Making Ethical, Sustainable Clothing Choices : Life Kit Fast fashion takes a toll on the environment and on workers. Here's how you can shop more sustainably and build a closet with a better impact.

Making Ethical, Sustainable Clothing Choices

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What's as American as apple pie? Blue jeans. And the way they fit, how you wear them, what you pair them with - they're all uniquely you. But the journey in the life of those jeans before and after they're on your body is a trip repeated billions of times each year. This is NPR's LIFE KIT, and I'm Elise Hu. The lifespan of a pair of jeans repeats billions of times because some 5 to 6 billion pairs are manufactured in the world each year.

ELIZABETH CLINE: And honestly, I think that that estimate is probably a little bit low.

HU: Author Elizabeth Cline, who writes books about the fashion industry and its labor practices, weaves us through.

CLINE: They start out as cotton on a cotton farm. They eventually get spun into fibers, sewn into clothing. And then they end up in a retailer.

HU: Then we order the jeans online from, say, the Gap or Madewell, a place that sells jeans. That pair of jeans comes home to our closets. But...

CLINE: They end up eventually moving on to waste.

HU: Wait. What if I drop these jeans off in a donation bin at a resale shop like Goodwill first?

CLINE: So of the clothes that we donate to charity, it's estimated that about 15 to 20% are sold in the thrift store where we donate them. And then the rest is packed up, baled up and enters the global secondhand economy.

HU: The jeans could then go anywhere in the world. But recycling solutions for clothing just aren't very advanced right now.

CLINE: So only 1% of all clothing is ever recycled back into new clothing.

HU: One percent at most.

CLINE: That means that ultimately any item of clothing that you get rid of is going to end up in the landfill because the technological solutions just really aren't at scale yet to do something different with it.

HU: The costs are huge to the environment and the people making clothes. That single pair of jeans took an estimated 1,800 gallons of water to produce. And you probably know this. But to make so many jeans so quickly and affordably, factory workers are often underpaid and unsafe. We're not here to say, hey, stop shopping. But there are ways to shop smarter and to curate a more eco and ethically conscious closet. In today's episode, how to do it.


HU: Clothes are so cheap for us consumers these days, but they come with those staggering environmental and human costs that don't get priced in.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: The idea that we only enjoy something for a very short of time is inherently unsustainable.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Fashion is the second biggest polluter of clean water on the planet.

JOHN OLIVER: This is going to keep happening as long as we let it. So we need to show clothing brands, not just that we care, but why they should.

HU: That was the BBC, a Teen Vogue video and John Oliver on HBO. Like the threat of climate change, fast fashion and the global clothing glut is a thorny, multifaceted, systemic problem. Elizabeth Cline.

CLINE: The same thing that's happening to that fast fashion worker is the same thing that's happening to an Amazon worker, to a fast food worker, to a freelance journalist. That process of extraction that's happening in fashion is pretty similar to what's happening across our economy in general.

HU: That's a lot. It's heavy. And it can make us feel powerless and paralyzed as individuals to do something about it. But it doesn't have to. Here are some things we can do. Our first takeaway - don't think of your clothes as disposable. Expect to keep them for the long haul.

SYMPHONY CLARKE: People are so quick to - oh, this doesn't fit anymore - trash. Oh, this doesn't look good anymore - trash.

HU: That's Symphony Clarke, known as The Thrift Guru on social media platforms. She says because clothing has gotten so cheap, it's easy to think of outfits as single use.

CLARKE: We live in this generation now where people won't even get caught dead seeing people wear the same outfit twice. That's the lifespan of their clothing. Once a picture is taken, it's done.

HU: To abandon that attitude of excess, change your mindset. But with the notion that what you purchase should stay with you. Clarke recommends a simple test.

CLARKE: Do, like, a 30-wear test. Like, when you go shopping, when you look at an item, will you wear this item at least 30 times? And that alone will get people thinking, like, what? Why would I want to wear something 30 times? But that's really the key. You want to actually extend the lifespan of clothing.

HU: To extend the lifespan of those threads, treat your clothes with a little more TLC. Here's Elizabeth Cline.

CLINE: As clothes have gotten cheaper, people stopped taking care of them. Maybe if they get mustard or coffee on their shirt, they'll just say, oh, this was, like, $5, so I'm not even going to bother. But taking care of clothes can feed the soul. It's just a very good life skill to have.

HU: In fact, we have a LIFE KIT episode all about getting stains out, including out of your clothes. Takeaway two - learn how to revamp clothing and accessories. Clarke, The Thrift Guru, established her own personal style by revamping, or what's also known as thrift flips.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Spruce up your wardrobe without actually buying any new clothes.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: So let me show you how to make your scrunchies at home and no sewing skills required.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: The pants were really baggy at the bottom, and I did not like how that looked. So I just cut that off.

HU: It's very popular on the socials. What is it?

CLARKE: Revamping is just taking something that's old and revamping it into something totally different and totally new.

HU: Symphony Clarke realized the power of this low-priced, eco-conscious way to give clothing a second life while she was a student. Now she makes a living showing the rest of us how to do it.

CLARKE: Go in your closet and say, hey, how can I switch up this old crewneck or this old hoodie that I have? Maybe I can cut it and crop it, and now it's a whole different item.

HU: Learn this by going to school on social media. Search YouTube or TikTok for thrift revamps or thrift flips. Another good hashtag is #DIYNoSew so that no sewing or stitching is required.

CLARKE: A lot of the stuff you can just do with just hot glue or, like, some fabric glue, super glue, safety pins, all that stuff.

HU: Super-cool. But when you do want to say goodbye to older garments, that gets us to takeaway three. Get rid of and rotate your clothing responsibly. When we all got in on the Marie Kondo craze, the idea was to throw out that which no longer brought us joy, but be intentional about how you donate.

CLINE: If you donate that item, it has a much, much, much higher chance of finding a second life, finding another person who's, like, excited to wear it.

HU: For example, could you do a clothing swap with friends? If not, you could resell your higher-priced items. Resale apps like ThredUp, Poshmark and The RealReal make it easy to make a buck on what you no longer wear.

CLARKE: You'd be surprised what people buy on the Internet.

HU: Symphony Clarke.

CLARKE: So I would just say list everything. Make sure that it looks presentable for the most part when you're selling online. Most apps are modeling apps. Like, they're modeling-friendly. So when you model the clothes, I feel like they're, like, more likely to sell than just placing it on the floor and taking a picture of it. So that's, like, my little tip. That's what works for me.

HU: A great tip if you want to sell. But for buyers, we have takeaway four. Change the way you buy your clothes by buying secondhand. Symphony Clarke spends time in the racks of thrift stores like The Salvation Army and Goodwill. And she not only finds great deals, but invents new looks. If that seems too overwhelming and since the pandemic means many of us don't step foot into stores, thrifting online is more and more widespread.

CLARKE: So you don't have to have the hassle of going into the thrift store and feeling overwhelmed and looking through all these clothes and having dust in your eyes and battling lines of people. You can eliminate all of that by actually going online if you want to take the first step and just dabbling and seeing what thrifting or shopping secondhand is all about.

HU: Same place people sell is where you can buy.

CLARKE: Go onto an app that allows you to search for certain items.

HU: She likes Depop and Poshmark apps for that.

CLARKE: Let's say that you're like, man, I'm really into, like, the whole Adidas zip-up tracksuit phase. Sometimes when you go to the thrift store, you might find not that. You know, you walk into a thrift store. You're like, yeah, I don't even know where this section is or if they'll have that. You can go on to Depop and just type in Adidas tracksuit. Boom - everything will pop up.

HU: So those were many practical ways you can whittle down your closet and play a role in conquering the costly global clothing glut. But you can go beyond shopping, upcycling and donating smarter. Your fifth takeaway to eco-conscious closets is to get educated. Learn more about a practice called greenwashing and the campaigns out there for a fairer, more sustainable fashion industry. OK, you've probably heard some stuff about greenwashing, or you've seen stores advertising their eco-conscious clothing. What does that mean? It's murky. Companies want to signal good virtues. Here's author Elizabeth Cline.

CLINE: Greenwashing is when companies either intentionally mislead consumers or just oversell and embellish the efforts they're making to be more sustainable.

HU: To learn more, she recommends a site called Good On You and a nonprofit called Remake.

CLINE: They put out something called the transparency report. And that's where, if you really want to do your due diligence and say, OK, which brands are truly going the next level, those websites are going to give you that information. And what's so amazing to me is there are a lot of consumers out there who really, really want to do that homework.

HU: Once you're educated, you can think about getting more involved.

CLINE: I see a lot of people spending a lot of time worrying or feeling guilty about where they shop. We can't forget that the problems in the fashion industry are systemic and that we have to have systemic solutions to these issues as well.

HU: Cline helped launch an organization herself called PayUp Fashion that pushes against exploitative practices in the fashion industry.

CLINE: One of the things that we are looking at this year is regulatory and legal reform in the fashion industry. And just to give you one concrete example, we are supporting California's Garment Worker Protection Act. And it will, for the first time in decades - in decades - hold fashion brands legally and financially accountable for what happens in their garment factories.

HU: Yeah. I think we forget that we still can take a lot of civic action, you know, beyond retweeting.

CLINE: We have so much power, collective power, as consumers. But you really have to get together with other people and decide what your agenda is, what is your strategy, what is it that we want from these companies and make demands on them to change.

HU: Remember those jeans that went on the journey similar to the other 5 billion jeans each year? With a little more consciousness about our closets, Cline says the life cycle of those jeans would last longer, and more importantly, there would be fewer in circulation.

CLINE: There's no reason for there to be 5 billion pairs of jeans manufactured every year. So in a more responsible fashion future, it could be that, you know, companies are making less. They're using technology to make sure that whatever they're making matches up with consumer demand.

HU: Fellow consumers, we can have an influence on what the future looks like.

OK, there were lots of links and recommendations here, and we'll put them all online at But if you're listening while on a jog or in your car or maybe while online thrift shopping, let's review. Takeaway one - change your mindset about clothes. Buy them expecting those clothes to be with you for the long haul, and take better care of them once they're yours.

CLARKE: You want to actually extend the lifespan of clothing.

CLINE: Taking care of clothes can feed the soul.

HU: Two - learn how to revamp what you've got.

CLARKE: Go in your closet and say, hey; how can I switch up this old crewneck or this old hoodie that I have?

HU: Three - when you want to say goodbye, get rid of your clothes responsibly. Give or resell to people who actually want what you've worn.

CLINE: All of these resale apps like ThredUp and Poshmark and websites like The RealReal have made it so much easier to rotate your closet responsibly.

HU: Takeaway four - buy secondhand. So many apps and sites make that possible, and physical thrift stores still abound in every town.

CLARKE: When you thrift, you create the trend. You are the trendsetter. You kind of, like, create your own fashion sense. So people are like, wow, where'd you get that from? Can I copy it? No, you can't because this is thrifted. And it's revamped, and it came from my brain and my heart.

HU: And finally, get educated. Learn about greenwashing to make better choices. You can take part in campaigns for more ethical and sustainable fashion industry practices. We know the scourge of fast fashion is a knotty issue that can implicate the whole globe. Cline.

CLINE: This is the ultimate intersectional issue. It is the combination of race and gender and class and, like, exploitation that cuts so many different ways.

HU: But the potential for change is possible. And it could lead to a fashion future that's better for workers, better for the planet, and, depending on how good you are at today's takeaways, better for your wardrobe.

For more NPR LIFE KIT, check out our other episodes. We have one on the steps to deep clean your space and another one on how to stop procrastinating. You can find those at And if you love LIFE KIT and want more, subscribe to our newsletter at And now a completely random tip from...

JORDAN: Hi. My name is Jordan (ph). Do you have a lot of things to do? Feeling overwhelmed? Well, if there's anything that only takes two minutes, do it right now 'cause it'll take longer for you to try to remember to do it later than it will to do it right now. So that's the two-minute rule - very helpful when you got stuff to do. Thank you, LIFE KIT team. You guys rule.

HU: If you've got a good tip, leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823, or email us a voice memo at This episode was produced by Fiona Geiran. Meghan Keane is the managing producer, and Beth Donovan is our senior editor. I'm Elise Hu. Thanks for listening.


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