BY SARAH GAGNON
Share more, consume less
Welcome to the #BigSummerEnergy Sustainability Series! This summer we’re dedicating our research to all that we love about summer through the lens of informing sustainable choices and presenting that knowledge in a way that feels useful and understandable.
As the seasons change, so do our outfits. Who doesn’t cherish the fun and joy of debuting a new sundress in the summer, getting cozy in a new scarf as fall comes in, or a new sweater as winter rolls around? Our clothing provides us all a unique way to express ourselves. But did you know you can get that ‘brand new’ feeling without actually buying anything?
It was August 22, 2020 and in May 2020 I had just completed my first deep dive into sustainability through the University of Cambridge’s Business Sustainability Management short course.
I learned that Earth Overshoot Day (the day when we have used up all the resources that the Earth can regenerate in the year) in 2020 was pushed back three weeks from its date in 2019 and I wanted to do my part to keep moving the date back farther. I made a Facebook post about it and at the end I asked my network for additional tips. Someone mentioned they were in a Buy Nothing group and so began my own journey to buying nothing!
Buy Nothing Project
The Buy Nothing Project (BNP) was founded in 2013 to build community by connecting people through hyperlocal gifting and reducing impact on the environment.
The BNP is a gift economy, which means that everything posted is being given away freely – no money exchanges hands, no strings attached. It runs on three basic actions: Give. Ask. Gratitude.
People who join a BNP community in their area can give items, services, or information that they no longer need or want; they can put out an ask or request for items that they need; and they can offer gratitude by expressing thanks & appreciation for items that they received from the BNP.
Abundance over scarcity and why do I have so many clothes I don’t wear?
‘Reduce, reuse, recycle’ is a well-known mantra – but how much do we truly focus on the first two ‘Rs’? One of the BNP principles is believing in abundance rather than scarcity.
We have plenty to share and can consume less (reduce) by reusing. In the United States, overconsumption is widespread as people buying stuff is, in part, what drives the economy. We are inundated with messages to get out and shop, even as a civic or patriotic duty. But the creation of all that stuff uses high amounts of essential natural resources such as water and energy and is leading to negative environmental and social impacts.
To me, overconsumption is most represented quite clearly through clothing. When I reviewed the items I was most often giving away in my BNP group it was clothes – primarily clothes that I had worn a few times and then decided weren’t for me. Why did I decide to buy them in the first place? I wanted to feel trendy; not been seen at an event in the same outfit (an outfit repeater); and/or it was an inexpensive, impulse buy. I was caught in the fast fashion cycle.
Fast fashion has been on the rise since the 1990s. It refers to clothing that is both cheaply produced and priced and copies the latest runway styles. The fast fashion model consists of rapid design, production, distribution, and marketing of clothes so that stores can obtain and then sell a large quantity and variety of clothes quickly. This model encourages both stores and consumers to continuously purchase clothing and then discard it quickly to make room for the newest trend precisely because it is inexpensive and often low-quality materials. Fast fashion has also gotten a major boost from social media and the ‘influencer’ explosion. There are endless ‘try on hauls’ across Instagram and TikTok from ‘influencers’ promoting the latest styles for every season and encouraging followers to go buy the items to avoid a severe case of FOMO (fear of missing out).
The cost of trendiness is often not reflected on the price tag and not explained by our social media feeds.
Multiple reports indicate that the fast fashion sector accounts for 10% of total global carbon emissions, which is a whopping second only to the oil industry and speeding up the impacts of climate change. Rapid production and distribution of clothes is an energy-intensive process and uses an incredible amount of water — about 700 gallons to produce one cotton shirt and 2,000 gallons of water to produce a pair of jeans. Subsequently, and sadly, approximately 85% of clothing is incinerated or ends up as waste in landfills each year. We tend to throw away clothing after only wearing it around 10 times and textiles can take up to 200 years to decompose!
To quote Aja Barber and numerous other experts and activities in the fashion space – where exactly is that ‘away’?
Discarded clothing – either from stores that have unsold products or from consumers that tried to donate or recycle them (yes, I was very disappointed to learn that donating clothes rarely ends up being the positive impact I thought it was) – frequently end up overseas to be resold in developing countries in second-hand markets. And if the clothing is not resold, it ends up in landfills abroad causing massive pollution of rivers, lands, and communities. Our rubbish becomes someone else’s problem.
Fast fashion also has a social justice cost, too. The only way for stores to sell a shirt for $20 is to manufacture that shirt at a way lower cost – and pay garment workers an unlivable wage. The model of rapid design and production means that most of our fast fashion is produced in developing countries because of cheap labor. Affordability and profits come first, and occupational hazards are not accounted for in that $20. Working hours are long and conditions are unsafe. The well-known example of the Rana Plaza collapse in 2013 in Bangladesh killed 1,134 people. Building owners neglected warnings that cracks had been discovered in the building’s foundation and forced garment workers to continuing working or lose their jobs. The building collapsed the next day.
These facts about our clothing can be hard to digest but it doesn’t mean it has to stay this way.
Fashion can be inclusive and empowering in many other ways. Corporations have a major responsibility in addressing fast fashion’s problems. But we, as consumers, can also start to think differently about our clothing and demand better. For those of us that have the means to do so, we can kick the fast fashion habit.
Buying more sustainably made items is great. Shopping small and locally is even better because it helps your local community thrive. Renting and pairing/mending clothes are other excellent options. Rent the Runway is a go-to for special occasions throughout the year, especially summer and fall – popular wedding months.
Ultimately reducing consumption is the ideal choice. Let’s not be afraid to be an outfit repeater and never underestimate the amazing pieces that you can find second-hand! BNP limits the environmental impact of stuff by extending its usage. And while the BNP certainly has benefits for the environment, it also has benefits on a more human and fundamental level.
We’re in this together.
Unexpected situations and expenses can pop up and so often it can be difficult to ask for help. Asking takes a certain level of vulnerability. The BNP encourages asking and provides a welcome space for people to do this. Even if people cannot provide the item in need, they will often offer information about organizations that can assist.
At the end of the day, the BNP is humans helping each other. The only way I found the BNP was by asking my network for help and tips on making more sustainable choices. When people give or offer gratitude within this platform, it provides an opportunity to share background and stories on their items or services which brings a sense of connection. The BNP group that I am in has also extended to in-person gatherings. This summer a BNP member organized a summer clothing swap at a local second-hand clothing store allowing people to ‘shop’ for clothes that would be new to their wardrobe.
The BNP is representative of what is needed to advance sustainable efforts: community. On a large scale, we need businesses (big & small), government, civic society organizations, and individuals to be moving together in the same direction.
Are you ready to see how the gifting economy works?
You can join the 6.5 million+ BNP members by finding a BNP Facebook Group near you or joining the BNP mobile app! The app addresses some of the constraints of Facebook - namely enhancing accessibility across neighborhoods and geographies and not needing a Facebook account to participate. If you decide to join, take note of some of the lingo you might see:
- ISO = In Search Of – a commonly used acronym by those asking for items
- Gifted = the item has been taken (“gifted”) to another BNP already
- PM / DM = a private or direct message – addresses are not publicly posted so those exchanging items will need to communicate privately to arrange pick up or drop off
- For more on accessibility and inclusivity, BNP has put together a great resource.
Here are a few of my other favorite resources on making small steps in your sustainability journey:
- Tiny Tips that Shake the World — Tiny tips that shake the world aims to make sustainable living more easily accessible and appealing to everybody by sharing fun and easy tiny tips. Tips that, in a positive and humorous way, show you what you can do to shake the world, how fun and easy that is and what the effects are.
- Waste Free Wednesdays — Sharing tips, ideas and products that will make a waste free life much easier to achieve.
- Future Earth — their Good News Tuesdays lets you know all the good climate news happening out there and ways to get involved.
Although this is a #bigsummerenergyseries, a buy nothing mindset can go all year long! Overconsumption is a challenge that cannot be solved individually, but there are steps that we as individuals can take to help the environment and ourselves. As you’re considering your next purchase, pause and see if first you might be able to find the item for free in a Buy Nothing Group or through another second-hand/reuse group or store. Your wallet & the environment will thank you!