Throughout my life, most people have not regarded me as fashionable. To me, fashion has always been about more than runways and trends that go in and out faster than your wallet can keep up. I’ve always thought of fashion as a way to express myself, whether that makes me cool or uncool, or somewhere in the middle. And express myself I did… When I was nearly three years old I was a flower girl in my aunt and uncle’s wedding. I was so obsessed with my soft, twirly dress that I refused to wear anything else for a full year. When my mom insisted on washing the white dress, I would sit in my undies in the laundry room, waiting for the wash cycle to be complete so I could put it on again. Now that’s commitment.
My second stroke of fashion genius happened in the first grade, when I wanted to be Laura Ingalls Wilder. Dressing like her was an obvious choice. Since Limited Too didn’t stock any pinafores, I had my mom make me an old fashioned “Little House on the Prairie” dress. I wore that dress every single day in hopes that it would transport me back to Little House in the Big Woods circa 1873. Unfortunately, I stayed in Little House in the Suburbs circa 1996.
Yes, fashion and I have had many good chapters throughout the years. I once rocked pink, sparkly framed glasses with transition lenses. Whenever I came back inside from an outdoor experiment in my eighth-grade science class, it would take a full twenty minutes for me to stop looking like Ray Charles. During my horse-girl phase, I was committed to wearing shirts with tacky horse pictures plastered on them, such as a herd of wild mustangs thundering across my chest. How majestic. I once owned an old-fashioned mob cap bonnet that I got during a field trip to Colonial Williamsburg. I imagine my mom succumbed to my pleas and bought me this cap thinking I would wear it for dress up, but I had other ideas. Despite my mother’s gentle urgings to not wear my bonnet out in public, I wore it to Mrs. Greenmun’s fourth grade class and managed to scrape by with only some mild teasing. No one ever said being fashionable would be easy. I was even on a soccer team in which we decided to name ourselves the “Fashion Police”. It’s no surprise we only received participation trophies that year.
Today my favorite article of clothing is a pair of blue and white striped “Tough Stuff” overalls that I found in a forgotten dress-up bin at the environmental education center where I used to work. When I am in Portland I get a lot of compliments on these overalls. When I am anywhere else I get a lot of train conductor jokes. The overalls make me happy, so I am willing to accept the occasional person yelling “choo choo!” at me. Maybe that’s what fashion is all about- wearing what makes you feel the most like the unique and complex person that you are. I want to express myself through my pinafores, horse shirts, and overalls, but I have no interest in doing so at the cost of the environment.
It is impossible to ignore the enormous ecological impact of the fashion industry. When we purchase a new article of clothing, we must look beyond the price tag to see the true cost of what we are buying. We must open our eyes to the impacts of growing and creating clothing materials, manufacturing textiles, shipping, and waste. Cotton is the most common natural fiber used in clothing and is one of the thirstiest of crops. According to National Geographic, it takes around 713 gallons of water to produce one cotton t-shirt, which is the same amount of water a person drinks in two and a half years. The water footprint of a pair of cotton blue jeans is around 2,108 gallons of water. I wonder what the water footprint of a pioneer girl bonnet is… Although cotton only occupies about 2.5% of the world’s arable land, its negative environmental impact is much larger. The global cotton crop accounts for 24% of insecticide sales and 11% of pesticide sales. While synthetic fibers indeed are less water, pesticide, and insecticide intensive, polyester production for textiles is extremely carbon demanding (emitting about the same amount of greenhouse gasses as 185 coal-fired power plants annually!).
Consider the resources used in producing your clothing. Consider the energy used to run the textile manufacturing plants. Consider the environmental cost of transporting clothes half-way around the world. Consider what you can do to make a difference. You don’t have to give up your horse shirts and overalls. There are countless options for making smarter shopping choices. One alternative that can improve your environmental footprint, your conscience, your closet, and your finances is to buy second-hand clothing. All of the resources that go into a pre-owned piece of clothing have already been used, and almost no new resources will be consumed when you acquire this new item (aside from transportation). Second-hand shopping used to mean braving the local Goodwill once a year to search for the perfect Halloween costume. Those days are coming to an end. My generation has a refreshing new take on pre-owned clothing, and I am more than happy to jump on board (no “all aboard” train conductor jokes please).
There are multiple online spaces for people to buy and sell used clothing. Poshmark and Thredup have some of the most impressive inventory and are my favorite websites to shop. I discovered the magic of Poshmark this summer when I wanted a new skirt, but wanted to buy it used. In less time than it takes me to drive to a store, I typed “Madewell skirts” into the search bar, scrolled through pages and pages of options, and bought a skirt that was originally $90 for only $15. A helpful tip is to know your size in the brand you are looking for so you can ensure you purchase the correct size. I am consistently amazed by the variety of clothing and accessories options, and by the professionalism and trustworthiness of these pre-owned clothing websites. Let’s drop our stigmas about used clothing. Just because a stranger has worn a shirt before you, does not make it dirty and does not make you poor. Buying second-hand makes you environmentally, socially, and financially responsible.
I walked into a Nordstrom Rack the other day and was immediately lost in a maze of clothing racks overly squished with thousands of items. My mind buzzed with speculations of how large an environmental impact this single store in this single city in this single country had. I rushed out of the store, empty-handed but with a full heart of determination to make the simple, sustainable choice to buy pre-owned. Be fashionable. Express yourself. Treat yourself. But look beyond the price tag and try buying your next article of clothing pre-owned.