To understand sustainable fashion, it’s essential to unlearn that term itself; repeat it to yourself: there is no such thing as sustainable fashion. It’s not fashion’s fault either (hint: it’s ours, sorta.)
Fashion, by nature, is an ever-changing, ever-evolving beast. Because of the infrastructure built around it in the mid-to-late 20th Century, new lines come out twice a year as the rest of us consumers play our roles, some version of Andy Sachs getting an on-the-spot schooling about why she’s wearing a sweater the color cerulean.
But fashion, as it exists right now, cannot sustain—not like this. Because we’ve saturated and been saturated with it for so many years, there’s too much of it left in our wake. There is a very …unsustainable amount of fashion.
In the US alone so far this century, we’ve disposed of so many garments annually that we have created an entire side industry of junk and salvaged clothing that we’ve filled up overseas marketplaces, clogged the oceans, and turned deserts capes into mountains of plastic and thready waste half a world away.
If you’re thirty years old today, since you were born, there’s been a five-fold increase in the amount of clothing Americans buy; each garment is worn only an average of seven times.
And while many of us donate bags and bags of used clothing, dropping it off at the local Goodwill or Salvation with the charitable notion that it will find its way to a new home, the reality is because of its cheaply made fabrics and craftsmanship is being discarded. Millions of garments every month
There’s so much more we can do, using what we have. That’s our mission.
“Whatever they cannot sell in their thrift stores gets sold off into the ‘salvage’ market,” Liz Ricketts, co-founder and director of the OR Foundation, a nonprofit to help countries like Ghana escape the waste that the predominant business model for fashion brings to its shores and for consumers to actively engage in purchases. “It’s a long and complicated supply chain that is completely invisible to not only the average person but even to people participating.”
Take Ghana’s Kamanto market, a seven-acre sprawl featuring more than 5,000 vendors, most of whom sell bundles of our discards.
The tiny West African nation intakes some 15 million items of used clothing from Western countries every week. That’s one article of clothing for every single Ghanan citizen every two weeks.
“[The US] exports more second-hand clothing than any other country on earth,” Samuel Oteng, a designer and project manager at the Or Foundation, told CBS News. “Before they used to have good quality clothes, but now there’s a lot of trash. I feel like waste is being built into the model of fast fashion: Overproduce, overproduce, overproduce. In the end, people wear clothes for just like two weeks, and then just discard them.”
And while some vendors can get rid of the clothes for recycling or upcycling purposes, an estimated 40 percent of clothing bales end up in landfill and eventually washing up on beaches, prompting Ghanan officials to “Do not hide under the guise of donations of second-hand clothing, and then you ship them over to us just to cause problems to us,” Solomon Noi, a member of the Accra Metropolitan Assembly says.
Are there ways to make a difference in our fast fashion footprint? Absolutely. For starters, buy quality garments and wear them twice as long. Even getting 14-20 wears out of a single garment reduces greenhouse gas emissions from textiles by up to 44%. Buying upcycled and wearing those items for the rest of your life, also helps Spark*l founder Courtney Bonzi says.
“We laugh about it—a little, but no fake shit is a mantra,” Bonzi says. “We understand that everything we make is living its next life. And we’re trying, constantly, to reuse every piece of upcycled fabric we can get our hands on. Something can be a watch band, a head band, a bow, a belt, a wallet, a keychain, earrings.
“There’s so much more we can do, using what we have. That’s our mission.”