Earn Your Right to Buy New Clothes

Jeans and the fashion industry in general are hard on the environment. The fashion industry as a whole uses an estimated 79 billion cubic meters of water annually.

Source Thomas Barwick/Getty

Why you should care

When fashion is one of the major polluters in the world, something has to give.

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The price caught your eye — just $35 for a new pair of your favorite jeans. You don’t need them, but there they are, in your size and favorite color, and at the perfect price. But without your trade vouchers in hand, you leave the store empty-handed. You’re disappointed, but you know that Mother Earth is smiling.

Jeans and the fashion industry in general are hard on the environment. Consider this: Making a typical pair of Levi’s requires nearly 1,000 gallons of water, and the fashion industry as a whole uses an estimated 79 billion cubic meters of water annually, according to the Global Fashion Agenda and the Boston Consulting Group. Don’t believe me? Just ask those who once enjoyed bathing in the Aral Sea. Twenty years ago, it was the fourth-largest inland sea in the world; today, thanks to Uzbekistan’s cotton industry, the waterway has largely dried up.

But the fashion world’s effects stretch far beyond Central Asia. In fact, by 2050, the fashion industry is projected to comprise up to 25 percent of the world’s annual carbon budget, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. That’s a lot of environmental destruction in the pursuit of looking good, and it’s high time that more than money was required to earn the right to buy a new dress. So here’s a new plan: Everyone must give something back before buying something new and get a trade voucher for it. No voucher means no new purchases, and consumers will be forced to stick to secondhand clothing shops only. 

[People] don’t buy fashion to be worthy or preached at for doing good.

Bernice Pan, Deploy designer

The mechanics: Instead of collecting tax receipts every time you donate clothing to Goodwill, the Salvation Army or Oxfam, you’ll receive specific garment vouchers that you need to collect to purchase new fast-fashion items. In turn, retailers of new clothing must collect the vouchers, along with recording the price of the new item. One donated pair of shoes earns a voucher worth a new pair. Three donated tops earns a voucher worth a single new one. Two donated dresses? Your next trip to Old Navy will have you twirling in a new, flowery A-line. 

“Clothing swaps, they’re fun,” says Claudine DeSola, co-founder of Livari, a zero-waste womenswear label. While a mandatory swap program like I’ve proposed above is admittedly far-fetched, that doesn’t mean we can’t hold ourselves and the brands we love to higher environmental standards when it comes to fashion.

 

DeSola, for one, has committed her design career to sustainable fashion and lauds customization, repurposing worn pieces and shopping vintage. She admits it’s partly about changing mindsets. “We need to use the power of social media to share the facts and alternatives,” DeSola says. Livari is one of a growing number of brands embracing a zero-waste philosophy and circularity. DeSola encourages consumers to ask whether sustainability is at the heart of what a brand stands for when they make purchasing decisions.

The notion of sustainability is hardly a new one for designers. Lesley Robertson, a senior lecturer of fashion textile courses at the University of East London, recalls talking about it as a student nearly a decade ago. But this year she saw a record number of her own students carefully scrutinizing fast fashion, pollution in fashion and the design of sustainable materials. What’s new is increased public awareness, she says: “It’s really on everybody’s radar right now.” One solution designers could offer? Producing smaller collections.

A number of innovative initiatives are already promoting the idea of capsule wardrobes or considering longevity rather than quantity. Eileen Fisher’s Renew program, for example, promotes circularity by encouraging customers to bring back old Eileen Fisher items that can be resold or repurposed. And there are rental programs like Front Row or Rent the Runway for those who are unsure whether they’ll wear that designer piece after one event.

Obsolescence is a problem in high-end fashion as well as fast fashion. With the latter, the fit may not be right, the quality subpar and the trends fleeting. But seasonal fads are an issue with designer brands too, even though the quality of the garments is usually much higher.

There’s an inherent problem, though, with promoting sustainable fashion, according to Bernice Pan, a designer at London-based Deploy. People “don’t buy fashion to be worthy or preached at for doing good,” she says; they “buy fashion to look good or feel good in.” Brands need to step up to the plate to help consumers do good.

Deploy aims for sustainability at every touch point, from design and manufacturing to pricing and any engagement after a sale. Pan says the company emphasizes a well-fitting, versatile product that can be worn for years to come — and Deploy has received a Carbon Smart certification to show its commitment to improving and reducing environmental impacts. Consumers can also look for a B Corp stamp — a fair bet that the company in question is actively pursuing social and environmental good.

Until a mandatory trade-in program for buying clothes exists, hold yourself to a higher environmental standard and earn your right to new garments while keeping an eye on the philosophies and ethos of your favorite brands.

OZYImmodest proposal

Propositions that fall on the continuum between controversial and utterly insane. Sometimes we're tongue-in-cheek. Sometimes, dead serious.