- With the return of in-person work, consumers are expected to spend more on office clothes.
- Plastic-based clothing items and the practice of "bracketing" contribute to landfill waste.
- Resale sites such as Poshmark and ThredUp help alleviate fashion's harmful environmental effects.
- Subscribe to our biweekly newsletter, Insider Sustainability.
For many workers, a return to in-person work means trading in-house clothes and sweatpants for new business-casual outfits. Companies are reporting sales also being driven by summer outings, size differences, and vaccination-related comfort with in-store shopping. In the UK, clothing sales rose by 70% in April and are expected to rise by 78% in the US over the summer, driven largely by back-to-school purchases.
While these increases are indications of an economic recovery for the global fashion industry, there are also significant environmental downsides to new clothing purchases. And the popularity of fast fashion has only exacerbated matters.
According to a report from the World Economic Forum, the fashion industry produces 10% of "all humanity's carbon emissions and is the second-largest consumer of the world's water supply." In addition to toxic chemicals, dyes, and noxious emissions from the production process, modern global textile production is primarily not biodegradable, with more than 52% of fabrics being made from polyester in 2019, according to an industry report from Textile Exchange.
After production, clothing and textiles are transported from facilities in developing countries to stores worldwide. But many of the common office-attire items sold – blouses, dresses, suits, and accessories – are made of harmful plastic-based materials like nylon, acrylic, and fleece. The unsustainable impact of these materials is worsened by bracketing, a common practice in which consumers buy several items with the intention of returning most of them. Bracketing contributes to billions of tons of nonbiodegradable landfill waste, higher restocking costs, and carbon emissions from additional transportation.
Cleaning clothing also has a dirty side. Every time plastic-based textiles are washed, it results in the release of microplastics, many of which aren't caught by wastewater-treatment facilities. Moreover, dress shirts and other officewear sent to the dry cleaner often involve the use of a chemical known as PERC, which has "serious environmental effects" and is a known neurotoxin.
According to the EPA, when consumers are tired of their clothing, including their go-to office garb, only 15% of it gets recycled. And donations to charities such as Goodwill, The Salvation Army, and TRAID? Those often end up in landfills. It all contributes to textiles being the second-largest source of global plastic waste at 42 million metric tons.
While some might go back to their prepandemic spending habits, others might be more conscious of their shopping routines. More sustainable options that help reduce the production of new clothing items include shopping on online resale sites like Poshmark, Mercari, ThredUp, and Grailed. There are also rental services like Rent the Runway, Nuuly, as well a variety of mall chains and brands. These offer consumers the option of new looks with lower environmental footprints, a choice that's always in style.