How families can reduce clothing waste and help the environment

When Kara Livingston and Nicole Boynton were teenagers, they swapped clothes and shoes. Not only did this essentially double their wardrobe, but an even better benefit in their minds: Sharing clothing cut down on environmental waste.

“Our love for secondhand clothes opened Kara’s eyes to the world of injustices, environmental issues and overconsumption in the fashion industry,” said Boynton, who was quickly hooked by Livingston’s passion.

Now 35 and mothers, the two realized that parents were finding it too easy to buy inexpensive clothes for their quickly growing children, and it all piled up and created waste. They turned that realization into their mission and founded Hand Me Up, an online business selling children’s clothing capsules, collections of gently worn garments that can easily combine into outfits. The site accepts donations of hand-me-downs, and its blog offers tips for families to live more sustainably, including how to host a clothing swap.

The fashion industry’s environmental impact is massive, and the issue has been gaining attention in recent years. According to a report in Nature Reviews Earth & Environment, the industry produces 8 to 10 percent of global CO2 emissions. Technology cannot reliably turn unwanted apparel into fibers that could be used to make new goods, resulting in clothing clogging landfills or ending up in the ocean.

“We found ourselves wanting to teach our kids about why we don’t treat our clothes like they can be worn twice and thrown away,” Boynton said. “Our dream for Hand Me Up is to be a part of circular fashion, leaving behind very little to no textile waste for the next generation,” Livingston added.

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Dianna Kapp said her environmentally conscious children inspired her to write her book, Girls Who Green the World: 34 Rebel Women Out to Save the Planet. She wanted her children, and others, to be inspired by female environmental changemakers who were working to save the planet. While researching for her book, Kapp asked Annie Leonard, the head of Greenpeace USA, what to communicate to young people. Leonard’s simple advice: make sharing cool. “We keep clothing six months or less on average, shorter than it takes us to get through a bottle of ketchup,” Kapp said.

The impact of clothing waste is staggering. According to the Council for Textile Recycling, the average American throws away 70 pounds of clothing and other textiles annually. The EPA estimates that of the 17 million tons of textiles produced in 2018, only 2.5 tons were recycled. As a result, for every five garments produced, the equivalent of three end up in a landfill or incinerated each year. Synthetics like polyester, made from petroleum, are not biodegradable and shed minuscule plastic particles. The world’s largest floating island of plastic, three times the size of France, is made up of 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic, part of which contains these fibers that kill thousands of marine animals annually.

“Dropping all clothes at Goodwill isn’t as virtuous as you think,” Kapp said. According to the Council for Textile Recycling, 80 to 90 percent of donations to charities are sold to recyclers. “We ship a lot overseas, but more countries are saying no because we are ruining their economies by sending cheap garments that undersell anything made locally.”

The mantra many environmental activists follow is repair, revive, repurpose and declutter. This, experts say, is a great way to live to reduce clothing waste, especially in the case of children. Once a piece of clothing is outgrown or worn out, parents can gift, swap, sell or repair it.

When thredUP, one of the largest online resale platforms, launched in 2009, one of the goals was to remove the stigma associated with thrifted clothes and inspire a new generation of consumers to think secondhand first. Now, after processing more than 137 million items, their Resale Report projects that the U.S. secondhand market is expected to more than double by 2026, reaching $82 billion.

Trading apps like Kidizen, a marketplace for buying and selling children’s clothing, also help parents live more sustainably. Hand Me Up (size 0-6) and Upchoose (size 0-3) charge a monthly subscription fee to swap outgrown clothing for the next size. Jackalo focuses on making more durable children’s wear and offers discounts for used clothes returned in their “TradeUp” program, a formula other clothing manufacturers are adopting. And shops like Kid-2-Kid, a traditional storefront, buy back first-rate secondhand items, which they resell.

Environmental advocate Verena Polowy created My Green Closet, a YouTube channel, blog and community to promote capsule wardrobes — a handful of interchangeable clothing essentials that should help consumers avoid impulse buying and change buying habits. “Families don’t wear over 80 percent of their clothing,” Polowy said. She offers tips on her website, using her family’s capsules as examples.

Faith Roberson, founder of Organize By Faith, thinks the best path to environmentally friendly living is reducing consumption. She coaches her clients to especially not overlook their children’s closets. “It’s important that parents get in the habit of decluttering before purchasing if we want to change our behavior regarding how much we buy,” Roberson said. “Parents usually buy stuff for children at the start of the school season and during the holidays, so it’s really important to clean out closets around those times.”

Polowy suggests that parents have more conversations about how mending can be fun and fulfilling. “Upcycling is challenging because of the availability of cheap alternatives. There’s an attitude of, ‘Why would I spend time and energy mending or sewing when I can buy a new one for $5?’ ” But, she said, “I love seeing cute or stylish mending and upcycling tutorials on social media, and the more accessible ideas there are, the more people will be encouraged to pick up a needle and thread.”

The idea of recycling clothes might be catching on. Online groups like the Buy Nothing Project and Freecycle have millions of members who swap items including children’s clothes at no cost to people in their communities.

Livingston and Boynton get excited when they talk about reducing clothing waste. “We’ve learned that if our families can make these changes, the entire globe can,” Boynton said.

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