Is ethical clothing really that ethical?

Mary Kate Miller
August 30, 2017
9 min read
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Bad news for shoppers. The fast fashion industry is the 2nd largest polluter in the world, after oil.

It seems hard to believe that a store full of affordable sheath dresses and slouchy tees could be almost as bad for the planet as an oil rig in the gulf, but here we are.

The environmental impact of a closet purge

The average American throws away 70 pounds of clothes each year. The problem doesn’t lie solely with the fact that textiles are a material that we’re still working towards large scale recycling, the production of clothing in and of itself is far from environmentally friendly. For example, to make one cotton t-shirt, it takes 1,083 gallons of water.

Given the negative environmental impact of the fast fashion industry, it’s great to see brands launching ostensibly eco-friendly collections, right? Well, it’s not quite that simple.

What is an eco-friendly clothing line?

Some shops sell collections that differ from their other offerings and use only sustainable materials. Synthetic materials touted as being made from plastic recycled, for example.

Green initiatives are wonderful, and at Swell we like to support companies who embrace environmental stewardship, but lines like this can be deeply problematic because of the ways that the retailers as a whole contribute to the pollution and carbon emissions of the fast fashion industry.

On top of the ways that fast fashion is contributing to increased textile waste and excess water use, just this summer it was discovered that some of these brands were contributing to pollution in the areas surrounding their viscose factories. Viscose, which is supposed to be an ethical material, had polluted drinking water and turned nearby rivers black. There is also a link between viscose and increased cancer risk.

So what’s the best way to keep a conscious closet?

We’re going to take it back to basics here and look at the three R’s of Recycling. If you want to build a truly conscious closet, you’re going to have to reduce, reuse, and recycle — in that order.


The first step towards building a sustainable closet is to break the habit of shopping at fast fashion retailer. Yes, these outlets make it affordable to shop every trend the moment it happens, but at what greater cost? The clothing is manufactured cheaply, using a great deal of resources, and is designed to only last for a short time. Like it or not, shopping at these retailers helps contribute to the closet-to-landfill pipeline.

Instead, invest in quality clothing pieces that won’t be out of style six months after you purchase them. Reducing the amount of apparel you purchase — and opting not to buy from some of the world’s biggest polluters — is the strongest way to curb the environmental impact of your wardrobe.

If you find yourself buying fast fashion pieces because you’re in an uphill battle against laundry, here’s a tip that might help. Spritzing your favorite garments with a little bit of vodka is a great way to prolong the time between washings. It sounds wild, but it works because the vodka kills bacteria, helping to neutralize odors, and it dries odorless (don’t worry, you won’t be walking around smelling like a wet bar rag).


Clothing swaps, that middle school classic, are a great way to refresh your closet without adding to your local landfill. You can grab a group of friends and all bring some clothing that you’re looking to trade out of your closet. You’ll be surprised at the gems you find, and how much other people love the clothes that bore you… or never quite worked the way you wished they would have.


When you finally reach the point when you need to retire a garment, the best course of action is to see if you can find a way to recycle it. You can visit the website for full instructions on how to recycle your clothing, and they let you search resources by zip code!

Finally, make sure you shop at retailers you can trust and who make sustainability part of their mission statement. For example, Lululemon, which is one of our Healthy Living portfolio holdings, is dedicated to sustainability in more than just a single product line. They bring their sense of environmental accountability into production by promoting responsibility in their supply chain. They are committed to reducing waste through recycling programs at stores, reducing product packaging, and recycling textiles for products that don’t make it into their retail stores.

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