I’ve always been the type of person who wears clothes past the point of no return. Once at that point, there’s no more mending or fixing that will make the item usable again, so I don’t feel comfortable donating to my local charity thrift shop knowing that nobody will be able to easily transform my threadbare coat (or, let’s face it, my underwear that’s hanging on by a hope) into something serviceable. Just throwing clothes in the trash seems like an environmental nightmare, but maybe I’m wrong.
What is the best way to dispose of ratty clothing while being as climate-conscious as possible?
Side question: When will my child need to grow gills?
– Carrie in San Diego
Oh, the joys of ratty clothing! When I started working from home full-time in March because of you-know-what, I immediately abandoned my crisp professional pants and confining jeans in favor of a rotation of Day Soft Pants and Night Soft Pants. Now in their third month of intensive service, the pants are sprouting a few holes, but they’re cozier than ever.
And comfort isn’t the only advantage of ratty clothing. It turns out that wearing clothes into the ground is a good move for the climate, too. In other words, by continuing to use your clothes as long as possible, you’re already doing quite well. Green star for you!
In American culture, we’re often concerned about the environmental harms of products that have reached the end of their life cycles. We worry about landfill space and litter. But when it comes to climate change, the true “environmental nightmare,” to borrow your words, actually begins long before that.
The problem with focusing on the landfill
Consider a simple cotton T-shirt. Creating that shirt starts in a field of cotton, where a farmer is probably burning fossil fuel to operate farm equipment and applying fertilizers that release planet-heating nitrous oxide. Then the cotton is transported to a factory, where it’s made into fabric, dyed, cut, and finished. The energy to run that factory is likely produced by burning fossil fuels, especially if the T-shirt, like many clothing items, is manufactured in China, India, or Bangladesh. In those countries, the electricity mixes are heavily dependent on coal and natural gas. All told, the fashion industry produces nearly 7% of global carbon pollution each year, according to a life-cycle assessment by Quantis, a Swiss consulting firm.
That’s a staggering figure when you consider that aviation – at least in pre-pandemic times – was responsible for only about 2% of the world’s annual carbon pollution.
The fashion industry could cut its pollution substantially by improving energy efficiency and converting its factories to renewable energy, Quantis found.
But as things stand, the rise of fast fashion – in which clothing is discarded after only a few wears – has dire implications for the climate. That’s why Washington Post fashion critic Robin Givhan suggests that climate-conscious fashion consumers ought to purchase fewer clothes: “The best white shirt – the perfect shirt – is the one that a shopper buys and wears for years,” she writes.
But what should you do if your clothes truly are no longer wearable?
Don’t dump your rags on the thrift store
Carrie, you’re correct that donating threadbare duds to the thrift store is not a great move.
“A lot of thrift stores are overrun with clothes,” says Jennifer Hill, executive director of Circular Triangle, a Durham, North Carolina, organization that works with communities to eliminate waste. When thrift stores can’t sell everything that’s donated, some of it winds up in the landfill, she says.
So Hill says that when available, take-back programs can be a better bet. Clothing purchased from a number of brands such as Patagonia and H&M can be returned to those companies when it’s no longer usable.
Another option is to donate your old clothes to a business or nonprofit that repurposes them, Hill says. For example, volunteers with Boomerang Bags turn raggedy clothes into shopping bags.
If you have any crafting skills, you could also consider turning your old T-shirts into cloth face masks or other useful items. If not, others in your community may appreciate free materials. Groups such as Buy Nothing and Freecycle will help you connect with people who might be eager to accept your discards.
Individuals can’t solve the problem alone
I want to acknowledge here that all of these suggestions require labor. Researching brands in order to determine which companies accept take-backs, seeking out nonprofits or businesses in your community that repurpose old clothing, finding and joining a Freecycle group, crafting new products at home – all of those options require more effort than simply ditching clothes in the trash can.
It’s difficult, Hill points out, for individuals to fix the global waste problem on their own. That’s why she and many others are working to create what’s known as the “circular economy,” with an aim to eliminate waste and to reuse materials rather than disposing of them.
Under a circular economy, waste and pollution would be designed out of the system from the beginning. For example, instead of making consumers responsible for product packaging, companies would deliver goods in durable containers that would be picked up and used again, Hill explains.
Such a system would also make it easier to extend the lives of products. Many people don’t know how to repair products or materials themselves, so proponents of the circular economy advocate creating repair and refurbishment centers where goods can be fixed.
And when products cannot be repurposed anymore, Hill says, they could be used to regenerate nature. For example, several brands are now selling biodegradable jeans that can be composted at the end of their lives. (But before you spend extra money on jeans marketed as “compostable,” know that any clothes made from natural materials will break down in a compost heap.)
As for your side question, which I’m assuming is a reference to sea-level rise: Your kiddo won’t need to evolve the ability to breathe underwater anytime soon, but you might want to discourage your offspring from investing in waterfront property.
Got a question about climate change? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org. Questions may be edited for length and clarity.
Tom Toro is a cartoonist and writer who has published over 200 cartoons in The New Yorker since 2010.
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