Sustainability has become one of those buzzy terms in recent years that’s thrown around so often that it can start to feel meaningless—and in the complicated and often opaque world of fashion, it can be difficult to know where to begin.
But it’s true that clothing production has a huge environmental impact: 1.2 billion tons of greenhouse gas emissions are produced annually by the industry, and the question of how to recycle blended fabrics and synthetic textiles remains largely unanswered.
Reports have shown that a majority of consumers want a more sustainable fashion industry—especially Gen Z and millennials. But many just don’t know how to go about it, according to a survey by ThredUp, the world’s largest clothing resale website.
To help environmentally conscious consumers navigate the fashion industry, ThredUp has launched a Fashion Footprint Calculator that estimates the carbon impact of an individual’s wardrobe. Questions range from how many items of clothing a person buys in a year and whether they buy mostly online or in-store, to whether they air dry or machine dry their clothes and how often they make clothing repairs.
While the quiz certainly encourages secondhand clothing purchases as the most impactful action a consumer can take to lower their footprint, ThredUp’s vp of integrated marketing Erin Wallace hopes it will have a broader impact.
Sustainability includes the ‘world around your wardrobe’
According to a survey of American women commissioned by ThredUp, two-thirds of respondents said they didn’t know how to be a more sustainable clothing consumer, despite wanting to be. Those results were “super surprising for all of us,” Wallace said, and led the resale-as-a-service brand to develop the calculator to help consumers “quantify the impact of their behaviors.”
It’s not just about what you buy, Wallace explained, it’s also about “your world around your wardrobe”—how you take care of and dispose of clothing.
At the end of a short quiz, the calculator shows the estimated amount of carbon produced each year by their fashion habits, and equates it to a number of flights from Los Angeles to New York. It also tells the user how their habits measure up to the average consumer.
The user is then prompted to browse different tips for lowering their footprint by shifting their fashion habits to more sustainable options. For example: Have a special occasion coming up? Why not rent rather than buy?
ThredUp’s online resale platform receives over 100,000 items of clothing per day, processing and pricing each of those items in less than a second through machine-learning algorithms.
Sometime this year, ThredUp expects to upcycle its 100 millionth item, at which point it will have displaced 870,000 tons of carbon dioxide and $7.5 billion in total retail value, according to the brand.
Tackling the waste of the fashion industry
While a booming resale business may indicate a shift in consumer preferences, it doesn’t get to the heart of the fashion industry’s waste problem, according to Kate Fletcher, professor of sustainability, design and fashion at the Centre for Sustainable Fashion at the University of the Arts London.
“Resale is great,” Fletcher said, “but we need to make sure we understand that that isn’t [in] any way a fix for the overproduction and overconsumption that is the standard in the industry as a whole.”
The Fashion Footprint Calculator is a good idea “in principle,” she added, but the underlying issue is “the fundamental growth logic” that’s creating more waste than we can handle with no plan to slow down.
Recycling is another solution that the fashion industry points to: Even fast fashion retailers like H&M offer a 15% discount if customers bring in old clothes to drop in their recycling bins. ThredUp, too, encourages customers to clean out their closets and send the resale platform everything they don’t want, with ThredUp taking on the task of sorting through what’s worth selling and what goes on to be recycled.
But, according to Fletcher, recycling low quality textiles is nearly impossible with our current infrastructure, describing it as a “sector that suffers from underinvestment.” The technology hasn’t changed much in the last 200 years, she said, which means the best hope for low quality clothing is being turned into bags or cheap yarn.
Fletcher sees this recycling push as “an attempt to retroactively mop up this waste” rather than address the causes of an unsustainable, overproducing industry.
By educating consumers who increasingly care about the sustainability of the products they’re investing in, Wallace hopes that preferences can lead to a transformation of the industry. “The understanding that there needs to be sustainability as part of the larger traditional retail story is becoming crystal clear,” she said. “But what’s not crystal clear yet is it has to be there from Day One.”
Producers need to start thinking about the “end of life of their garments at the point of creation,” Wallace advised. In 2018, she publicly criticized Burberry for burning $37.8 million in product to prevent it from going into the resale market. And while that’s maybe only a sliver of the industry, the idea that any garment goes into an incinerator or landfill should be unacceptable to creators.
For consumers, Wallace encourages people to start with the “little behaviors” that the Fashion Footprint Calculator identifies: buying secondhand, air-drying clothes rather than using the dryer, using cold water rather than hot and choosing standard shipping when shopping online. Maybe that way, we can get a little closer to an industry that’s truly sustainable.