Zero Waste Fashion


California's Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery (CalRecycle) defines "textiles" as items made of thread, yarn, fabric, or cloth. Examples include clothes, fabric trimmings, draperies, and all natural and synthetic cloth fibers. According to CalRecycle's 2014 Waste Characterization Study, more than 1.24 million tons of textiles were disposed of in California landfills in 2014. Ninety-five percent of this material is actually reusable or recyclable. 

Environmental Impact of Textiles

Manufacturers use extensive resources to produce textiles including oil to produce synthetic fibers, fertilizers to grow cotton, and chemicals to produce, dye, and finish fibers and textiles. For example, more than 700 gallons of water are used to produce one cotton t-shirt or one pair of jeans. The climate impact of manufacturing one t-shirt is approximately 4.3 kg C02, which is equivalent to driving a car for about ten miles. Polyester clothing has an even bigger impact on the environment, and the manufacturing process to produce the average polyester t-shirt releases 5.5 kg C02 emissions, which is equivalent to driving a car for about 13 miles. 

Textile System (Ellen MacArthur Foundation, A new textiles economy: Redesigning fashion’s future, (2017,

Ellen MacArthur Foundation. (2017). Today's clothing system [Image].

How to Manage Textile Waste Responsibly

The increase in textile waste is an unintended consequence of fast fashion, as more people buy more clothes and don’t keep them as long as they used to. The international expansion of fast fashion retailers exacerbates the problem on a global scale. Currently, there is interest in redesigning the textile economy into a more circular model where products are designed and developed with the next use in mind . However, until that day comes, consumers can reduce the negative environmental impacts caused by the manufacturing process by reducing the number of textiles we purchase, use, and dispose of. 

Here’s what you can do to make a difference in reducing the environmental impacts of textile manufacturing. 

  • Donate your clothing, linens, and textiles. Check out our list of community resources where you can donate unwanted items. 
  • Take your unwanted clothing shopping with you.  Some retailers host donation bins and offer shopping discounts when you deposit your clothes. When you're out shopping ask the retailers you patronize if they accept used clothing. 
  • Sell your unwanted clothing online. Consider selling your items using an online business website.  
  • Recycle and repurpose. Textiles are versatile! The internet is full of amazing recycling tips and ideas. For example, you could upcycle old denim into funky quilts and unwanted t-shirts into reusable bags.

Change Your Purchasing Habits 

  • Purchase second-hand items by shopping at local thrift stores. 
  • Purchase fewer, high-quality pieces of clothing. Invest in a higher-quality wardrobe and you will find you don’t need to purchase new clothes as frequently. Avoid fast fashion clothing that uses lower quality materials and manufacturing methods to produce cheap clothing you dispose of after wearing it a few times. 
  • Purchase higher quality clothing that you will actually wear. Purchase items designed to survive many wears and the rigors of the washing machine. You should not purchase any clothing that you would not wear at least 30 times. 
  • Purchase items with the least environmental impact. Think about what the item is made of. Some retailers list the environmental impact along with the pricing. 
  • Purchase clothing from retailers who stand behind their clothing. There is an increase in brands that are becoming mindful of how their clothes are produced.
  • Try renting clothing. Many subscription clothing rental companies are available online.
  • Make your clothing last longer by taking better care. Wash your clothing in cold water to preserve fabric fibers and wear items several times before laundering. Repair seams and replace buttons instead of disposing of a garment.

Other Resources 

Detox Catwalk - a list of fashion brands making the effort to clean up their supply chains and also those failing to do so.

Good on You - world’s leading source of ratings, information, offers and news about ethical and sustainable fashion

Textiles: Material-Specific Data - a brief summary of textile material-specific data specific to municipal solid waste

A New Textiles Economy: Redesigning Fashion’s Futurea scientific report that outlines a vision and sets out ambitions and actions to redesign the textile economy