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Published on September 7th, 2008 | by Stephanie Evans


Capture Eco-Savvy Style with Recycled Clothing

By now we’ve all heard the golden rule for keeping our closets and drawers clutter-free: If you haven’t worn it in a year, throw it out.  While this popular advice may do wonders for keeping a wardrobe whittled down to a manageable size, it does nothing to remind consumers that “throwing out” perfectly good clothing is a wasteful and environmentally inefficient practice.

American consumers’ passion for new clothes has staggering environmental consequences.  The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Office of Solid Waste estimates that Americans throw away more than 68 pounds of clothing and textiles per person per year, an amount that represents about 4% of the waste in municipal landfills.  The rate of purchase and disposal of clothing in the U.S. continues to increase dramatically, driven by an ever-growing market of new products.  Clothes are barely “in fashion” before the fashion industry deems them “out of style.”

Recycled Denim Purse

Wastefulness and the Clothing Industry

What many consumers fail to take into account when they throw out a dress from last season or a pair of jeans that don’t fit anymore is that each step of the clothing production process consumes tremendous energy and natural resources, and contributes considerably to environmental pollution.  Cultivation of natural fibres, production of artificial fibres, and the production of thread, fabric, and needles are all highly involved processes that utilize large amounts of water and oil that leave a slew of chemical residues in our air and waterways.  Transporting new clothing items from place of production to the store shelves also consumes vast amounts of fossil fuels and contributes to the excess of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Most of the clothes that Americans wear are made in Asia and shipped to the U.S.  Ironically, about 7 billion pounds of used clothes are exported yearly to other countries—many of these clothes were originally made in Asia and come full-circle back to where they were produced.

Used clothing from the U.S. is sold in more than 100 countries in the world.  By donating your unwanted clothing to charitable organizations such as the Salvation Army or Goodwill, you decrease textile waste and extend the lifecycle of your garments.  You can also resell your used clothing directly through auction websites such as eBay, or by holding a yard sale on a sunny weekend.

How to “Refashion” Your Own Clothes

If you’re at all handy with needle and thread, you can restyle pieces of clothing you’ve grown tired of into lively garments that you’ll cherish.  Here are some ideas for creative ways to reuse your items:

  • Save the attractive trims and buttons from garments that may have been ruined by an accidental spin in the dryer or a little spilled red wine.  Use them to embellish the necklines and pockets of other clothes in your closet, or to disguise holes, spots or worn places on garments that are perfectly good otherwise.
  • Slips can be made into camisoles, and dresses made into blouses or skirts.  Remove the sleeves on a sweater and you’ve got a vest.
  • You can also change the purpose of an item such as an old fur stole or a well-worn pair of jeans.  With a little ingenuity, you could have a hat, or a purse, or a pillow cover.
  • Adult clothing can be a great source of fabric for a garment for a smaller family member.  You can also give them as they are to children, who are very fond of playing dress up, or to a local theatre group as material for possible costumes.

Another way to help “green” your wardrobe and at the same time save yourself some green is to shop for your clothes at thrift shops and vintage and consignment stores in your area.  In such shops you will find unique and stylish treasures that you would never find in a regular department store. And while resale shopping requires a little more patience than your average clothes shopping experience, the rewards it offers, in terms of the surprisingly beautiful things you’ll find, are endless.

If you are looking for a little inspiration regarding ways to incorporate recycled clothes into your wardrobe, visit
fiftyRX3, a documentary blogspot detailing Jill Danyelle’s year long project to sport sustainable styles.  Her goal was to average a 50 percent sustainability factor for everything she wore. Her project reveals, among many other things, that a fashionable and stylish wardrobe can be built largely from recycled clothing.  Jill’s exploration into the fertile possibilities between clothes design and sustainable living is part of an emerging movement to redefine the relationship consumers have with what they wear and how long they wear it.

Green Design

Encouragingly, the number of designers committed to the principles of sustainable development is rapidly growing.  Hip, unique clothing is “refashioned” from old textiles that would otherwise be destined for the dump.  Many green fashion companies are recovering and reclaiming castoffs and making additions or combining pieces to create very special one-of-a-kind garments.

The Council for Textile Recycling estimates that 2.5 billion pounds of postconsumer textile waste (which includes anything made of fabric) is recycled and prevented from entering the waste stream.  This represents 10 pounds of clothing for every person in the United States, but it is still only about 15% of the clothing that is discarded.

There is still much room for improving sustainability in the clothing industry.  By altering our habits and desires to obtain the newest and latest fashions, we can decrease the sheer volume of new clothing that is produced.  By purchasing fewer and more durable garments that are designed to last for more than one season, we may learn to make our clothing into something that we cherish rather than something we consistently seek to replace at the turn of the season.

By increasing our general awareness of the social and environmental impact of discarding clothing, we may learn to decrease the waste that we generate by dressing ourselves. To familiarize yourself further with the clothing industry’s impact on human and environmental health, see the Environmental Health Perspectives article Waste Couture: Environmental Impact of the Clothing Industry.

Article Contributors: Julie Reid

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