MIAMI BEACH, Fla. – It’s a Saturday on Miami Beach, and volunteers are picking up trash that has washed up on the shores of the Julia Tuttle Causeway.
It’s not the typical plastic bottles or bags.
These pants, shirts, pillows and bras are fashion pollution — almost 80 pounds of it.
“It’s slowly creeping up onto our shores,” says Colleen Coughlin, director of eco-fashion for Debris Free Oceans.
In 2013, she quit her job at Victoria’s Secret to start The Full Edit, a consulting service that helps people upcycle their fashion waste.
“Nobody really thinks about the end product, what happens to where your clothes go,” Coughlin says. “On average, an American throws away up to 79 pounds of textiles themselves per year.”
The United Nations Alliance for Sustainable Fashion estimates that textiles account for 9% of all microplastics polluting our planet. Products containing polyester, acrylic and nylon are the biggest offenders.
“If you have polyester in a shirt along with cotton, that polyester component makes it cheaper, can make it cheaper,” says Simone Cipriani, chairperson of the alliance. “But it makes it difficult to be recycled. It makes it difficult every time you wash. Microparticles can go into the ocean.”
The stats are sobering. Sales for the global apparel market are projected to grow from $1.5 trillion in 2020 to $2.5 trillion in 2025. That dramatic spike in sales is met with a dramatic drop in people re-wearing the clothes they already have, and fast fashion is fueling the fire.
“Fast fashion is any brand that is producing or selling garments at relatively low cost, this could be $5 to $50, but in a turnover of styles that are every two weeks,” says Miami native Hassan Pierre, CEO and founder of Maison De Mode, an online fashion boutique that only reps sustainable brands. “I think if you’re putting something out there, you really need to be mindful about how its life is going to end or how you could put it back into your system.”
Alepel is one of the Maison De Mode brands. It’s based in South Florida and sustainability is in its DNA.
“We actually produce very minimal waste,” says Adriana Epelboim-Levy, founder and creative director at Alepel. “Again, everything is made to order. So we do not have any excess of inventory at all. ... Everything we make we consider as a lifetime item.”
That’s important when you consider a 2015 study that found the average life span of any fashion item was only seven wears.
Another study found that less than 10% of clothing donations are actually kept by charitable organizations and sold domestically.
The rest are either incinerated or shipped across the world to countries including Haiti, Chile, Ghana, and Kenya.
Caitriona Rogerson saw the impact firsthand while filming the documentary Textile Mountain. The pileup of clothing leads to obstructed waterways and devastating floods.
“What we discovered along the banks of the river in Kibera, one of Kenya’s biggest informal settlements, was up to 80% of the waste along the riverbanks was actually comprised of textiles,” she says.
“There’s not very much regulation around the quality of clothing that ends up in those bales. Up to 50% of those bales can often be useless and discarded.”
And the journey for all those bales begins before you buy.
“When you’re giving stuff away, I want you to think of how many times you wore it,” Coughlin says. “If you didn’t wear it more than five times, you shouldn’t have purchased it.”
Says Cipriani: “To be a responsible consumer, you have to ask every time you can: What is the origin of this product? What is the real production study of this product? What are the emissions? What are the labor conditions? How did you tackle climate change?
“These are important questions, part of being an active citizen of the world of today.”
Sustainable fashion tips
There’s still a long way to go to help make sustainable fashion more accessible to everyone — that includes cost and size inclusivity — but there are options. Below are some tips for conscious consumption:
Buy used: Consignment and thrift stores are a great way to access high-quality pieces at low prices. By purchasing used, you are extending the life cycle of an item and preventing it from entering a landfill. Reseller websites can also provide an online option.
Upcycle: Breathe new life into your existing items through the practice of upcycling. By creatively reusing your clothing items, you can create pieces that are completely unique. There are many tutorials out there, all you have to do is Google it.
Swap: Get together with friends to host a style swap. Plan a day where a few friends each bring fashion items and then trade those items. There are also local groups that host public swaps, such as StyleSwapMIA.
Rent: There are now a number of options for clothing rental services. For many, you pay a monthly fee for a specific number of clothing items. Each service varies in convenience and style, but it is a great option for those who don’t find themselves re-wearing their clothing. Many of these services also offer options for you to buy a rental item if you want to keep it forever.
Buy less, better quality: When thinking about the cost of an item, consider how many times you will wear it. If the sticker price for a pair of jeans is $100, but you wear them 50 times, the effective cost per wear is $2. On the reverse end, a $10 pair of jeans that you only wear once has a cost per wear of $10. Higher quality items have a longer lifetime, which can be extended with repair and care.