How Your Old Wardrobe Can Fight Climate Change. Seriously.

“Build a wardrobe that will last longer, won’t get stretched out, and will be of good enough quality that if it gets a hole, it’ll be worth repairing.”
Getty Images/jennifer.m.ramos

When she was still in elementary school, Elysha Schuhbauer used to add buttons and embroider on her own clothes. By high school, she was mending tears and sewing on patches. 

“I wanted unique pieces that I couldn’t find anywhere else,” says Schuhbauer. “If I found something I like that fits me well, I wanted to keep wearing it as long as possible.” 

She now runs the Ontario-based company Worth Mending, which sells darning looms for mending textiles, as part of a slow fashion movement called Visible Mending. The movement embraces imperfections and wear patterns on clothes as a form of art and a celebration of individuals' unique relationships with their clothes, while extending the life of a garment. Clothes become art that help tell the story of your life. The patch on the upper thigh of your jeans could be the wear of your bike commute; the sewn up snag in your jacket could be from your work as an electrician. 


Visible Mending is also a rebuke of the fast fashion industry, which is responsible for up to eight percent of global carbon emissions and is the second biggest consumer of water. After the oil industry, textile production is the most polluting industry. The average person consumes 400 percent more clothes than they did two decades ago, and in the US over 11 million tons of textiles are trashed each year. 

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Instead, by repairing, upcycling, and purchasing clothes from a revamped industry that eliminates waste and pollution before it’s even created, experts say fashion can be transformed into a more sustainable industry. 

The average person consumes 400 percent more clothes than they did two decades ago.

Right now, the fast fashion industry is built on a model of take, make, and waste, says Natasha David, program manager of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s fashion initiative. The global think tank promotes a circular economy, or one where garments are made from renewable inputs, worn more often, and recycled into new materials at the end of their lifespans. 


David says circular business models could grow to become 23 percent of the market by 2030, while reducing carbon emissions by a third of what’s necessary to keep the planet’s temperatures from rising by more than 1.5 degrees Celsius, the target set by the Paris Agreement. The biggest hurdle in achieving this economy, says David, is redesigning the products.

So between 2019 and 2023, the foundation brought together 100 businesses, including fashion companies like H&M, Levis, and Tommy Hilfiger, along with retailers, factory mills, and garment manufacturers to redesign jeans—a high-polluting, resource-intensive wardrobe staple—to create 1.5 million pairs of jeans that included a minimum of five percent recycled materials. 

Dr. Sheng Lu, professor of fashion and apparel studies at the University of Delaware, sees a growing consumer interest in sustainable fashion. In a 2022 study, Lu found a broad supply base for clothes made from 100 percent recycled textiles, an industry that could be worth over $7.5 billion annually by 2027 and exceed sales of regular new clothing.

But right now, less than one percent of all manufactured textiles are recycled back into textiles, according to Tricia Carey, chief commercial officer of Renewcell, a manufacturer of recycled fiber. Renewcell opened its first industrial facility in 2022 after large investments from brands like H&M. It’s since created 20,000 metric tons of CIRCULOSE®, a recycled pulp converted from textile waste. A case study estimates that each ton of CIRCULOSE® pulp used in clothes avoids five tons of carbon emissions when compared to traditional fibers. 


Carey says Renewcell grew because of demand from the fashion industry for textile solutions in a circular economy, but the company’s biggest challenge has been getting fashion brands to buy in bulk instead of for small, capsule collections. 

“A factor that plays into the increase in demand for more sustainable clothing in general is more awareness of the negative social and environmental impacts of apparel production,” says Carey, adding that upcoming legislation, like the European Green Deal, California’s Responsible Textile Recovery Act, and the New York’s Fashion Sustainability and Social Accountability Act would increase recycling and reuse. 

The recycled textiles industry could grow to over $7.5 billion annually by 2027 and exceed sales of regular new clothing.

Lu says consumer behavior directly affects the fashion company's success. He says his Gen Z students, fashion’s future core customers, are focused on the social-environmental impact of their clothing choices. “Quite a few students mention they only shop secondhand these days because there’s so much textile waste and used clothing out there,” says Lu. Meanwhile, he added, rental companies like Nuuly and Rent the Runway, and resale companies like Poshmark and threadUP, are becoming more popular and mainstream. 


For those who want to opt out of fast fashion entirely, secondhand shopping, or thrifting, is another way to upcycle the fashion industry.

But, thrifting can be more difficult for people with bigger body types who require larger sizes, a market that fast fashion has worked to capture, says Lily Fulop, a graphic designer who runs the Instagram account Mindful Mending. A 2022 report by Berlin-based sustainability think tank Hot or Cool found that to meet the goal set by the Paris Agreement, consumers should aim to buy five brand-new pieces of clothing a year—not including what they purchase secondhand, rent, or reuse. If consumers purchase fast fashion, says Fulop, they can make their approach more mindful buying intentionally and mending the items they purchase to last longer. 

Fulop recommends making those purchases—either new or secondhand—higher-quality clothing like cotton, wool, or silk. Next, she says, learn a few basic hand sewing techniques for simple mends. If a seam pops, a button gets loose, or a garment snags a hole, a quick stitch, hem, or patch can make a garment good as new. 

Getty Images/Nicola Tree

Getty Images/Nicola Tree

“Build a wardrobe that will last longer, won’t get stretched out, and will be of good enough quality that if it gets a hole, it’ll be worth repairing,” says Fulop. For those who don’t have time, interest, or physical ability to mend but still want to upcycle their clothes, Schubauer suggests finding small businesses that offer mending services locally or by shipment. 


And some companies are making it even easier to sell second hand within their brand. Patagonia’s Worn Wear initiative, where customers can sell their gear back to Patagonia when they no longer need it, incentivizes recycling or reselling old clothes.

“Worn Wear is based on the premise that reducing the environmental impact of our products must be a shared responsibility between Patagonia and our customers,” a company spokesperson told VICE News in an email, noting that, on average, trading and reselling one piece of Worn Wear saves almost five kilograms of carbon emissions compared to making a new garment. “The best way to reduce the environmental and carbon footprint of clothes is to keep them in use longer, by you or someone else.” 

But beyond mending and thrifting, in a circular economy, the customer wouldn’t have a bad choice to begin with, says Natasha David. While individual customers can send demand signals, like using platforms to resell or rent clothes, or buying from brands that design recycled products, the system that enables the fashion industry must change, she says—not just consumer preferences. 

Meanwhile, in an imperfect fashion industry, consumers can use repairing, renting, and returning to make more conscious clothing decisions.

“You’re not going to be naked ever, and you’re not being deprived,” says Schuhbauer. “There’s so much on this planet that everyone can live a life of absolute luxury without the concentration of wealth and waste. It’s a big challenge but there are so many ways to tap in and make a big difference if we’re taking on what feels doable instead of an all-or-nothing approach.”

Fashion has a waste problem — but Coachtopia thinks it’s solvable. See how it’s redefining what it means to be circular in the first episode of its new docuseries, The Road To Circularity, here.
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