The Three Rs of Fashion

In light of it being Independence Day, I’d like to take the opportunity to talk about freedom. Freedom from a cycle of waste, overspending, and big eco-footprints, that is. Many of us know and talk about how our driving and eating habits impact the Earth. But clothes have footprints, just like any other product we buy. We can’t talk about green fashion without facing up to the fact that any given piece of clothing comes with an environmental price tag. That price is made up of myriad factors, from the way the materials were grown and manufactured to the chemicals in the dyes, the energy used during production, packaging materials, and the transportation of said materials and the finished product.

Buying clothes made with non-toxic dyes and from organic cotton, bamboo, hemp and other sustainably-grown materials is a step in the right direction, but the most eco-forward fashion practice has to do with a trusty phrase we were taught as kids: “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle!” Also known as “the three Rs” of environmentalism, these three basic tenants are the key to an eco-friendly closet.

The first step—reducing—is trickier, especially for those of us who love clothes and are forever on the prowl for new beautiful finds. But excessive shopping results in many an item going ignored or rarely worn. Not to mention it is an expensive habit. The optimist in me likes to think that the days of extreme consumerism are behind us and that we’re, instead, at the dawn of a time when we use less (of everything), reducing the strain on environmental resources as well as the amount of waste leftover. It’s idealistic, sure, but reducing how much clothing you “consume” becomes a lot easier (and really fun) when the next two Rs are taken into account …  

“Reuse and recycle” is practically my style motto. Buying recycled clothing is the green way to shop, and there are plenty of recycled fashion havens that are a far cry from what we often think of when we hear “thrift store.” My favorite spot in Santa Cruz is Crossroads Trading Co. on Pacific Avenue, where you can walk out with six stellar new (to you) items for around $60. I love treasure hunting at the Santa Cruz Antique Fair (which happens every second Sunday on Lincoln Street in Downtown Santa Cruz), where occasional gems can be found in the form of vintage hats, coats, dresses, tops, heels, purses, jewelry, and more.

But when people comment on an outfit I’m wearing, it more often than not is comprised of items I got for free. In fact, at the time of this writing, I’m wearing dark skinny jeans that were a former roommate’s and a summery, lacy white top that I pulled from a friend’s donation bag. Another well-worn phrase comes to mind here: “One person’s trash is another person’s treasure.” I have a three-pronged approach to recycling clothes, which relies on this piece of wisdom: several times a year, I clean out my closet and make separate piles for clothes that I will try to sell at a re-sale boutique (like Crossroads), clothes that will go straight to Goodwill, and things that are too far gone to be worn and will be used as rags.

Before taking those piles to their respective destinations, I let as many girlfriends as I can find rummage through them. They, in turn, share unwanted clothes with me. Just last weekend, while visiting friends in San Francisco, I gave away four items of clothes and received two adorable tops in return. Getting in this habit with friends creates a fun, continuous exchange in which everyone is a winner: you, your friends, your wallet, and the environment. 

Take this concept one step further with a clothing swap party—an increasingly popular type of get-together where, perhaps over drinks and appetizers, women offer up unwanted clothes and choose from what other people brought. Set some simple ground rules ahead of time (like all items be freshly washed, free of stains and rips, etc.), and you’re good to go. Although I haven’t tried any, there are also more official clothing swap avenues cropping up, such as ClothingSwap.com, which organizes swap events, and Swapstyle.com, where you can buy and sell used clothing online.

When buying new clothes—which we all inevitably do from time to time—try to keep in mind that every item has a history, and not all are created equal. It’s worth doing your own research, but a quick ‘n’ easy guideline is to avoid polyester, nylon, non-organic cotton, and rayon materials, as those involve the most environmentally-detrimental manufacturing processes. 

"Eye for recycling" image: fashionizehaus.com. Crossroads image: greenlagirl.com.