When you outgrow a shirt, get tired of a blouse, or realize that you just don’t wear those shoes as much as you thought you would, you probably don’t think much about what happens next. But where does the clothing go when you throw it away?
According to a recent report from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Americans now throw away twice the volume of clothing than they did 20 years ago. In 2018 alone, more than 17 million tons of textile waste ended up in landfills.
In order to reduce waste, many are turning to creative ways to reuse, upcycle and resell clothing and textiles.
Artist Laura Stuart not only shops in thrift stores for most of her clothing, but she also upcycles clothing and furniture. “My favorite reason is the unusual finds. As an artist, I naturally gravitate to an eclectic mix of home décor and clothing items,” she said.
Stuart also enjoys looking for treasures. “You just never know what you are going to find, from Vera Wang dresses and original works of art to tchotchkes,” she said.
Stuart’s finds also inspire her artwork. “I truly love unique fashion. When I find an awesome jacket or pair of jeans, and I can visualize how it will look with an altered hem or added trim, that is so much fun,” she said.
Thrift stores are a great method to give clothing a second life. Lisa McDonough opened her House of Thrift shops for several reasons. After working at a major resale store, she knew the value of reuse for both consumers and the environment.
“It is a sustainable method to keep clothes out of landfills, plus we provide goods to people at lower costs,” she said. With stores in Millvale and Ross, McDonough is also committed to helping the community and has worked with North Hills Community Outreach and other nonprofits in the past.
Customers at House of Thrift range from parents looking for good buys for fast-growing children, to artists like Stuart looking for items for their own creations, to theater staff looking for costumes and job-hunters looking for clothes for all-important interviews.
“Thrift stores are a nice, inexpensive way to find clothing to feel dignified,” McDonough said, adding that she takes recycling one step further. When clothes in her shops don’t sell within a certain time period, she donates them to St. Vincent DePaul for their thrift shops and fundraising purposes.
“We want to keep them going,” she said.
Marissa Vogel created her sustainable clothing shop Calligramme in 2014 as a vintage loungewear and USA-made lingerie company. In 2018, she closed her brick-and-mortar shop to focus on niche collector markets online.
“Along the way, I've been lucky to give new life to over 4,500 pieces,” she said of vintage collections that range from Pre-WWII through the 1990s.
“Yes, ‘90s are now vintage,” she added.
Like McDonough, Vogel is dedicated to sustainable clothing.
“The way that Americans consume and shop has changed so much since our parents' generation,” she said. “I think that shoppers nowadays don't take the time to make conscious decisions about who they buy from and what journey their purchase took before making it to them.”
And it isn’t just the environment that suffers. Vogel explained that ‘throwaway fast fashion,’ is wrong for many reasons.
“From unfair labor practices to manufacturing and logistics pollution, to price inflation and hogging up landfills with non-compostable synthetic materials—yuck,” she said.
Vogel recommends that consumers look at their own shopping and spending habits by asking if they can mend, alter or repair an item before tossing. She also suggests that before donating to make sure that the organization aligns with your values and to only donate ‘good or excellent’ items.
“Do you value environmental sustainability? Black-owned businesses? Socially conscious superstores? Cooperative retail models? Research what's important to you and feel proud to spend your dollars there,” she said.
Stuart is taking her upcycling to the next level as the creative director of Studio Forget Me Not, a shop sponsored by Not Forgotten Home and Community Services. The store currently carries artistic, imaginative and upcycled works of art and will begin offering upcycled clothing in May.
“We are a broadly inclusive bunch, and we work with a variety of artists to get unique items,” she explained. “The money that we make at the store enhances our art programs that are specifically adapted for individuals with intellectual disabilities.”
The store will allow another form of art expression and showcase one of the current artists’ lines of dresses made from vintage afghans.
“In May, we will be relaunching our store to carry more of her work and other upcycled clothing items,” said Stuart. “Our hope is that 2021 will be safe enough to hold an upcycled fashion show.”