When a fan called Ginger Zee out for wearing the same pants three days in a row on Good Morning America recently, ABC News’ chief meteorologist wasted no time in touting the benefits of reusing clothes in an effort to reduce her carbon footprint.
“Reusing clothing is important to me in my personal life,” Zee wrote on Instagram alongside an image showcasing her recycled outfits. “Investing in fewer but higher quality pieces is one of the easiest ways to reduce your footprint. In my job I almost always rent or borrow, but there is nothing like reusing. I figured why not start doing it at work too!”
Zee took it a step further on Sunday, posting a photo collage of herself side-by-side with her colleagues in her blue pleather pants writing, “another way to extend the life of a quality item… share.”
Of course, Zee is far from the only celebrity known to rewear clothing.
Jane Fonda, Elizabeth Banks, Joaquin Phoenix, Kate Middleton and Angelina Jolie (whose daughter Zahara wore her famous mom’s 2014 Oscar dress for the Eternals premiere recently) have been known to rewear their outfits — something that’s way less common among celebs than regular folks — in efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, save landfill space and conserve vital energy.
But beyond recycling what’s in our closet and spending a little extra on clothes that last us years, rather than weeks, it turns out that other efforts — renting, borrowing and even being aware of how we wash our clothes — can also make a huge difference in limiting toxins that pollute the air, land and water, say experts.
Impacts on the environment
The fashion industry makes a sizable contribution to climate change. According to McKinsey’s latest research, fashion was responsible for nearly 2.1 billion metric tons of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in 2018 — about 4 percent of the global total. That’s the same amount of GHGs per year as France, Germany and the United Kingdom combined.
“If you were to produce one less garment because you’re renting or borrowing, you are going to save water, chemicals and waste that go into landfills,” Robert Vassolotti, professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology and sustainability advocate, tells Yahoo Life, noting that Americans are producing roughly 80 to 90 pounds of fashion waste “per person practically every year.”
To put things into perspective, it takes 2,600 gallons of water to produce just over two pounds of cotton. That’s nearly 800 gallons of water for one cotton shirt, as noted in a Princeton University article. To produce a single pair of denim jeans requires two pounds of cotton, or nearly 2,600 gallons of water, which accumulates to about 10 years’ worth of drinking water for one person, according to the United Nations. Not to mention, nearly 20 percent of the wastewater worldwide is attributed to toxic chemicals used to dye textiles.
While Vassolotti admits it’s difficult to convey the direct impacts a sole individual has on the environment when they recycle fashion, one thing is for sure: The responsibility of offsetting GHGs “can’t just be solely on the consumer.”
“People may be renting garments and we might be borrowing garments, but that doesn’t directly affect producers who are going to produce more,” Vassolotti says. “Fast fashion companies are still going to produce a lot of garments because they’re meeting last year’s unit sales and dollar sales. So the conundrum is that there’s a need to produce more, regardless of some of the [sustainability] talk that’s out there. The other thing that’s happening is the global population is growing leaps and bounds. I mean, we’re close to 7.9 billion people.”
As a hopeful sign, Vassolotti points to coalitions like the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, which now has dozens of manufacturers, retailers and brands that are trying to develop new models for designers to become more sustainable — including creating fabrics that can be easily recycled.
“If we’re going to make a garment, let’s make it the right way so it can be repurposed, so we can recycle it and we can reuse the materials,” he explains. For example, “If we made it out of 100 percent polyester, we can reuse that very easily without trying to break down 22 different threads and fabrics combined into one garment. So if we design it right, build it right, we can reuse it right.”
That’s not to say the growing movement of recycling fashion, as displayed by Zee, isn’t making a sizable difference. New research from Rent the Runway, an e-commerce platform where consumers can rent or buy designer apparel, estimates that its rental model has displaced the production of approximately 1.3 million new garments since 2010. That equates to an estimated savings of 67 million gallons of water, 98.6 million kWh of energy and 44.2 million pounds of CO2 emissions.
The company also reported that as of May 2021, two times more customers (nearly 30 percent) self-reported that they’re choosing to rent clothing for a more sustainable solution to fashion compared to just one year ago, indicating a clear shift in values in a post-pandemic world.
While President Joe Biden’s new target to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030 is a bit daunting to the average consumer, Vassolotti says that vendors, designers and other fashion professionals are among those who must rise to meet the needs.
“It’s up to the vendors to start saying, ‘Well, if [customers] are going to come in here, they’re going to buy something that is totally recyclable,” says Vassolotti, adding that vendors might also consider taking garments back from customers and “give them a discount” on their next purchase.
“Bring us three old garments and we’ll give you 20 percent off or something,” he suggests. “Conscious brands, conscious retailers, conscious manufacturers have to do more. We can’t just leave it to consumers to perform differently. We’re putting a lot of burden on consumers to say, ‘Oh, you gotta live an environmentally conscious life. Well, maybe people don’t want to thrift right now. Do I want a garment from somebody who may have had COVID? There can be a lot of stigma attached to used garments or rented garments.”
But for individual efforts, Carry Somers, founder and global operations director of U.K.-based Fashion Revolution, the world’s largest fashion activism movement, says that changing our washing and dry-cleaning habits is just as important.
“It makes a difference when we’re talking about 700,000 microfibers, a conservative estimate, which are in every mixed-fiber wash load,” says Somers. “We can do something about that in our choice of clothing and fibers. But we also need policies around washing machine filters.”
When we wash our clothes, microfibers can detach from our clothes — specifically in garments that have plastics (like polyester and acrylic), Somers notes. Because these fibers are so small, they often pass through filtration processes and make their way into our rivers and seas, compromising marine life and other components in our ecosystem.
One of the easiest things people can do to minimize microfibers from releasing is to simply wash clothing less often, says Somers. However, “lowering washing machine temperatures and using gentler washing settings” can make an impact, too.
Dawnn Karen, a fashion psychologist and author of Dress Your Best Life, adds that making this kind of lifestyle change requires a shift in the way we are attached to our clothing. “I’ve worked with clients who hoard fashion,” she tells Yahoo Life. “They’d never worn this outfit out but maybe one or two times because it reminds them of their grandmother or their mother. And so they collect all this clothing over the years and have problems with donating.”
But the idea of “dressing for others” may be shifting post-pandemic, Karen adds, and that may help. “People are just looking within. They’re dressing for themselves,” she says. “They’re creating this alignment between the internal and the external — or the attitude and their attire.”
That certainly holds true for Zee, who noted at the end of her Oct. 20 Instagram post: “Reminder: we do not have a wardrobe provided — it’s all up to us.”
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