Sustainable Fashion: Building an Eco-Friendly Closet

Whether on the news or in person, we have all experienced the consequences of our “throw-away culture”—overflowing landfills, smog-covered cities, and fish with bellies full of post-consumer plastics.

But most of us can hardly imagine a world without disposables and disposability. It’s quick. It’s easy. It’s what we’ve grown up doing. And it would take more than practicing “reduce, reuse, recycle” to make a difference, right?

Scott Breen, JD/MPA’15, a graduate of IU Bloomington’s O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs, knows that “the little things add up.”

“It might be kind of cheesy, but, SPEA especially, is all about changing the world and problem-solving,” says Breen. “I think that’s why my career has gone from law to program management to corporate sustainability—because I like thinking with different lenses and trying to problem solve in different ways.”

Through his current role as co-founder and co-host of Sustainability Defined, a podcast addressing sustainability across multiple industries, Breen is able to examine the complex functions of society.

“How do we still live the way we want to live but in a way that puts less strain on the environment?” asks Breen. “To me, sustainability is about operating our companies, using our resources, living our lives in a way we can feel good about. It uses materials to their highest value and allows humans and our planet to prosper.”

Scott Breen, JD/MPA’15, works as an associate manager and lead project manager for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s Sustainability and Circular Economy Program. Photo courtesy of Scott Breen.

In Breen’s opinion, the fashion industry, more specifically the “fast fashion” industry, is an area of concern.

“[The issue with fast fashion is that] clothes are made to be inexpensive and available, not to last a long time, necessarily,” he says, adding that ever-changing clothing trends are what drive this unsustainable industry model.

A 2016 article on sustainable fashion by McKinsey & Company states that three-fifths of all clothing ends up in landfills within a year of being produced. And in 2018, a study by Quantis, titled “Measuring Fashion,” revealed that the apparel and footwear industries are responsible for eight percent of all global greenhouse gas emissions.

Consider the life cycle of a cotton T-shirt, as outlined in this TEDEd video. Cotton is grown in a field, sprayed with pesticides, harvested by machines, shipped across the world, processed, machine-spun into thread, woven into fabric, bleached and chemically treated for softness, dyed in chemical concoctions, stitched together by people often working in dire conditions, shipped back across the world, and finally placed in a retail store.

According to a 2005 study by the IHE Delft Institute for Water Education, a single cotton T-shirt consumes roughly 700 gallons of water, which Breen points out is enough to hydrate a human for three years.

Meanwhile, new issues develop in the manufacturing and use of synthetic fibers—common fabrics like polyester, nylon, rayon, spandex, acrylic, and acetate. Synthetic fibers are man-made and composed of materials such as petroleum, chemically treated wood pulp, and carbon chemicals, among others.

“When you wash [synthetic fabrics], [microfibers] come off. These microfibers don’t get stopped in the lint [collector]. They go through our sewage system and sometimes run into the ocean,” says Breen. A study conducted by the Marine Biology and Ecology Research Centre estimates that 700,000 fibers come off in a single wash.

So, what can we do? Breen recommends taking these four steps to make your wardrobe more eco-friendly:

  1. Buy the “right” clothes.

Breen: “Clothes are important—they are a reflection of you, and you should feel good about your clothes. So, spend that little bit of extra money. Get the clothes that fit you right, and [get the clothes] you’re going to wear for a really long time.”

  1. Consider the source of your clothes.

Breen: “Consider how the clothes are made. Were they made with recycled materials? Does the company take it back when you’re done with it? Is the material made up of synthetic fibers?”

  1. Buy high-quality secondhand clothes.

Breen: “Shop high-quality secondhand clothes. You just giving [or] donating your clothes isn’t enough. We should also be part of the demand and buy those [secondhand] clothes.”

  1. Spread the word.

Breen: “Talk to friends and family about these issues. Use that purchasing power. Tell these companies your feedback and what you’re hoping for. They’re in business. They respond to consumer preferences.”

To better educate yourself about these issues, head over to Sustainability Defined’s podcast website, where topics ranging from electric bikes to sustainable beer are discussed. Listen to Breen talk more about sustainable fashion and a project called The Renewal Workshop in Episode 18: Sustainable Apparel with Jeff Denby (The Renewal Workshop).

Written By
Kami Gallardo
Kami Gallardo, BA'20, is an editorial intern at the IU Alumni Association. After graduating with a degree in English, she is pursuing law school at IU's Maurer School of Law in the fall of 2020.