Saving the world starts at home: the clothing problem

Excerpt from my Environmental Concepts in Public Health class assignment.

By Allison Steedle, MPH student at the University of Florida 

When shopping for clothing for my growing kids (ages 4 and 9 months), Target seems to be the jackpot for inexpensive, cute clothing. I recently bought several spring shirts for my daughter, $5 a piece. It’s hard to resist! My mother-in-law loves a good deal at Kohl’s- she bought my daughter St. Patrick’s Day shamrock leggings for less than $3 and said, “Maybe she can wear them once and you can get rid of them.” These recent experiences made me think about how disposable clothes are nowadays. They’re more cheaply made than ever, and we don’t really value them anymore. 

Unfortunately, when we feel like we’re getting a good deal, it’s exactly what companies want us to feel. It’s a dopamine hit that encourages us to keep hunting. Online shopping makes it even easier because there are two highs you get: one when you hit the purchase button, then when you receive the package at your doorstep. I know this feeling well. 

Buying clothing often has consequences we just don’t think about. Americans throw away 34 billion pounds of used textiles every year, and 85% of clothes that are thrown away end up in a landfill or are burned, contributing to land and air pollution. Individuals are not the only ones to blame. In fact, clothing manufacturers and retailers contribute huge amounts of waste amid our country’s “fast fashion” concept, where clothing styles change rapidly according to seasons and trends. Manufacturers overproduce clothing, contributing to around 30% of stock never being sold. In some cases, in order to “protect exclusivity,” some brands destroy unsold clothing. 

How can we stop the bleeding? That’s where the “refuse” comes in after the saying, “recycle, reduce, reuse.” Opting not to buy new clothing, or only buying what you need in the first place, is an efficient and effective way to cut down on clothing waste. Since we can’t refuse to ever buy clothes again, there are some great alternatives out there

Orlando is a treasure trove of vintage and second-hand stores. For adults, vintage stores like Etoile Boutique, The Lovely, and The Owl’s Attic have high-quality, curated pieces at reasonable prices. These shops also work with local makers to sell accessories, and home and body products. If vintage is not your thing, the Chic Boutique in Audubon Park sells high-end modern clothing at a great price. In fact, I bought a black Lululemon sweater there five years ago and still wear it almost every day in the cooler months. Out of the Closet has great second-hand options and purchases go to a good cause. For children’s clothing, Once Upon a Child has several locations and has never let me down (except maybe in the shoe department) when outfitting my ever-growing children. 

(Scenes from Once Upon a Child)

The internet is also an incredible resource for high-quality used clothing. Many high-end, sustainable children’s brands sell through the website Kidizen, with reasonable and negotiable prices. Many brands that are environment-conscious have sub-websites for pre-owned items like REI and Patagonia Worn Wear. There’s also Poshmark and thredUP, two of the largest online second-hand shops, but I haven’t gone too far down these rabbit holes just yet.

Our local community is another resource, especially for children’s clothing. Parents are constantly looking to pass down used clothing to other parents. Parent groups and garage sales are great ways to meet others and swap items. I’ve straight-up asked other parents for hand-me-downs and most are more than excited to donate their child’s outgrown clothes. Apps like Facebook Marketplace and OfferUp can connect you with others in the community. I use Facebook Marketplace as a way to find new homes for items I want to donate.

Donating clothing to Goodwill, Salvation Army, or your friends is one thing, but what about the underwear, bras, smelly athletic gear, and damaged clothing? There are companies who will recycle your clothing. The company For Days will send you a Take Back Bag ($20): you fill the bag, mail it back, and they will recycle your clothing for you. The City of Orlando also has a recurring textile recycling event.

If you’re serious about ending the spending cycle on new clothes, look into a “capsule wardrobe.” The goal is to have a minimal amount of clothing (around 33-37 pieces per season) that you really love and can mix and match. It’s a neat goal to work toward.

In short, buy high-quality clothes you really like, and buy the right size. Consider second-hand. Forget about what you think you’ll wear and stick with the basics. Find a home for clothes you don’t love. 

Can one person make a difference? It’s an answer we may never know, but isn’t it worth a try? And by setting this example, others may follow your lead. Being more mindful about clothing purchases is just the beginning of some small changes you can make at home to make a difference outside of it. 

Here are some practical steps I’m taking to combat the disposable clothing problem:

  • Ask other parents for hand-me-downs. 
  • Find good homes for my and my kids’ hand-me-downs. 
  • Opt for Target Drive-Up to avoid mindless browsing.
  • Wear the clothing I have and love.  
  • Fix/mend clothing when needed. 
  • Shop second-hand for kids either online or at Once Upon a Child. 
  • Shop second-hand for myself first, or buy high-quality staples when needed.
  • Normalize and model shopping second-hand for my kids.

Further reading: 

Carver, C. (2022, November 1). How to create a capsule wardrobe that lasts. Be More with Less. Retrieved March 20, 2023, from 

Portela, V. (2022, September 14). The fashion industry waste is drastically contributing to climate change. CALPIRG. Retrieved March 20, 2023, from 

Rauturier, S. (2022, April 21). Why do some fashion burn unsold clothes? Good On You. Retrieved March 20, 2023, from 

Semuels, Alana. (2019). America’s Dopamine Fueled Shopping Addiction. The Atlantic. Retrieved March 20, 2023, from America’s Dopamine-Fueled Shopping Addiction 

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