In the wake of rising carbon emissions and microplastic pollution resulting from a growing market for fast, cheap clothing, producers and consumers within the fashion industry are beginning to alter consumption habits and put their focus toward shopping sustainably.
The main source of landfilled textile material is discarded clothing, according to October 2019 data gathered by the Environmental Protection Agency. The amount of textile waste has exploded within the past six decades, increasing from 1,710 tons in 1960 to 11,150 tons in 2017.
A major issue at play is the rise of “fast fashion” within the stock of clothing stores, websites and consumers’ shopping carts, according to a 2019 article by Forbes. The term “fast fashion” encompasses items made and sold at a low cost to meet the consumer demand for newer styles. The practice is often used by larger fashion retailers, both online and at brick-and-mortar locations: H&M, Zara and, more locally, Urban Outfitters.
To shop sustainably means to shop for clothing while paying attention to not only the quality of the garments but also the entire supply chain, production processes and product afterlife, said Laura McAndrews, an assistant professor in textiles, merchandising and interiors at the University of Georgia.
During McAndrews’s time in the fashion industry in the early 2000s, communication about the conditions under which larger supply chains were producing clothing was limited, but an issue of ethics persisted.
The push toward consciously shopping for sustainable clothing and combating fast fashion has become a trend in Athens and the University of Georgia community within the last decade.
Sanni Baumgaertner, owner and founder of Community, was one of the pioneers when she opened her store in 2010. Community sells repurposed vintage and handmade clothing, alongside other sustainable items from local vendors, to elongate the lifespan of clothing, Baumgaertner said.
One of the main reasons fast fashion has had such an impact on the textiles industry is because consumers are disconnected from the process itself, Baumgaertner said. When production is done overseas, it is harder to see the direct impact being made on workers and on the environment.
“There’s a reason why fast fashion is so cheap, and that is because somebody is paying the price for it, whether it’s the environment or the workers,” Baumgaertner said.
Baumgaertner said regional sourcing is a good solution for fast fashion, as it will establish a more transparent relationship between the fashion system and consumers. The first step to becoming a more sustainable shopper is to become cognizant of the fact that every little step in the production process has an impact.
“Don’t blindly follow all the trends out there,” Baumgaertner said. “I love fashion, and I definitely always want to get excited about something new. But there’s a good balance between having your own aesthetic and adding in elements of the trends.”
Beth Weigle, a Ph.D. student and graduate teaching assistant at UGA’s College of Family and Consumer Sciences, is an advocate for shopping vintage and elongating the life of the clothing consumers already own. The secret to getting younger generations to shop more sustainably is through “mending,” the process of taking better care of high-quality items and embracing their imperfections, Weigle said.
“I think people are used to getting a hole in something and seeing it as a flaw. Then, they throw the item away,” Weigle said. “Say someone spills some jager on you at a bar, and you think ‘Oh no, this is ruined!’ If the stain doesn’t come out, you could dye the item or do something to cover it up.”
Weigle encourages consumers to ask themselves a series of questions when trying to shop sustainably: “Do I see myself wearing this item five years from now? If I keep wearing this item over the next few years, is it going to maintain its structural integrity?”
Baumgaertner also recommends consumers to understand their “set personal style” and avoid following trends that will not be worn in the long-term.
Every town has its fast fashion retailers, McAndrews said, but Athens does not have “anymore of an issue than any town or city.” McAndrews noted the vintage clothing community in Athens is especially prevalent, which includes downtown stores like Atomic Vintage and Dynamite Clothing.
“Fashion’s fun and fashion is about kind of a little bit reinventing yourself every time, but it’s not about totally plummeting into this mass consumerism to do it,” McAndrews said.