Sustainable Fashion: Looking Good While Doing Good

By Jean Barrett-Sommerville
Photographs courtesy of Joey Sommerville

It’s no secret that climate change caused by human activity is upon us, globally wreaking havoc in many forms, including record-breaking hurricanes and fires. It’s also no secret that many of us are overwhelmed by this, either directly or indirectly. We wonder what we can do to promote a safer, more meaningful future for our children and grandchildren.

Greta Thunberg, the young climate activist from Sweden, has said, “The climate crisis has already been solved. We already have the facts and solutions. All we have to do is wake up and change.”

Thunberg has also said, “It always seems impossible until it has been done,” and, “You are never too small to make a difference.”

What’s not as well known is that the fashion industry plays a substantial part in contributing to the current crisis. Today, especially with social media saturating our lives, we look at fashion as something to “keep up with”. The availability of cheap, trendy clothing is at an all time high, encouraging us to continually buy and discard our clothes as never before in history.

This culture of consumption, of chasing trends and logos, is fueled by billions of advertising dollars, and is alluring with its promise of enhancing our lives and sense of self worth and achievement. But as author Elizabeth L. Cline points out in her book “Over-Dressed”, it comes at a huge cost to us all, damaging economies and the environment.

In the past, our parents and grandparents knew how to “make do”, creating utility and beauty out of what was at hand. This generated craftsmanship and pride. We valued the things they made, including clothes. We cared for them, keeping them clean and mended, perhaps passing them down as a special gift, to be worn and treasured. It’s time to take another look at what this could mean for us today.

Imagine: What if you could save money, look better and have more individual style, experience creativity as a source of joy, share resources and skills with your friends and community AND have a positive impact on climate change? Upcycling clothes is one way to do this. Many of us are familiar with the concept of recycling. Upcycling, on the other hand, means reusing materials in a way that creates something of higher value than the original.

For example, upcycling means taking a few T-shirts that your cousin didn’t want anymore and turning them into a one-of-a-kind top that turns heads.

Upcycling means removing the sleeves from a donated jacket to make a vest. Perhaps then adding those sleeves to a different jacket, creating another totally unique style. It means cutting off the top of a discarded sundress, adding a waistband and suddenly you have a trendy maxi skirt.

Sometimes it means making a patchwork scarf from the scraps of other clothes. Can’t sew? Ask your auntie if she’ll show you how to use her sewing machine. If possible, go online and learn the art of decorative mending. Hand sewing is beautiful and requires very little investment, except perhaps your time, as the “slow clothing” or “slow fashion” movements remind us.

Even if you don’t sew, there are ways to upcycle clothes. Cut thin strips of denim and tie them together to make a necklace or scarf. The more you wash and fray the edges, the better it will look. Perhaps you’ll end up using beads and knots to further enhance the design. There’s truly no limit to the creative possibilities.

The other thing to remember is that sustainable fashion is for all of us. Even if we don’t make the clothes ourselves, we can still support those who do. We can buy from the small businesses and artists who create sustainable and/or upcycled pieces. We can take our fashion dollars and put them back into our communities, enriching us all.

We can further educate ourselves about fast fashion and sustainability. There are currently many books available, including those by Cline and another favorite of mine, Jane Milburn, an Australian activist who wrote “Slow Clothing—Finding Meaning in What We Wear”. They’ve painstakingly included many resources, including websites and Instagram feeds available for further study. Additionally, we can share our enthusiasm and knowledge as we learn more about what this means for our world.

Sustainable fashion provides so much more than the obvious benefits of affordability, creativity and the joy of personal style. It provides an opportunity to connect young and old, sharing skills and craftsmanship, history and pride. It’s an opportunity to do our small, individual part regarding the climate crisis.

It enables us to clothe ourselves in a tapestry of love and hope, now and for generations to come. Let’s think about that each time we get dressed. I can’t think of a better way to look good.

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