While concerns of textile waste in the fashion industry rise, sustainable fashion thrives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina

Burberry burns leftover backstock, Bangladeshi factories breach safety codes and Black Friday blowout sale mobs. Society’s consumerist mindset has pushed the need for constant rotation of styles and trends, prioritizing fast fashion over the health of the environment, safety of others and the needs of the community.

Chapel Hill students and community members put in a shared effort to mediate the impacts of textile waste. Whether by advocating for environmental justice, extending the life of unwanted dorm items or introducing consumers to new definitions of fashion, sustainability is at the forefront.

Within just the past year, organizations and businesses such as Student Environmental Action Coalition (SEAC), Carolina Thrift and Rumors Boutiquehave committed themselves to lessen their environmental impacts.

This school year, SEAC has revamped their partnerships with organizations such as the Dogwood Alliance to stop the negative impact of the wood-pellet industry, which affects majority Black agricultural Communities in North Carolina. Carolina Thrift hosted its inaugural sale August 2018, hoping to change the way students dispose and purchase dorm items and other goods. Lastly, Rumors Boutique is in the process from eliminating plastic bags from both their Chapel Hill, NC and Richmond, VA stores.

The current state of fashion and the environment

In the most recently released Advancing Sustainable Materials Managementfrom the Environmental Protection Agency detailing 2015 facts and figures, the United States produced 16.03 million tons of textile waste.

There are so many options and paths for unwanted clothes: reselling, donating–even composting! Clothes can be recycled into fleeces, insulation and other goods. Even still, unlovedand sometimes unusedclothes go to waste.

Infographic about textile waste in America
According to a 2015 EPA report, 16.03 million tons of textile waste is generated in the United States.

The growing waste produced by the fashion industry impacts many different aspects of the environment. Not only are clothes that are no longer wanted often sitting idle in landfills, but the exorbitant amounts of water, energy and labor used to produce the garments often go unnoticed.

Reformation, a sustainable clothing company that boasts being the second most sustainable clothing option, next to being naked, includes a “RefScale” that measures the carbon dioxide, water and waste savings from a Reformation purchase compared to industry standards.

t-shirt from Reformation saves 10 pounds of carbon dioxide, 410 gallons of water and half a pound of waste compared to most clothing bought in the United States.

But what about clothes that already exist? The 2015 EPA report found that out of the 16.03 million tons of waste generated, around 10.30 million tons of it went to the landfill and 2.45 million tons of textile waste was recycled.

Forever 21 store at the mall.
Stores like Forever 21, H&M and Zara mass produce on-trend clothing for a cheap price. Image by Mike Mozart on Flickr.

Surely there’s an excess of clothing. We are buying more than we need and getting rid of garments faster than the we can handle, and that’s devastating different global economies.

Countries, such as Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi, that import second-hand clothing from the U.S. and UK have proposed talks of a ban on importing these used products so they can grow their own industries.

Consumers can make a difference by slowing their consumption of cheap mass-produced clothing and start investing in quality pieces.

Chapel Hill, NC sustainable efforts

Being conscious of the amount we consume, is just as important as being aware of the amount we waste. Next time you go shopping, think about your true needs, and if you can purchase something that is pre-owned, rather than buying a brand new item.

Investing in higher quality pieces that you’ll love for years to come and reselling and donating unwanted clothes to charity shops or second-hand clothing stores can make a difference in the amount of textile waste we produce. Doing so also supports the surrounding community, prevents clothing from entering the landfill and extends the life of an article of clothing.

Rumors Thrift Boutique located in Richmond, Virginia and Chapel Hill, North Carolina offers stylish, affordable pre-loved clothing to UNC-Chapel Hill students and surrounding community members.

The first Rumors open in Richmond in 2007 and only sold newly-made clothes from small independent designers. About a year later, after realizing that their return on investment wasn’t sustainable, they began a small thrifted rack which they sold their own clothes on–and their customers loved it. Rumors then switched to selling second-hand clothes to better serve their college-town community.

“When we first started as a all-new store, we kind of felt like we were always in costumes. Even to go to the showrooms to buy from these designers, we were borrowing clothes from other people,” said Longyear. “We were so young and we’d show up at these showrooms, and they would assume we were just friends with the girl working at the desk. So, when we switched to second-hand, it was kind of like regaining our identity back.”

Inside of a North Carolina thrift store.
The Chapel Hill Rumors Thrift Boutique opened in 2013. Image from Rumors.

Rumors tried to avoid selling new items for as long as they could, but they knew that they couldn’t get every trend that customers would want second-hand. However, Longyear recognized the power Rumors held being on a college campus, with many students never having been to a thrift store, in influencing how their community approaches fashion and sustainability.

Over the summer, Rumors began the transition to being plastic-bag free. Customers can bring their own bag, carryout items or purchase a reusable tote bag for two dollars. This has sparked many meaningful conversations between Rumors staff and customers about the individual impacts we can make, starting at the register.

“Even though they had no interest in the environment or didn’t even care about the bags, and I was just having small talk with them, they left knowing what a difference it makes,” said Longyear. “Maybe they’ll go to Harris Teeter and not take a bag next.”

There are still parts of the retail industry that are hard to change. The plastic barbs used to adhere paper tags to the clothes are difficult to replace considering the amount of product Rumors goes through in a day. This goes to show the ways in which plastic is ingrained into our daily lives, but it’s not too late to change consumption habits.

On UNC-Chapel Hill’s campus, Brooke Bauman is the co-chair of the Student Environmental Action Coalition (SEAC), a committee with UNC-Chapel Hill Campus Y. SEAC’s advocacy connects the lines between environmentalism, racism and political activism, aiming to address the issue of environmental racism and justice.

Bauman believes in the power students hold in changing the conversation around global warming and the urgency with which that conversation needs to be held.

“[…]We are all experiencing the effects of climate change in our daily lives,” says Bauman. “It may be hard for us to make observations and immediately attribute them to a changing climate because it seems like such an ambiguous thing in the far-off future. But really, climate change is already happening.”

Taking inventory of our environmental impact is a great way to begin the journey towards sustainable living, Bauman said. Either by taking a carbon footprint assessment quiz online, or trying to live a day, week or month producing zero waste. This is an excellent way to understand where our trash comes from and evaluate the next steps to living more eco-friendly.

A new UNC-Chapel Hill student organization, Carolina Thrift, provides an alternative sustainable college shopping experience with the aim of eliminating “needless waste.”

Getting ready for a year at college almost necessitates shopping for extraneous furnishing, clothing and other items that are often disposed of once the year has ended. Carolina Thrift provides an opportunity to give the castaway items another life through hosting collections and thrift drives where students can donate unwanted items and get all their back-to-school shopping done on campus without breaking the bank or buying anything new.

Something Longyear has believed in since a young age is repurposing old items to extend their lifespan. It’s possible to buy an item that once belonged to someone else and still make it your own.

“There’s so much stuff in the world, why buy something new?”

About the project

Throughout the semester in my digital storytelling class, I have learned valuable multimedia skills such as design and video. I was taught both html and css coding and adobe illustrator and premiere to help me tell this story.

In January 2018, I committed to only buying second-hand clothes for at least a year in an effort to reduce my contributions to the harm done by the fast fashion industry–and also just to see if I could do it. Caring for the environment has been important to me for a large part of my life; my older sister was an environmental science major, so her passion for the planet rubbed off on me. I’ve also been known to really love clothes. Like a lot. Combining my interests and passions seemed like the obvious choice for this project.