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Clothes & Climate Change: How a Fashion Choice Change Could Lead to Better Air Quality

The cost of being cute is far more than the price tag on that piece of clothing you’ve had your eye on. There’s also an air pollution price to pay. 

In the United States, the number of garments purchased by Americans has tripled since the 1970s. Globally, more than 80 billion items of clothing are purchased each year – the majority of which will be thrown in the trash. 

All that waste adds up: The World Resources Institute estimates that the so-called “fast fashion” industry annually releases about 1.2 billion tons of carbon dioxide, a potent greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming. 

What is “Fast Fashion”

The term “fast fashion” refers to an approach to clothing design, creation, and marketing that emphasizes getting the newest trends from catwalks to consumers as quickly – and cheaply – as possible.

But the environmental toll is high: Experts estimate that the fast fashion industry is responsible for nearly 10 percent of annual global emissions. It is the second-largest consumer of the world’s water supply. And that’s to say nothing of the dyes and other chemicals used during the production of those clothes.

Fast Fashion’s Air Quality Impact by the Numbers

Not only has clothing production almost doubled in the last 20 years, but people are only keeping those items for half as long – creating a ton of waste.

How much waste? A staggering 85 percent of textiles go to the dump each year. In fact, the equivalent of one garbage truck of clothing is burned or dumped in a landfill every second. 

The Alliance for Sustainable Fashion said if the current trajectory continues, the industry’s share of annual carbon emissions will soar to 26 percent by 2050.

How YOU Can Make a Difference

The best way to combat fashion-related waste and pollution is to change your buying habits. Here are six ways you can reduce the carbon footprint of your clothing:

  1. Don’t be so quick to toss clothes out – if possible, mend or repair clothing instead of buying new. 

  2. To ensure your clothing lasts longer, be sure to launder on lower temperatures and line dry when you can.

  3. If you must buy new clothing, select garments that are well-made and avoid synthetic materials like polyester, which releases nearly three times more carbon emissions than cotton.

  4. Check out local thrift, vintage, and consignment shops for new-to-you clothes.

  5. Donate, donate, donate! There are a ton of places that accept gently used clothing. And if your clothes are beyond repair, don’t toss them out – even stained or ripped garments can be recycled. Known as textile recycling, these otherwise unwearable clothing items are collected and made into other products. Locally, the University of Pittsburgh now has a number of locations to collect textiles. You can read more about that on the Pitt Sustainability website. 

  6. Support companies that champion sustainability efforts. Before you make your next purchase, do some research: Does your favorite clothing company take sustainability seriously? If not, shop elsewhere.

Local Places to Donate, Shop

Whether you’re looking to buy something new to you, or donate something you can no longer use, there are many local resources. Here are a few to consider:

To learn more about clothes recycling opportunities, check out these organizations and programs:

Editor’s Note: Want to learn more about how fast fashion impacts our environment and how you can make a difference by changing your wardrobe choices? Then join us for our upcoming Making the Connection: Fast Fashion & the Environment event. The online event is slated from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. Aug. 4. Learn more and register here.

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