Reaching for the clothes in your closet helps fight climate change

Zahra Hirji
Bloomberg News

A small, simple and cheap way to prevent some future climate pollution is to wear the clothes already in your closet roughly twice as many times as you might have otherwise before tossing them.

People doing so could reduce the related emissions impact of clothing by 44%, according to a 2017 report from the charity Ellen MacArthur Foundation, later echoed by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

Here’s why: Wearing the stuff you already own likely means that you will buy less in the future, thus preventing the greenhouse gas emissions generated during the production of new items.

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If you’re someone who wears clothes until they fall apart, ripped and ragged, this hot climate tip is not for you. But skyrocketing clothing sales suggest many people worldwide are buying more than they used to just a couple decades ago – and also buying more than they can really use.

“The way that the sales were growing, people were starting to own more and more clothes,” said Laura Balmond, Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Fashion Initiative lead. The numbers are undeniable: “It wouldn’t be physically possible to get as much wear out of your items as it previously had because people have got a lot sitting in their wardrobes.”

It’s no secret that the fashion industry has a pollution problem. Big fashion accounts for 2% to 8% of global carbon emissions, according to the UNEP. On its current path, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimated, the industry could use up more than 26% of the carbon budget remaining if we are to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius by 2050.

The industry’s mass production of polyester, which is derived from fossil fuels, also contributes to the release of plastic microfibers into the ocean and the piling up of waste in landfills. Less than 1% of clothing collected for recycling worldwide is actually turned into new items.

By wearing the clothes already in your closet roughly twice as many times as you might have otherwise before tossing them, people doing so could reduce the related emissions impact of clothing by 44 percent. (Dreamstime/TNS)

One idea gaining traction among apparel companies is called circularity, an umbrella term referring to the reuse, resale and recycling of textiles to extend their life. New business models have cropped up or expanded in response.

Fueled by the fast fashion craze and social media, “there’s sort of this desire for newness,” said Balmond. With companies increasingly announcing strategic goals and programs in the name of circularity, it can be hard for customers to distinguish what’s impactful from greenwashing. But shifting customer perspectives could open the door to businesses more in line with clear circularity targets. The challenge is, she said, “if we can shift the mindset from it being a brand new product to being new to you.”

The rise of pre-worn and rented clothing

The shift is already underway. After hosting “Worn Wear” events for customers to bring their old jackets, leggings and other items for repair or exchange, Patagonia launched an online marketplace with the same name in 2017 to expand the program. The next year, North Face piloted a similar program called Renewed for reselling its used items. There are also third-party virtual marketplaces for selling secondhand clothing, such as Sellpy, Depop, The RealReal and ThredUp.

The secondhand market grew from about $11 billion in 2012 to $35 billion in 2021, according to ThredUp’s 2022 resale report, and it’s projected to dramatically jump to $82 billion by 2026.

Then there are clothing rentals. Take Rent the Runway, an online site for people to rent clothing that launched in 2009. The business has expanded again and again in the years since, adding accessories and plus-size items to the rentals, followed by brick-and-mortar stores and monthly subscriptions. Last October, the company went public. While sales climbed this year, Rent the Runway reported a net loss of $42.5 million in the first quarter of 2022.

Circularity will only get us so far in reining in greenhouse gas emissions. “We have endless talk about circularity,” said Veronica Bates Kassatly, an independent fashion analyst. The focus instead should be on the sheer volume of items being produced: “We have far too much and we wear it far too few times,” she said.

‘30 washes’ rule of thumb

Some research has indicated people toss items of clothing after wearing them only seven to 10 times. But what would be a reasonable number of times to wear a garment: 60, 100, 200? Should there even be a target?

“It’s hard to give a number,” said Jin Su, an associate professor in the Department of Consumer, Apparel, and Retail Studies at the University of North Carolina Greensboro. Su added that such a goal would have to vary by clothing type and fabric.

Perhaps the closest thing to this number is a new durability metric for jeans. Led by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a coalition of academic experts, brands, retailers, manufacturers and others developed jeans guidelines, deciding that jeans should be able to withstand a minimum of 30 washes at home while still retaining their high quality. That means someone would have to wear them more than 30 times to get the most out of them.

The way you wash your clothes also matters from a climate perspective. While the biggest share of the emissions tied to apparel comes from textile production – 41% – the second largest source is from consumption, which largely comes down to the energy associated with washing and drying. To minimize this footprint, wash using cooler water and line-dry your items, experts recommend.

Not needing to wash your clothes as much helps, too. Wool is generally more expensive than plastic-based clothing, but it’s good at wicking away moisture and highly durable, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. To showcase the powers of wool, Wool&Prince founder Mac Bishop wore a wool shirt for 100 days without washing it. That challenge went viral and helped launch Bishop’s clothing line; he later started a parallel company for women’s clothing called Wool&.

Now the twin companies reward customers who wear an item of their clothing for 100 days straight (washing is highly encouraged) with a discount off their next purchase. More than 4,000 people have completed the challenge, according to Rebecca Eby, Wool&’s manager of customer experience and communities.

“I started as a customer who did this challenge and it changed my life,” Eby said. She said she almost exclusively wears natural fibers now, mostly Wool& clothes, and does a lot less laundry. She’s heard from many customers who perhaps started the challenge to get the discount to buy more and ended up changing their habits in the process.

In promoting a lifestyle of wearing and needing less, Wool& is inevitably limiting its reach as a company. It’s something the entire fashion industry may eventually wrestle with, and Eby acknowledged the awkwardness.

“It’s definitely something that we struggle with a bit,” she said.