Vintage Fashion is... Ecologically Sound
During the early days of the United States, women diligently saved their pennies to buy precious fabric to make the allotted one new dress per year. That new fabric, typically cotton, linen, silk or wool, was usually combined with the fabric from an old dress that had been refashioned (think: recycled). The old fabric could have been used as trim for the new dress or as petticoats, or even as dresses for the children: It would have been reused in some fashion; it would not have gone to waste until it eventually rotted away. We're talking about the average American household after all, not one of wealthy means. All of this brings to mind some interesting articles I read recently about today's fashion industry and the colossal amount of waste it generates; an issue simply did not exist back in a time where everything had a use.
The Dynamics of Change
Fast forward into the 21st century where fabric is now economically readily available to the masses. Upwards of 60 percent of textile fibers are derived from fossil fuels/petrochemicals (Sandin, Peters, 2018). Do you ever wonder why? The United Nations estimates that the business of what we wear, including its long supply chains, is responsible for 10 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions heating our planet. As an industry, fashion uses up even more energy than aviation and shipping combined (UNFCC, 2018 as cited in Grist, 2019). All of this begs the question: Why are we so heavily reliant on petrochemicals for textiles, especially in the soft goods (apparel and bedding) industry???
Well, at least we know why clothing retailers are saturated with polyester, and other synthetic clothing. Almost every piece of clothing sold today is made exclusively of PLASTIC. One of the biggest lies I've ever heard is how polyester "wicks moisture away from your body". No, it doesn't. It traps in moisture and odor. Aside from being most uncomfortable in hot or muggy weather, one of the saddest facts about plastic fabrics is, once they've become permeated with odor, there's no hope of ever wearing them again because the odor is permanent. There is a reason clothing used to be made from silk, cotton, linen, wool and even rayon! Soft, breathable, organic fabrics are just kinder to the body and better for the environment. Cotton can be a problem for the amount of water required in all phases of production. When grown responsibly, problems can be kept to a minimum. It must be pointed out that water is used, at some stage, in all textiles. Is anyone ever bothered by the fact that petrochemical fibers, like polyester, need petroleum, a non-renewable source categorized as a fossil fuel?
The Dirty Business of the Fashion Industry
According to the EPA, Americans generated nearly 16 million tons of textile waste in 2015! That includes clothing, scarves, shoes, hats, purses, belts, stuffed animals, and all manner of linens, including curtains, slipcovers, towels, sheets, etc. Apparently, we aren't donating to the charities as much as we could as, only about 15% of unwanted goods gets donated (Calma, 2019). So what about the remaining 85%? That either gets burned or sent to the local landfills. The amount sent to the landfills is nearly 100% reusable! Only about 5% of those soft goods must be thrown away because they do no meet material standards (Berg Mill Supply Co., 2017). Did they have a need to discard used textiles back in the day? Of course they did - one only needs to consider the monthly cycle of women and young girls. Additionally, when other remnants of fabric were too worn for any particular us, many households gave them to the Rag Man. (Yes, they really did exist and they still do today, although now, the rag business is an enormous industry and that's a topic for a separate article.)
Consumers aren't the biggest contributors to fashion waste, however: As Justine Calma writes in her article for Grist, A scrappy solution to the fashion industry's giant waste problem, commercial textile waste is estimated to be 40 times greater than residential dumping!
It’s not just fast fashion that’s bad for the environment. It’s been estimated that 15 to 20 percent of the fabric used in all clothing designs winds up as trash on the cutting room floor. Designers at both high- and low-ends of the fashion spectrum dispose of extra yardage — often perfectly good fabric plus all the lace and trimmings. Clothing samples may go from the runway straight to the dumpster once their usefulness has run its course. Some high-end labels allegedly burn their excess stock rather than chance them ending up in a discount store and harming the luxury reputation of their brand.
This is just downright criminal! Imagine the tonnage of fabric waste and contrast that with the thrift of the 18th, 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. The magnitude of that amount of waste is mind boggling! For people worried about climate change, perhaps they should put pressure on fashion designers to reconsider their fabric choices in the first place, and utilize best practices of centuries gone by; and secondly, consumers need to consider what they buy in the first place and make long-standing purchases, such as antique and vintage clothing, instead of investing in "fast fashion" or what I call #buyme#flyme spastic plasticwear: Throwaway fashion.
Moving Fashion Backwards to Move Forward
What changes, if any, are being made in the errant fashion industry, to correct their gargantuan carbon footprints? One way it seems, and is quite trendy now, is to design with used clothing as Olivia Wilde did this past April, when she collaborated with thredUP and Conscious Commerce to combat disposable fashion. Also popular are the many resale venues for selling high-end designer fashions; new-with-tags and gently used fashions (not vintage); in both brick&mortar shops and an abundance of online sites.
Sales of used textiles, clothing, and shoes exceeds $700 million annually. This is only accounting for the 15 percent of recycled clothing that is being reused. Perhaps, businesses just don’t realize that markets for used clothing are abundant. Charities, such as Goodwill, that collect used clothing are already privy to the income-generating potential of recycling clothing. There are scores of items that can be reused or recycled, including clothing, household linens, towels, sheets, curtains, stuffed animals, shoes, hats, purses, and belts, according to the Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles Association (SMART) (Berg Mill Supply Co., 2017).
Moving Fashion Forward
Some brands are turning eco-friendly, such as Reformation, which includes their RefScale on every product page, which tracks their environmental footprint and tells you what impact each garment has on the environment. It shows "the total cost of fashion to make empowered choices" (Reformation, Other Sustainable Practices, 2019). Additionally, a collective of big brand jeans, including H&M, Gap and Tommy Hilfiger, have all signed on to a new project called The Jeans Redesign, which is intended to reduce the carbon footprint of denim production. Designers are pledging to clean up toxic denim and promise to abide by standards that will make their jeans more recyclable (Segran, 2019).
Another company, FABSCRAP, is a nonprofit textile reuse and recycling program, that works with fashion brands to send their excess fabrics to its sorting warehouse instead of the landfill. Students, artists, crafters, quilters, sewers, teachers, and of course, other designers can use any material that they collect that is not proprietary: Customers can shop their warehouse or their online store. FABSCRAP provides service and/or material to change-maker brands and businesses and their list of clients is impressive with over 113 names, including Marc Jacobs, Jenny Yoo, Steven Alan and many others.
Fashion For The Future
Fashion trends come and go, and come and go again. History always repeats itself and fashion always remakes itself. At some point, we hope the textile and fashion industry will decide to forego using plastic fabric for clothing, or at least cut back on using so much of it, and make a return to the natural fibers of the good, clean earth. Until that happens, we can rely on the many curators of antique and vintage clothing to smoothly guide us through the torrents of trash and carbon upheavals. It's not all bad though. Our plastic paillettes/spangles/sequins for example. These hold up much better than their old celluloid counterparts. Baby diapers, menstrual products, disposable pads/liners (pets, hospital beds, etc) are a given. Rain boots, athletic shoes and outerwear. Belts and purses (though I prefer leather). Automotive upholstery, insulation, stuffing, flooring products, draperies and window treatments, etc. There is certainly an ongoing market for petrochemical fibers and, the need to keep them recyclable. For my family and myself, we'll take silk, cotton, linen and wool for our day-to-day clothing and household needs!