Moms’ Corner: Environmental Impact of Our Children’s Clothing

Share with us @tryverima or comment below what choices you are making to ensure sustainability.  

As a concerned mom worried about the health of the earth our children will inherit, I often have conversations with my kids about ways we can make small changes to lessen our negative environmental impact.  The other day we were driving home from Southern California and we passed a ranch where there here literally hundreds of thousands of cows crowded into muddy pens either standing at the feeding stalls or just lying in the dirt.  A couple miles up the I-5 and we see herds of cattle grazing on grass, roaming freely on the hills.  The children and I discussed everything from animal welfare, to choices we could make with our money ranging from eating a plant based diet, to cutting back on red meat and the different tiers of meat ranging from conventional to organic, to grass-fed, pasture-raised, etc.  We also take care to purchase organic (locally grown when possible) produce, compost our food scraps (thankfully, our city collects it, I have not yet started my own compost bin), recycle what materials we can.  But one aspect I have not fully explored is the environmental impact our clothing choices have on our planet. 

The statistics are bleak.  The fashion industry is accountable for 20% of global wastewater and 10% of global carbon emissions.  This is more than both the aviation and shipping industries combined!  Cotton is an incredibly water-intensive crop that requires enough drinking water for one person for ten years to produce a single pair of jeans.  Additionally, cotton fields only make-up 2.5% of the world’s cultivated land, yet use 10% of the pesticides and a staggering 22.5% of chemical insecticides used in the entire agricultural industry. 

Unfortunately, the move to man-made materials still leaves us with hard choices.  My kids live in stretchy gym pants and moisture-wicking tops and polyester is inexpensive, lightweight, easy to clean, and durable.  But approximately 70 million barrels of oil are used each year to make the polyester fibers and a polyester shirt produces more than double the carbon dioxide than it’s cotton counterpart.  Not to mention it takes hundreds of years to decompose while releasing microfibers into our water supply with every washing.  UGH!

So what is a mom supposed to do especially with three children who grow out of clothing every season, every year?  Here are some ideas I am thinking of implementing to try and make small changes. 

Buy Less, Buy Better Quality

It is just so easy to grab a couple t-shirts from Costco, Target, Zara or H&M or hop on Zappos, or Amazon and be done with our kids’ wardrobes, but some studies estimate that nearly 40% of our wardrobes go unworn.  Do our kids really need 20 t-shirts when they only wear the same 7 or so of them?  Additionally, (and I am so guilty of this) purchasing items to try them on, and then returning them can essentially double the carbon emissions from transporting the good back and forth.  I think we may need to take a page from our childhoods, go to the local shop, purchase a couple of pairs of pants, a some shirts, and be done.  Our kids don’t need 5 pairs of jeans (actually neither do I) and please don’t mistake clearing out your closets as permission to purchase more clothing! 

Pick brands committed to sustainability

Many companies are starting to get the sustainability memo and we should reinforce their good behavior by supporting them with our consumer dollars.  Some companies are turning towards organic cotton (which eases pesticide use, though still very water-heavy) and recycling the polyester/using recycled polyester.  Companies like Patagonia do all of the above.  They will repair items for free, use organic cotton and earth-friendly dyes, sell used items and then recycle the items that are no longer wearable.  Because of all of these factors, a significant portion of my children’s wardrobes come from Patagonia.  Additionally, the good quality assures that items can pass from my oldest son to my youngest.  And if they need repair, Patagonia will do that as well! 

Look for companies that are on the forefront of Bio-Couture: fashion made from environmentally sustainable materials such as wood, bamboo and fruit. 

Set-up a Hand-Me-Down Chain

We are all too familiar with the pristine clothing that no longer fit our children (or in my case, my children just refuse to wear) and luckily I know some great families with younger/smaller children to hand down the items to.  Additionally, we are grateful to the families who hand-down to us.  In fact my particular daughter will more readily wear clothing that she knows an older girl (who has way cooler taste than I do apparently) has worn vs the items I pick out for her. We even hand-down the hand-me-downs.  You can also join your local Buy Nothing Group and post the items you would like to give away.  If you have an active group, most items will be taken off your hands rather quickly!  And lastly but perhaps not leastly: PRIMARY COLORS ARE YOUR FRIENDS!  My children’s birth order is boy-girl-boy, so even within my own family we hand down plenty.  For bigger ticket items like winter coats and ski-gear, I only purchase primary colors which means all kids can wear them! 

Shop Second Hand

Ok, this is one I have to work on.  Most moms are too busy to browse through racks of used clothing to cobble together wardrobes for our children.  And some moms like me, don’t really enjoy shopping and would rather go online and just buy a t-shirt in each color.  Or sometimes, we have something specific we are looking for (example: kid needs navy slacks for a choir concert) and I just need to go somewhere I am sure will stock it.  For moms who enjoy browsing for clothing, make a list of local thrift and second-hand shops, and make it the first go-to before heading to the large box-stores.  And for those of us who are more retail-adverse, check out sites like which allows you to sort by brand, size and item type. 

Donate/Consign Clothing

So, I know especially here in the Bay Area, a lot of us moms are guilty of just scooping heaps of clothing into garbage bags and dropping them off at Goodwill.  There is nothing wrong with this and Goodwill does many good things for the community.  Same as the Salvation Army.  You may also want to consider finding some local organizations and then donating to women/children’s shelters. 

Recycling at the End of Life

So, approximately 11.3 million tons of textiles end up in our landfills each year. . . . basically 70 pounds per U.S. citizen.  So, if you have exhausted the options above, check out some of these programs that will recycle textiles. 

Terracycle  is a company that allows you to purchase a box, fill it with your textile waste and ship it back.  The contents will be appropriately sorted, up-cycled and recycled.  The downside to this is that it is quite expensive.  An 11x11x20” box will cost you a hefty $123. So, more reason to only purchase what we need/use!

Council for Textile Recycling has a locator that will help you find where you can recycle textiles. 

Nike has a Reuse-A-Shoe program where they set up bins outside some of their retail locations.  They will accept athletic shoes (sneakers) of any brand which are then ground up and used to make playgrounds and courts. 

Patagonia, as I mentioned above, will take Patagonia threads back and recycle it and give you store credit. 

Whatever you decide for your children, even making one or two of these choices for our families is a good start.  Share with us what steps you have taken to ensure a more sustainable future for our children! 

Share with us @tryverima or comment below what steps towards sustainability you are taking in your family.  

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