It’s time to prioritize sustainable fashion

With the demise of brick and mortar stores, more folks are ordering online with the assurance that what they don’t like or doesn’t fit, they can easily return.

This has exploded into the habit of ordering several pairs of shoes, or bathing suits, or jackets, trying them all on and returning those that don’t work for a refund. A survey from Coresight Research found that 42.4% of consumers in the U.S. returned unwanted products from March 2020 to March 2021, and most of that was clothing. But here is the shocker. According to a recent article in the Atlantic Monthly, few of those returns will be sold again by that company. It is far too expensive to check clothes for cleanliness and damage and to sort and repackage those items. By one estimate, an online return costs a retailer $10 to $20 before the cost of shipping. This cost will then be passed on to us, the consumers.

Some of those returned goods are sold in bulk for resale to cheap outlets, some are shipped overseas and sold by the pound, but much is just thrown away. A big portion of that is clothing which clogs up the already overflowing landfills with surplus shoes, buttons, zippers, synthetic fabrics, leather and dyes. Synthetic clothing does not easily degrade but will instead piles up, mostly intact, in our landfills for years to come. On the other hand, the decomposition of non-synthetic clothing contributes to global emission of methane, a potent heat-trapping gas. Seventy-five percent of fashion supply chain material ends up in landfills, about one truck load of textiles per second. The massive transportation of goods to homes or stores, then back again to the online companies, then off again to the landfill, or overseas or to cheap outlets, puts a staggering number of trucks, planes and ships in action, consuming quantities of fuel and spewing pollutants into the air.

New technologies are slowly being introduced which will help the customer find a better fit and so return fewer clothes. This still begs the question: do we really need to buy new clothes every year just because some guru designer dictates it? Isn’t it time we stand up and say “no”? Isn’t it time we hang on to that perfectly good pair of pants, or shirt instead of junking it to chase after the latest fashion? How about we start wearing the clothes we like, not the ones we are told to like. Isn’t it time we apply good green practices to the clothing we choose? Don’t throw it out — wear it out.

The majority of Americans under 40 claim they would pay more to support businesses that aren’t hurting the environment. But, these same shoppers do the majority of online shopping. I think they do not realize what is happening.

Slow fashion is gaining a foothold because it is “thoughtful, intentional, and holistic.” In slow fashion, clothes are made from “found” fabrics in the form of old tablecloths, discarded dresses or curtains. These can be re-fashioned into contemporary clothing. Or, folks can combine second hand clothes into new combinations, thereby creating their own styles. I recently attended a Slow Fashion show at Bluseed Studios. Main Street Exchange owner Tori Vazquez, fabric artist Cris Winters, and dress designer Martha Jackson sent models down the runway displaying a delightful array of beautiful, eco-friendly outfits. It was deeply inspiring.

One way to join the slow fashion movement is to patronize yard sales and secondhand stores. And, if you haven’t been in a secondhand store recently, you’re in for a surprise. The stores now sell only clean clothes, often name brands, all sorted by size and type, and hung on clearly labeled racks. Combinations of clothing to create smart looking outfits are also on display to further inspire your imagination. Owners of these stores offer personal attention, standing ready to help you mix and match, and find complimentary accessories.

Up-cycling is another approach to sustainable fashion. Pull out that sewing basket (if you still have one) and try your hand at rescuing an old sweater or shirt that is ragged and full of holes. Those defects can be cleverly covered with beautiful brightly colored patches. Or maybe, rip apart old pants, dresses, and jackets. Remake them into clothing of your own unique design or use the services of seamstresses to do this. If you are lucky enough to have them in your town, they can repair, customize and alter old clothes to create a new look. Recycle, recycle, recycle.

If you cannot get what you want and must buy new, try visiting a local brick and mortar store. Some, like the Village Mercantile in Saranac Lake, spray and quarantine clothes that have been tried on, then put them back on the racks. Many other stores, however, have closed their fitting rooms due to COVID and their customers still buy several sizes, try them on at home and return the rest. If all else fails and you must go online for a particular piece of clothing, at least make sure you are buying from an environmentally conscience source.

We have come to understand that growing the economy by exploiting cheap overseas labor, as well as exacerbating climate change and pollution does not improve our quality of life but destroys it. Let’s cut back clothing consumption just as we do energy use. Do the planet a favor. The effort is worthwhile and, what’s more, can be a loads of fun.

Caperton Tissot is a writer who lives in Saranac Lake. A list of sources accompanies this commentary online.


“How Fast Fashion Is Destroying the Planet,” Tatiana Schlossberg, New York Times, Sept. 3, 2019

Pulse of the Fashion Industry, 2018 report

“Shuttered fitting rooms anger shoppers and boost returns. How these retailers are trying to fix that,” CNBC, July 6, 2021; updated July 12, 2021

“Unhappy Returns,” Amanda Mull, Atlantic Monthly, November 2021

“What Is Slow Fashion?” Audrey Stanton, The Good Trade Weekly Newsletter

Village Mercantile, Saranac Lake


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