Rethinking Our Shopping Habits: It’s Better for the Planet and Your Wallet!

Summer is here, which means many of us are looking to revamp our wardrobes! However, the societal norm when it comes to buying clothes has significant negative environmental implications. Each year, the average American throws out 81 pounds of clothes. Also, the clothing industry itself accounts for 10% of annual global GHG emissions, making its overall environmental impact very high. 

Sustainable fashion is an approach towards clothing and accessories that protects both the environment and those who produce the garments. In this alternative fashion cycle, workers are paid a fair wage and are provided safe working conditions. Additionally, emissions are cut, waste is reduced, and there are fewer chemical spills in regions surrounding factories.

In general, the best way to reduce one’s environmental impact is by buying less in the first place. If fewer people purchase new clothing, there is less demand for the necessary resources to produce them. But buying less doesn’t have to be less fun! Here are some alternative approaches to fashion that can help reduce our impacts on the planet.

Clothing Swaps

By choosing to borrow or swap clothing instead of buying something new that you would wear once, you will both save money and reduce pressure on Earth’s resources. Michigan hosted several clothing swaps on campus this past school year. Sam Barnes, an incoming junior studying Program in the Environment, wanted to bring a culture of reduced consumption to Michigan, so she began hosting these events. At these clothing swaps, students can bring 3-5 pieces of clothing they don’t want or need anymore, and then, they swap them for garments that other students have brought. This is a great way to switch up your wardrobe… for free! Sam hopes to host more of these events next year, so keep an eye out for these and other announcements on the PBA newsletter!

Clothing swaps are especially useful for formal events if you want a new look for the night, but don’t want to buy something entirely new. Consider outfit swaps instead!

Clothing on a table at a U-M clothing swap
Photograph by Sam Barnes at a campus clothing swap.


Garment upcycling is the modification of existing pieces to create products of higher value or quality than the original. Upcycling means reimagination. It means being creative and rethinking the way we consume and use clothing. Choosing to modify the clothing we already own before buying something new is a great way to reduce our environmental impact. 

Upcycling can look differently to different people. Here are just a few examples:

  • Painting on old jeans 
  • Embellishing T-shirts by sewing on fabric additions
  • Changing the shape of something by adding more fabric, cutting it, or adding/removing sleeves

There are many benefits to upcycling. First, you’ll send less to the landfill. You will also save money by reusing what you already own rather than buying a new item. Upcycling can also serve as an outlet to take a break from other responsibilities. Upcycling lets you bring out your creative side! Try it out!

YouTube is your friend when learning how to upcycle. You don’t need previous sewing experience to partake in this! There are modification ideas out there that do not require sewing or advanced creative genius.

Sometimes, a garment can’t really be made new, and that’s okay. But, could it still be repurposed? Can that old T-shirt be a cleaning rag? Can you use that old shoe as a planter? There are so many possibilities to reuse rather than to throw out! 


Renting clothes, especially for special occasions, is a great way to reduce consumption while also spending less. The University Career Center Clothes Closet has a program where you can rent interview clothes, for example. Additionally, there are affordable online clothing rental companies that will deliver clothes to your doorstep!

Items at the University Career Center Clothes Closet
Photograph from the University Career Center Clothes Closet.

Buy Second Hand

Buying second hand pieces is a great way to reduce waste and the emissions associated with clothing production. Ann Arbor has many places where you can shop secondhand! Notable locations are the Salvation Army on S. State Street and the Ann Arbor PTO Thrift Shop, both of which are located conveniently on the #6 route of the AAATA. Ragstock is commonly viewed as a thrift store, but while they do have some vintage items, they also carry a significant amount of fast fashion items, so make sure to pay close attention to their signage!

Buy Sustainably Made Clothes

Trying to shop sustainably when looking for newly made clothes can be very difficult. Often, companies include a plethora of labels to persuade you to buy their garments, and it can be hard to decipher which ones are actually good for people and the environment. For example, the words “sustainable,” “eco-friendly,” and “responsible” are often thrown around without proving that the garment meets social or environmental standards.

If you are looking to purchase new clothes, here are some examples of what to keep an eye out for:

  • Clothes made from recycled materials.
  • Clothes made of natural, not synthetic, fibers such as cotton, hemp, linen, and wool. Natural fibers biodegrade, while plastic-derived fibers, such as polyester and nylon, shed microplastics and are essentially petroleum in clothing form. 
  • Clothes that are locally made, because these produce fewer transportation-related carbon emissions and support local makers.
  • Certifications, such as Fair Trade Certified, to make sure the clothes are ethically made.

Buying new, sustainable, clothes can sometimes be an investment because those products may be more expensive than traditional clothing. This price increase exists because you are ensuring that the people who made your garments are being fairly compensated. You are also investing in high-quality garments that can be reused many times, which reduces the total purchases you will have to make over time. Long-term, this can save you money and time! Sustainable fashion is a great way to put your money towards companies that align with your values.

Here are some final tips:

  • The Good On You app is helpful when determining which brands to avoid, and which to support.
  • If your clothes are at the end of their life cycle, and are too worn out to be upcycled, re-sold, or donated, they might be able to be recycled! Recycle Ann Arbor has helpful information about where to take textiles for recycling.
  • 35% of the microplastics in our oceans can be traced back to washing machines. When washed, synthetic fabrics break down into these microplastics without us noticing. When washing products made from synthetic fabrics, consider using microplastic filter bags. You can put those products in the bag on laundry day and wash them with your normal load. This will reduce the amount of microplastics leaching into the environment!

Finally, when you are out shopping this summer, ask yourself these questions: Why am I buying this? Do I actually need this? Will I be able to wear this at least 20 times? Can I wear this for different occasions or in different outfits? And, who am I supporting through this purchase?

1 thought on “Rethinking Our Shopping Habits: It’s Better for the Planet and Your Wallet!”

  1. Good ideas Emily. A lot of what you are suggesting was a way of life when I grew up. I think the depression set the stage for my parents. Everything was passed down.
    Good article.

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