a woman shopping for jeans

How Clothing Choices Affect the Environment

Nan Fornal
This content originally appeared on 

Back in the late 1960s, fashion took a crazy turn. With the invention of the paper dress, clothing was suddenly disposable.

Catching the attention of everyone from tweens to designers of high fashion--including, sad to say, yours truly--throwaway duds were made to be worn a couple of times and then tossed in the trash. The fad, a symptom of the wastefulness of the age, didn't last long.

Around the same time, the modern environmental movement was born. Rachel Carson's 1962 book, Silent Spring, focused attention on the pesticide DDT. By 1970, the Environmental Protection Agency came along, and the government banned the use of DDT in 1972. Earth Day and Greenpeace soon followed, and the end of the decade saw the dawning of recycling programs across the country.

Environmental Problems with Clothing

Despite these advances, the recycling of clothing and other textiles has lagged. Some 17 million tons of textiles entered municipal waste streams in 2018, with more than 11 million tons of that total ending up in landfills, according to EPA estimates.

It can take up to 200 years for textiles to decompose in a landfill. This process releases methane into the atmosphere and toxic chemicals into the soil and water.

Clothing presents environmental dangers long before clothing ends up in a landfill. Our taste for new fashions has grown in the last 20 years, helped by cheap prices and throwaway culture. Even natural fibers take a toll, according to the World Resources Institute: From planting to finished product, the making of one cotton shirt requires some 2,700 liters of water, not to mention pesticides.

How to Make More Eco-Friendly Clothing Decisions

Don't forget about consignment stores and thrift shops, where you can often find designer duds for a fraction of their original prices. And--especially if you're replacing outgrown children's clothing--consider getting together with other parents for an old-fashioned clothing swap.

Writing about clothing waste for the recycling company RoadRunner, Shelby Bell offers the following tips:

Donate Your Clothing

Many charitable organizations including Goodwill and Salvation Army accept gently used clothing and recycle items they can't sell.

Clothing Rental

Women can take a hint from men, who've been renting formal wear for years. Rather than buying an outfit you may wear only once to a special occasion, check out clothing rental. Rent the Runway and other companies offer the latest fashions for a fraction of the cost of buying designer clothing.

Click to See Our Sources

"The apparel industry's environmental impact in 6 graphics" by Deborah Drew and Genevieve Yehounme, www.WorldResourcesInstitute.org, 7/5/17

"A brief history of environmentalism," www.TheGreenMedium.com

"The environmental crisis caused by clothing waste" by Shelby Bell, www.RoadRunnerWM.com, 12/17/19

"Facts and figures about materials, waste and recycling: Textiles--material-specific date," Environmental Protection Agency, www.EPA.gov

"Paper dresses: A brief 1966 fashion fad," www.GroovyHistory.com, 9/6/18