Worn down but not out: the ethical dilemma of old but functioning clothes

As I write this I am wearing a pair of Gap trousers that look like they have been through the wash a few too many times. The big philosophical question for today is: When should I throw them out? The problem is that, while I want to look my best, it seems crazy how much we turn perfectly serviceable clothing into planet-trashing waste.

The pair of trousers I am wearing now are borderline acceptable on the appearances scale. They fit and have no holes, but they are one of seven pairs of the same Gap trousers that I have been rotating through almost every day for the past six years and that look heavily “distressed” from the many washings and dryings they have had. Because I work from home where the dog is the only other creature to see my trousers, their roughed-up state doesn’t matter much, and I keep wearing them for now. However, if I still worked in an office where I saw other people (or more precisely where they saw me), I suspect I would be ashamed to wear these trousers every day and would feel obliged to get replace them. Indeed, last year I made my husband replace most of his wardrobe because it was looking over-washed.

Office-going humans like old-me don’t want to wear worn-looking clothing to work for good reasons. Studies seem to confirm what you might guess: our clothing strongly influences other people’s perceptions of us, and even subtle differences in clothing choices can affect people’s judgments about our character, ethics and abilities. Through exposure to societal norms and expectations, we start to form judgments about other people on the basis of subtle clothing-related cues. So that little bit of extra pilling on my old sweater or the roughed and faded knee areas on these trousers I’m wearing might signal something about me to fellow humans that I would not want them to think.

And yet, given garment production’s environmental impact, it seems a terrible waste to get rid of functioning clothing just because of human psychological biases. The more I replace my clothes, the worse for the world. The clothing and textile industry is thought to be the second largest polluter after the oil industry. The fashion industry produces 20% of global waste water. It takes 10,000 liters of water to grow the cotton required to make a pair of jeans or a pair of trousers like the ones I am wearing now; that’s the same amount of water one person will drink in 10 years. That’s right: these trousers took the equivalent of 10 years of my drinking water! Americans throw away an average of 70 pounds of clothing per person annually. 85% of textiles end up in landfills or incinerators, and textiles occupy about 5% of landfill space.

Much of this textile and clothing waste could be recycled, but it is not always easy to recycle. For example, in my local council here in London, I would have to arrange a special textile collection separate from my usual recycling, and it requires a minimum of at least one bin liner’s worth of clothing for collection. The council also requires that the clothes be “good quality”, whatever that means, which seems to defeat the whole point of why I’d be trying to throw away or recycle clothes rather than donate them to a charity shop. There are also textile recycling banks where you can drop off old clothes around town, but they may not be convenient to reach, especially if you don’t have a car for lugging your stuff. All the effort required to recycle makes me think, if I want to be green, I ought to just keep wearing these trousers as long as I can!

So what to do when we want to look our best and prime ourselves for success but don’t want to feed the pollution beast? I still don’t have a real answer, but as with so many other things to help us live greener lives, we probably ought to think more about why we do the things we do and whether the things we do and think are really good for us, not just good for us for purposes of short-term success but for purposes of whole species survival. Maybe our cultural attitudes and norms about clothing don’t serve us well and need to change; just as we have become more accepting of more casual clothing as a signifier of a more relaxed and creative approach to work, maybe we can become more accepting of dressing that signifies a commitment to a greener planet by wearing clothes through the end of their useful life and not just until they look a bit faded. I’ve always considered it important to look my best and make a good impression, but maybe I need to reconsider my priorities. Maybe I should worry as much about my clothes’ impact on the environment as about what they make other people think.

For now, especially given I can’t buy any replacements this year, I’ll just keep wearing my faded Gap trousers as long as they still zip and cover my legs, and we’ll see how it goes.

For more information about fashion industry waste and our clothing’s impact on the environment:




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