Every year during Diwali (the Hindu festival of lights), between gorging on pendas and celebrating the new year by decorating our home with lamps and lights, our family follows a ritual. We bring out items of clothing and plop on the cool floor of our living room. From there on, my three siblings, my parents and I begin the process of homegrown thrifting.
The house is filled with heaps of clothes that are eventually stacked and segregated. A pile of clothes that are to be traded between us sisters, a separate heap for those our bodies have grown out of but our help’s children would be happy to get, a stack for the orphanage, another cloth hill with tiny holes that will soon become scraps for cleaning the house. Mendable jeans and shorts are stuffed in a bag for the tailor to take a look at, and that accidental wrong-size purchase with tags on from 2 years ago? My cousins in Chennai might like the dress, my mother thinks out loud as she creates another pile. Unless absolutely necessary, nothing would end up in the wastebin.
Clothes have stories
Growing up, there was no shame in evaluating, reusing, and thrifting clothing. Giving our outfits another life was a nonchalant annual ritual and in some ways, even a part of the celebration. Now, as a 20-something, thrifting is more than that – it is a style statement and a brilliant budgetary choice. Earlier this year, as a Master’s student with limited funds, I went charity store-hopping with Julia (the co-founder of Eco-Spotlight), sealing our friendships over gorgeous gowns and funky coats forever. Now that I am back home in India, I hop over to the virtual thrift stores on Instagram every time I need something now.
I also raid my mother’s closet for floral shirts she no longer uses, my father’s comfy tees are now my go-to for working out or sleeping and I’m far more open to my sister borrowing my clothes (an eternal sibling dispute that we sometimes still struggle with). As my thrifting reputation catches on, my cousin P, an avid collector of all things fashion, sent over a bag full of dresses, gowns, T-shirts, shorts and more for me to choose from this year. These hand-me-downs look just as great, and some even have their tags on!
The need for new has diminished significantly as I find solace in the stories these textiles have to offer. The baby pink tshirt from ma’s closet is a little loose, but I adore it. I love owning something that has held stories of my mother’s youth, her growth and at one point, her affection. The idea of a loose button ending the life of something so precious is unsettling.
The environmental impact
As stated by Hasan Minhaj in his show Patriot Act (we highly recommend the fast fashion episode) , “The clothes in your suitcase are screwing up the planet more than the flight you put them on. So, despite being more polluting than aviation and maritime shipping combined, for a long time, the fashion industry has managed to hide its hazardous impact on the planet, behind the glamour and glitter. For starters:
- Clothing and textiles production release 1.2 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases every year, a number that is growing.
- Fashion production consists of 10% of humanity’s carbon emissions. It is also responsible for drying up water sources, and polluting rivers and streams.
- The equivalent of one garbage truck full of clothes is burned or dumped in a landfill every second.
- According to the United Nations, 10,000 litres of water are needed to make a single pair of jeans. That much water is enough for one person to drink eight cups per day for 10 years. The tree hugger has a helpful guide for how much water is used to produce other items of clothing.
- Not only that, textile dyeing is the world’s second-largest polluter of water, since the water leftover from the dyeing process is often dumped into different water bodies.
Despite the heartbreaking numbers, 85% of all of these produced textiles go to the dump each year. Not surprising, considering fast fashion brands have 52 fashion seasons every year now, instead of the usual 3 (fall, spring, summer). This means that what you bought last week is already out of fashion by now.
The human cost of your h&m tshirt
Whether it is Bangladeshi factories or Vietnam textile mills, the industry doesn’t even pay its workers a living wage. So despite being the largest employer of women globally, less than 2% of these women working in fast fashion manufacturing units earn a living wage, as reported by The Huffington Post. And despite tragic incidents like the 2013 Dhaka garment factory collapse at Rana Plaza, no real changes are in sight. The industry still is rampant with cases of sexual assault and labour exploitation.
So, what next?
Small changes in habits can make a huge difference. By buying second-hand you’ve already taken a step towards your sustainability journey. And if all were to buy even one second-hand item every year, it could save nearly 6 lbs of CO2 emissions.
Invest in quality – buy half as much as wear them for twice as long. There is a reason that controversial Missguided bikinis cost $1. They aren’t meant to last and are made to encourage throw-away culture. The idea is to keep the cycle of consumption going on and on, at the cost of the planet and the people. Break this by wearing your clothes for just nine months longer. That way, you can reduce the carbon footprint of that garment by 30 percent.
Investing in a tailor is another interesting way to wear and value your clothes. We often end up buying things online that look great on the screen but the fit or the size feels off on us. Or a perfectly good shirt is eventually discarded because of a broken button. Having your tailor fix the fit or the buttons goes a long way in your clothes having a longer life. Moreover, the clothes look so much better on you!
For special events, I now rent clothing and accessories. Think fancy dresses, chunky earrings and skirts that I would definitely only wear once or twice. Doing so is an especially good option for the wallet and as well the environment because of their infrequent use. India has options like Rewear and Date the ramp, USA has Rent the Runway, UK has HURR, South Africa has Style Rotate and more. Rental options are popping up across the globe.
Technology is your friend. Apps and websites now allow you to thrift as well as swap outfits and accessories. A simple google search with ‘thrift store’ + your city would be a good place to start. Other keywords to go with your city could be ‘sustainable fashion’, ‘apps for thrifting’ ‘slow fashion’.
Lastly, build a capsule wardrobe. The idea is editing your closet down to your favorite clothes , mix and match them regularly. In short, shopping less and buying more intentionally.
My grandmother is from an era before Black Fridays and Super sales existed. She knows nothing about sustainability. But somehow, she spoke to us about capsule closets before it was cool. “Buy two new pairs once the two old ones wear out.” “Do you really need so many?” she would chide wisely. This black friday, I’ll echo her sentiment and stay put. Because at the end of the day, the most environmentally friendly product is the one you didn’t buy.