How To: Start Sustainable Conversations

Written by Aly Reinert, Edited by esa Staff

“Sustainability”, “Eco-friendly”, and “Green” - these are words thrown around often in our world these days, sometimes to the point of becoming cliche or trendy.  We all know what they mean on a surface level, but how many of us really know what kind of impact our day-to-day actions are making on this planet, especially when it comes to fashion? It’s obvious that using a water bottle once and throwing it out is wasteful and harmful to the environment. Or even that keeping the sink on while you brush your teeth uses an unnecessary amount of water that you could be saving, but how many people really know that what they wear has external planetary consequences? How many people actually care to find out?

The scary reality is that people often choose to do what is most convenient to their lives, not the planet. One of these conveniences is called fast fashion and it is deadly. If more people knew the negative impact that they were making, do you think they would change? I do, but it’s not that easy. You can tell someone “shopping at H&M is bad because of X, Y, and Z”, but unless you can hit them with some easily digestible, hard hitting impactful facts and provide them with an easy way they can make a difference, they may not listen to you.

That’s where I come in, I’m hoping to lay out some ways to get this conversation started with those who know little to nothing about sustainable fashion, by speaking about the major ecological and ethically harmful impacts of the fashion industry. Consider this a guide on how to casually educate others on how to create actual, real, measurable change in their lives. We’ll start this off by discussing the main questions someone might ask you and possible responses to those questions.

Q: What is Fast Fashion?

A: The first thing we can do to help someone get acquainted is ask if they have ever heard of fast fashion and even if they have, define it for them.

Fast fashion is a low-cost, high-speed manufacturing of inherently disposable fashion. Looks from the fashion runways become cheaper store version in just a few weeks time.

Cheap fast fashion has made some of the richest people on the planet, while relying on some of the world’s lowest-paid workers, most of whom are women and children. Her are some quick statistics you can share with someone to open their eyes about how little garment workers are paid and the working conditions they face:

“It takes just four days for a CEO from one of the top five global fashion brands to earn what a Bangladeshi garment worker will earn in her lifetime. In the US, it takes slightly over one working day for a CEO to earn what an ordinary worker makes in a year.” (Oxfam, 2018).

“Cheap clothes are made by underage workers entering the industry as young as 14 to work long hard hours (an avg. of 14 hrs per day in sweatshops) for low wages, while dealing with sexual harassment.” (The Fashion Law, 2018).

Q: How is Fast Fashion polluting our planet?

A: There is no simple answer to this question because fashion is only second to crude oil on the global scale of the most polluting industries.

You may be thinking, how could that possibly be? One of the biggest issues is that people now buy 60% more clothing than they did 20 years ago, and they keep it for half as long. So where does it go? Many cheap and poorly made garments fall apart quickly, causing consumers to throw them directly into the trash, doomed for landfill. Places like Salvation Army and Goodwill accept all textiles including damaged goods, but sadly many people won’t make the effort to donate damaged clothing when there is a trash can in their kitchen-but maybe also because they don’t realize the negative impact. If clothing is in good enough condition and people do decide to donate it, thrift stores are only able to sell about 20% of the items they receive due to such high volumes.

Some thrift stores won’t even accept your garments no matter how great the condition if they aren’t in season or style. After that, textile recycling companies may purchase it to grind it up and turn it into something else like insulation or industrial rags. However, not all thrift stores meet the requirements to work with these textile recycling companies because you must have a high volume to be considered, which many stores won’t have at one time and aren’t able to hang on to the scraps until they do. Another thing is that anything containing even the smallest percentage of spandex, lycra, or elastane cannot be shredded even if collected by these recyclers and is left for landfill if it does not get reused.

On top of post consumer waste, fast fashion companies go from design to stores in a matter of weeks. This produces higher volumes of textiles being thrown away just from presentation boards, imperfect or unusable samples from factories, or garments that are bought from stores and cut for use of textile sampling for their production. So textiles are being sent to landfills in the design process, before clothing even hits the racks. Faster designing and producing = more pre-consumer waste.

The average American throws away 70 pounds of clothing each year (Vox Magazine, 2016). So you might be wondering, why is that bad? What are the effects? When textiles sit in landfills, they take up valuable space and omit harmful chemicals as they decompose. This causes pollution in the air and soil-affecting quality of life of those living in the area. Some textiles also take decades to decompose-making this an even bigger issue. Synthetic fibers make up a majority of our clothing these days and they take years to decompose in comparison to natural or plant based fibers.

I think people might expect the large fashion corporations to fix all the problems they are causing and slap that green label on all their clothing so that we, the consumers, can feel ok about buying it. This is a somewhat passive and idealistic point of view, since it takes the place of consumers using their own power to change the way corporations run. I understand feeling like it’s the company’s job to do something because corporations do have a lot of the power when it comes to changing their ways and using the money they make to positively change the way the industry operates entirely.

Personal Piece by Molly Jaques

Personal Piece by Molly Jaques

The education never stops. We need to get more comfortable having honest conversations with each other and being open to listening and learning. Learning about what we can do is a journey, so we must also not judge each other in the process. Keep in mind that if someone is actively trying to learn more about sustainable lifestyle choices, that they’re still human and imperfect-and we also can’t always know everything. This journey is one where we are all constantly teaching and learning. We can never stop educating each other and improving our ways. Sometimes we don't have all the answers or solutions to every problem, but we all have the power to take small steps for the greater good! We only have one planet for EVERYONE and being a responsible citizen = conscious consumerism.