Browsing clothing racks at Savers in Parkville, Md., Mariah Lamm stumbled upon some good deals: a Tahari suit for work and a skirt, vest and accent scarf for going out, all for about $30.
The 22-year-old Towson woman makes frequent trips to the thrift superstore – and not just for the steep discounts. Buying used clothing, she says, lets her do her part to curb fashion's growing impact on the environment.
While others her age look for the latest styles from H&M or websites ASOS or Missguided, Lamm is part of a growing movement to embrace sustainable fashion – keeping apparel in use as long as possible, and then recycling it. She shops almost exclusively at secondhand stores.
Traditional brands such as Under Armour, Gap, H&M, and Levi Strauss & Co. have begun to join in, too, taking steps to boost sustainability.
Outerwear maker Patagonia, a longtime champion of the environment, is going so far as to challenge consumers to think before they buy about whether they really need something new.
"It takes so many natural resources to create the clothes, and they end up in landfills," said Lamm, who graduated this year from Goucher College with a major in environmental sciences. "And we are producing much more clothing than we need. When you're buying secondhand clothing, it's a closed-loop system."
The push toward a circular economy has been fueled in no small part by the rise of "fast fashion," a term borrowed from the fast-food industry, in which brands and online sellers respond to trends and make chic and affordable items more quickly and more cheaply than ever before. Consumers are being hooked into expanding and quickly refreshing wardrobes, treating low-priced items as disposable.
At one extreme, ASOS, a global fashion hub for 20-somethings, can add up to 4,500 items daily to its website, said Deborah Weinswig, CEO of retail think tank Coresight Research. ASOS, based in London, did not respond to requests for comment.
The take-make-dispose model has not only environmental but also economic and social costs, new research shows. About 80 billion pieces of new clothing are purchased globally each year, and 26 billion pounds are sent to landfills, Savers said in its "State of Reuse Report" for 2018. The 300-store, "purpose-driven" thrift chain, based in Bellevue, Wash., noted that it takes 700 gallons of water to produce a single T-shirt, and 1,800 gallons to produce a pair of jeans.
Researchers for the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and McKinsey & Co. found more than $500 billion of value lost every year because customers throw away clothes they still could wear. Clothing production doubled from 2000 to 2014, they said, thanks to rising consumer spending, falling production costs and the fast-fashion phenomenon. But people are holding on to clothing about half as long as they did 15 years ago.
Elizabeth L. Cline didn't realize she'd developed "fast-fashion" habits until the day she looked in her closet and realized it was out of control.
"I was shopping at H&M and Forever 21, and noticed this dramatic shift in the way I was consuming," Cline said. "All of a sudden, I had a closet full of hundreds of items of clothes, and they were cheaply made. I didn't know anything about how or where they'd been made."
She decided to find out. Curiosity led to a book, "Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion."
She describes the new "fast" model as a departure from the long-established tradition of designers offering clothes once every season, and explains how the cycle was sped up: Clothing manufacturers moved into low-wage countries in the 1990s, allowing them to make and sell clothing at lower costs, while social media exposed consumers to trends and styles more quickly, adding pressure to appear in new outfits.
"We're no longer comparing what we're wearing to that person in the office or the person on the street," Cline said. "You can see what people are wearing all around the world. ... Now, items are released constantly through the year, with some put out on a daily basis. It is about creating a product that is so affordable and so enticing in its cheapness ... that it hooks consumers into buying more and more and more."
"You have a whole generation growing up buying fast fashion," she said. "If you're trying to sell a slightly better-made product, you're struggling to find a customer."
Analysts say the shift has contributed to the decline of traditional retail. Even fast-fashion pioneers such as H&M and Zara have stumbled in competition with digital brands such as ASOS, Boohoo.com and Missguided, which operate no physical stores and can take products from design to sale in as little as a week.
All that production and disposal is straining natural resources as never before, Coresight's Weinswig said, and for many, supply chain sustainability has become a strategic priority.
H&M has laid out steps toward a 2030 goal of using only recycled or other sustainably sourced materials. Those inputs now account for 35 percent of the retailer's total material use.
"The fashion industry is today too dependent on virgin and nonrenewable resources," H&M said in announcing the release of its 2017 sustainability report.
The retailer created a swimwear collection made from recycled polyesters, produced garments out of recycled shoreline waste and gathered nearly 18,000 tons of textiles, the equivalent of 89 million T-shirts, through a garment-collecting initiative.
Levi Strauss urges shoppers to bring their old clothes and shoes to any Levi's store in the U.S. for repurposing or recycling through a partnership with I:Collect. I:Collect reuses items or recycles them into yarn for denim or insulation. Levi Strauss also pioneered a technique that reduces the amount of water used in the finishing process, expanding the technique to 70 percent of its collections.
The Gap says it's working toward getting all of its cotton from more sustainable sources by 2021.
Baltimore-based Under Armour makes some shirts using Repreve, a brand of fiber made by Unifi from recycled plastic bottles. The fiber, which the North Carolina-based textile firm spins into yarn for fabric, has made its way into about 2.5 million shirts over about three years – the equivalent of 10 million plastic bottles.
"You are reusing a resource, as opposed to extracting new petroleum to make the polyester you have to convert into fiber," said Michael Levine, Under Armour's vice president of sustainability and corporate social responsibility. "Unifi has gone to great lengths to have a traceable fiber. You want to say where the stuff comes from and trace it back. ... That shows we care about the impact we have on the environment and recognize the way we build products (using) scarce and finite resources."
Under Armour now uses virtual, three-dimensional images rendered via computer instead of samples for some new product prototypes and sizing, which saves an estimated 6,100 yards of material a year, Levine said. The brand has a goal of increasing recycled polyester for certain products by 15 percent by 2020.
It's part of an overall approach of lowering the environmental impact of product design.
Patagonia, which touts its lifetime-guaranteed outdoor clothing as sustainable, encourages customers to trade in used Patagonia gear, which the brand resells, in exchange for credit toward new or used garments. It also offers garment repair services, both in stores and at a large center in Nevada.
"We'd prefer people buy used clothing than new clothing simply because of the environmental impact," said Corey Simpson, Patagonia's communication manager for product. "The most environmental thing you can do is buy (items) and keep them in use as long as possible, when they break, repair them, and at the end of the life-cycle, recycle them."
Savers launched a campaign about the impact of textile waste three years ago. Now the chain publishes an annual impact report "to open consumers' eyes to the potential of reuse," said Tony Shumpert, the chain's vice president of recycling and reuse.
"When you think of traditional recycling activities, we're teaching those things at the grade-school level, but we don't talk a lot about textile waste," Shumpert said.
The retailer accepts donations at its stores and through neighborhood truck collections.
At the Parkville store, workers sort clothing, putting the best items on the sales floor and sending the rest to recycling plants or markets in other countries. In a typical day, workers process 9,000 pounds of clothing, 3,000 pounds of household goods and as much as 1,500 pounds of books.
Items turn over fast, many within 24 hours, said Barbara Smith, a cashier. She has seen customers return, drawn by reasonable prices and good quality.
"All they have to do is take their time and look through everything," Smith said. "Most of the customers that come in here, they say they don't even go to malls anymore."