Fashion is a dirty industry — literally. It pollutes our water supply, encourages overconsumption, and exploits the women and children who work in factories. Overall, it demands an unending supply of finite resources and produces huge amounts of waste.

But fashion is also a means of artistic expression. There’s something fun and exciting about taking a risk and using apparel to articulate your personal style.

So how do you match a love for clothing with a love for our planet? With slow fashion, you can express your viewpoint while still promoting sustainable practices that look after the Earth.

Photo by Janelle Duff

Fashion and the environment

It’s no secret that the fashion industry takes a toll on the environment. Take cotton. Although it’s a textile used in many clothing items, it’s also the most pesticide-intensive crop in the world, and its production seriously degrades soil quality. What’s more, it’s also an extremely thirsty crop. It takes about 20,000 liters of water to produce just one kilogram (roughly 2.2 pounds) of cotton —  the equivalent of just one T-shirt and one pair of jeans.

“Alternative” synthetic fabrics, like polyester, also wreak havoc on our planet. Both coal and petroleum are key ingredients in polyester, and its production requires massive amounts of energy. And, because polyester fibers aren’t natural, they don’t break down. This means that items made from polyester sit in our landfills for hundreds of years.

Photo by Janko Ferlic

But it’s unfair to assign all the blame to farmers and lab technicians. Make no mistake — consumer demand has risen sharply since 2000, and many brands are not only instigating such trends; they’re supporting them. Although there are traditionally two primary seasons per year in the fashion industry (spring/summer and fall/winter), many fast-fashion companies create clothing and churn through inventory at an alarming rate. In fact, brands often unveil new collections every week, so it’s not uncommon for stores to have more than 50 micro-seasons per year.

And, of course, every clothing item has a lifespan. Since fast fashion pieces aren’t very durable, they don’t survive lots of wear or a high number of washes — which encourages consumers to throw them away and replace them more often. Unfortunately, about 85 percent of all textiles in the United States end up in landfills, and the average American throws away 70 pounds of clothing every year. Consumers still have lots of room for improvement.

Photo by Igor Ovsyannykov

Slow fashion and the environment

Slow fashion encourages sustainable practices, as well as ethical working conditions. The antithesis of fast fashion, it focuses on quality and longevity while standing up for both nature and people.

A growing number of farmers and organizations support the slow-fashion movement. One such example is the Better Cotton Initiative, which outlines principles and methods for sustainable cultivation. But there are many other organizations that provide resources and information to today’s farmers as well.

Consumers often feel powerless to bring about change in the fashion industry, but we can make a difference through our collective efforts. Start by recognizing your own purchasing power. By choosing brands that are committed to slow fashion and boycotting (or at least avoiding) labels that perpetuate fast fashion, you’re taking a stand and igniting change.

Photo by Victoria Bilsborough

Next, purchase only the clothing items that you will wear often. A few years ago, slow-fashion pioneer Livia Firth introduced the 30 Wear Movement, which encourages consumers to buy items that they’ll wear 30 times or more. So, before making your next purchase, conjure up a mental image of your closet and try to pair the clothing item in your hand with the pieces that you already own. Then take a look at the item’s quality and ask yourself how many washes it can reasonably survive.

Additionally, when you need to purge your closet of unwanted items, sort them by quality. Sell your high-quality items online or at a secondhand clothing store, or host a clothing swap or garage sale. Take your good-quality items to thrift stores, and recycle your low-quality items at drop-off locations or through in-store recycling programs. Whatever you do, don’t throw your clothes away!

Photo by Isabelle Pfluger
Photo by Allison Karaba

Slow-fashion brands and ambassadors

Fast fashion trades sustainability, clothing quality, and fair working conditions for a low price tag. Although slow-fashion brands typically sell their items at higher price points, that price reflects the quality of the item, the factory that it was made in, and the farm that the textile’s crops came from. This not only combats waste within the industry, but it allows consumers to wear their clothes with peace of mind, knowing that these items are well made and have longer lifespans.

Brands committed to slow fashion include People Tree, Everlane, Patagonia, Stella McCartney, Thought, Girlfriend Collective, Threads 4 Thought, Encircled, Christy Dawn, KNOWN SUPPLY, and Indigenous (among many, many others). Each company has a unique slow-fashion solution, whether that’s visiting factories regularly, sourcing organic cotton and recycled polyester, upcycling fabric and scraps discarded by other brands, or maintaining personal relationships between CEOs and seamstresses.

Whenever possible, avoid making purchases from fast-fashion companies. Many slow-fashion advocates have blacklisted these brands for constantly churning out new clothing and encouraging mass consumerism.

Photo by Charles Etoroma

If you need more slow-fashion inspiration, look at the example set by celebrities like Livia Firth and Emma Watson, as well as influencers like Kristen Leo and Kathleen from @consciousnchic. Or check out “The True Cost,” a documentary available on Netflix, Amazon Prime, and YouTube — it’s a seminal resource for slow-fashion advocates.

We love our planet, we love people, and we don’t want to demonize the fashion industry. Help us make the world a better place by committing to follow slow-fashion principles in your own life.

Header image by Bruno Nascimento

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Whitney Brown
Whitney Brown is a recent journalism graduate and travel writer based in Utah. She has lived in France and Ireland, and she's always planning her next big adventure. In addition to her passion for travel, Whitney loves archaeology, photography and floral design.