Pretty in Green: How to Dress Sustainably

These are the real bargain racks. Gently used apparel is racked up at a recent clothing swap in Providence. (Joanna Detz/ecoRI News photos)

These are the real bargain racks. Gently used apparel is racked up at a recent clothing swap in Providence. (Joanna Detz/ecoRI News photos)

By CHRISTINE PEMBERTON/ecoRI News contributor

PROVIDENCE — A living room full of clothes, shoes and accessories, some friends, snacks and drinks. That’s what a recent clothing swap looked like. Every participant brought garments that were still in good shape, but that they didn’t wear anymore. A lottery determined who got to pick through the pile first.

Then, while enjoying some refreshments, everyone tried on “new” outfits, showed them off to the group and, if they so pleased, kept them — for free. The event turned out to be quite a success.

“My favorite part of the whole thing is the stories,” said Nova Quinn, who participates in a Fox Point neighborhood clothing swap. “Every time I wear these items, I think of the friends who donated them for one reason or another. I think of what great style they have, how beautiful they are, and how lucky I am to have a body type similar to theirs. Whenever I am complimented on a clothing item, I have the chance to tell others about the swaps too.”

A clothing swap is a great way to clean out and revamp your closet without hurting your wallet. It’s more comfortable than dragging yourself to the local mall, fighting through crowds of teenagers and squeezing into a tiny dressing room, all the while trying to escape the occasional overzealous sales employee. Getting the clothes for free, gives one the option to try out something they might not usually consider “their style.” It’s risk free; if it doesn’t work, just swap it again next time.

Frugal fun aside, however, there are some more serious reasons to give swaps a chance. As with anything, reusing or recycling items that are no longer wanted, reduces the amount of new product that needs to be made and hence saves resources. It also decreases the amount of stuff that eventually ends up buried in landfills.

When it comes to buying clothes, we tend to not think of them as environmental burdens on par with Styrofoam cups, plastic bags or Hummer limousines. But, perhaps, we should.

The American Apparel and Footwear Association reports that in 2012 Americans purchased, on average, 62 garments per person. That’s a one-year total of 1.9 billion pieces of clothing, and many of these items have or will end up in landfills. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), about 6 percent of total municipal solid waste is textiles.

In addition to adding to the world’s growing waste stream, clothing production can be a particularly dirty and wasteful process. In fact, textile dyeing and finishing is extremely chemically intensive, and the World Bank estimates that about 20 percent of global water pollution is produced by the textile industry.

For example, synthetic dyes often end up exiting production facilities, polluting rivers and other waterways. These leaked dyes cause coloration of rivers, obstructing the penetration of sunlight and consequently hinder photosynthesis by organisms in those ecosystems. This reduces the amount oxygen in the water, hurting marine life.

Because we want our clothes to stay vibrantly colored for a long time, dyes are designed to have a high stability to light, water, soaps and temperature, and resist biodegradation. This means that they often remain in the environment for a long time. The dye “Reactive Blue 19” for example, has a half-life — in water — of 46 years.

And it’s not just the processing of finished clothes or the production of petroleum-based synthetic fibers that damage the environment. Grown raw materials can also be damaging. Half of all clothing produced worldwide is made from cotton, and cotton is thirsty. According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), it can take more than 5,200 gallons of water to produce 1 kilogram of cotton, roughly the amount needed to make a single T-shirt and pair of jeans.

In addition, even though cotton uses only 2.4 percent of the total agricultural land in the world, it’s responsible for 11 percent of the world pesticide demand and 24 percent of the world insecticides demand.

So how can we apply the principle of “reuse” and “recycle” to the things we wear every day?

Clothes that are no longer wearable can be reused as rags for cleaning, or, if you are handy, turned into accessories or blankets, remade into new pieces or used to decorate other clothing. Pinterest — and the rest of the Internet — is full of creative ideas.

They also can be donated along with clothes that are still in good shape to organizations such as Goodwill, the Salvation Army or Big Brothers Big Sisters. Even though only donations in proper condition can be sold in thrift shops, donated items that are no longer wearable are made into cleaning cloth or recycled for use in applications such as furniture stuffing or insulation.

In fact, the Rhode Island Resource Recovery Cooperation encourages you to donate your old, torn or stained textiles, as long as they are clean, dry and odorless. A list of organizations that accept these items can be found online.

If the shoe fits ... it's yours.

If the shoe fits ... it's yours.

However, for the sake of full disclosure, it should be noted that about 45 percent of U.S. clothing donations — that is clothes that aren’t suitable for domestic retail stores but still “somewhat” wearable — end up sold overseas, mostly in sub-Saharan African markets.

While opinions about the impact of these western imports on those who eventually receive them vary greatly, some blame the cheap, used, western clothing flooding the markets for the demise of local textile industries and argue that they actually keep people in poverty, rather than help.

In any case, for the shopper who doesn’t want to contribute to the production of new clothes, thrift shops certainly are a sustainable and socially responsible option. Those who seek more high-end, used fashion might find what they desire at consignment stores like Second Time Around or Into the Wardrobe in Providence.

Clothing swaps are something else to add to the mix. There is no wondering about how your used clothes, now worn by your friends, might impact foreign economies, and going home with a number of “new” clothes yourself is likely to keep you from picking up more questionably produced bargains at the local mall. The money you save by not buying a large number of cheaply produced new items, might enable you to make a more responsible choice next time you do want or need something actually new.

There are several online — and some offline — retailers devoted to more humane and sustainable production practices, but naturally their pieces aren’t quite as budget friendly as the clothes at big-box stores or some of the clothing chains populating malls across the country.

So are you inspired to host your own clothing swap yet?

Liz Kay, clothing swap organizer, gets some input from another swapper, on her 'new' outfit.

Liz Kay, clothing swap organizer, gets some input from another swapper, on her 'new' outfit.

“I had attended several (clothing swaps) as a guest and loved the items I received,” says Liz Kay, organizer of the Fox Point neighborhood clothing swap. “I was motivated to host by a desire to get new clothes — or at least, items that are new to me. I like the idea of preventing items from ending up in landfills.”

Organizing a swap starts with e-mailing your friends and asking them to bring their gently used clothes, jewelry, purses, scarves and shoes, or even unopened beauty products. Tell them to spread the word. You should, however, try to remind your guests not to bring items that are no longer useable, because of, say, stains or broken zippers. These things make the swap less enjoyable and unnecessarily take up space, which can be a stressor for the organizer.

“The host's challenge is to provide a good way to display the clothes — we never have enough flat tables or racks — though we always have too many items and end up just pawing through bags,” Kay says.

If this is an issue for you, presenting the donations “batchwise” might be a solution. Once everyone is done sifting through the first display, have your guests help pack up the leftovers and lay out the next batch. To keep things in order, you can set up a lottery that determines in which order everyone goes through the offerings in each turn.

If possible, set up a private space with a full-length mirror for your guests to change, or suggest to them to wear a bathing suit if they are uncomfortable changing in front of others. Have some large garbage bags ready to bag extras that attendants can take to a charity of their choice on their way home. If every guest also brings along a snack or a drink to share, it’s a party.

No matter which way you choose to reduce your consumption of new clothes, it will save you money, and it helps the planet. Swapping is just one of many ways to be more sustainable in our fashion choices.