping for new clothes, consider whether they have been manufactured ethically.
“It’s important to note that ‘Australian made’ doesn’t always mean ethically made,” says Eloise Bishop from Ethical Clothing Australia (ECA), formerly No Sweatshop Label. “Just because a business is having clothes made here, doesn’t mean its workers are getting paid fairly.”
ECA works with manufacturers to ensure employees in the Australian textile, clothing and footwear (TCF) industry are paid award wages and given decent working conditions. Fashion brands bearing the ECA accreditation logo have met the ethical requirements regarding workers, but environmental issues are not currently covered. However, with research conducted earlier this year on behalf of the federal government’s TCF Industry Innovation Council, a new environmental and sustainable accreditation for the Australian fashion industry could be implemented just in time.
Try mindfully caring for your clothes.
- Lower your energy use by washing clothes in cold water and drying them on the clothes line.
- Find a drycleaner that doesn’t use solvents and instead employs environmentally friendly practices. Visit www.gecleaning.com
- Have shoes, bags and clothing mended by professionals—it’s a small investment to extend the life of loved items and you’ll avoid adding to landfill.
- When considering a fashion purchase, ask the questions: where does it come from? Who made it? Is the fabric sustainable?
- Try vintage and second-hand clothes shops for interesting additions to your wardrobe.
- Bring your unwanted garments to a clothes swap and pick up pieces someone else has given up. Visit www.clothingexchange.com.au
- If you’re handy with a needle and thread, try making your own clothes or re-crafting outfits from existing garments.