How many clothes are too many?

Fast fashion is cheap and plentiful, and as a result, Americans are buying more clothes than ever.

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Americans are buying more clothes today than ever before. On average, we buy 53 new items of clothing per year — four times as much as in the year 2000.

Most people don’t need more clothes today than they did two decades ago, so what’s driving this rise in consumption? The answer, in short, is fast fashion.

Why are Americans buying so many clothes?

Clothing manufacturers are producing more clothes than ever — over 100 billion pieces per year. Fast fashion companies are a big part of the problem, rapidly churning out new clothes to both drive and keep up with trends, which are evolving faster than ever thanks to the rise of social media and online shopping.

Fast fashion companies are also selling their clothing at eye-poppingly low prices that don’t take into account the true cost all this consumption is taking on our planet.

And, technology has made it easier than ever for fast fashion companies to sell clothing. Consumers are bombarded with clothing ads on social media, even when they’re not shopping for clothes. Influencers fill social media feeds with the latest trends. And buying new clothing is as easy as clicking a button.

Clothing is cheaper, more readily available, and easier to buy than ever before — and as a result, we’re buying more clothing than we can wear.

How much clothing is going to waste?

New clothing that never gets worn is a waste of the resources used to make it — and one study finds that people don’t wear 50% of the clothing they own.

Fast fashion clothing items tend to have a shorter lifespan, whether because they go out of style quickly or because they’re lower quality and rip or wear out quickly. Americans throw out 17 million tons of clothing and textiles each year, and 65% of clothing is thrown out within 12 months of its purchase.

But above all, fast fashion’s business model is incredibly wasteful in and of itself.

Fast fashion companies produce millions more tons of clothing than they can actually sell, and they ship them all over the world to stores with no more room on their racks. When those new shipments arrive, the unsold “old” clothing is taken off the shelves and thrown in the trash — brand-new clothing that has never even been worn.

Each season, fast fashion retailers overproduce clothes by 30 to 40% — clothing they know won’t be sold — and that overstock clothing ends up in the landfill. Globally, 92 million tons of clothing are sent to landfills each year, and fast fashion’s practice of throwing out unsold, unworn overstock is fueling this waste.

How does fast fashion harm the environment?

The fast fashion industry is responsible for around 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions during the production and transportation of its goods. Even at the end of its lifespan, fast fashion clothing in landfills releases methane, a powerful greenhouse gas.

And it’s more than greenhouse gas pollution. To make a single polyester shirt, you need 1.5 cups of oil for the raw materials to make the shirt. You need 157 gallons of water to convert raw materials and process them into the shirt. And every time you wash that polyester shirt, it creates another type of pollution — microplastic fibers.

Natural materials such as cotton may be better in other ways, but a single cotton shirt needs 1,019 gallons of water to grow and process the cotton, and about half a cup of fertilizer and pesticide to grow the cotton. And, the equipment used to process a cotton shirt runs on fossil fuels — about 1 gallon of oil per shirt.

The best thing we can do to reduce clothing’s impact on our environment is to buy less of it — and that’s the antithesis of fast fashion.

How can we reduce clothing waste?

Fast fashion companies want you to buy, buy, buy without stopping to think about whether you really need an item of clothing, or whether that item was a good use of the materials and energy required to make it.

Instead of buying into fast fashion, we can:

  • Buy less clothing. How many clothes do we really need to wear day in and day out? How can we find ways to wear the clothes in the back of our closets that don’t get worn enough, instead of buying new ones?
  • Buy more sustainably. We can buy higher quality items that will last the test of time — and that we know we’ll want to keep reaching for even as trends come and go. Shopping secondhand is an especially sustainable choice, and it’s easier than ever with the rise of online secondhand shopping and some brands even reselling their secondhand clothing directly.
  • Make clothing last longer. Washing clothing in cold water can keep them looking like new for longer and use less energy to boot. Mending clothing was once the norm when jeans tore or a shirt lost a button, and it’s having a resurgence as refillery stores and community centers are increasingly offering mending circles and sewing classes. 
  • Resell or repurpose rather than discard. There are lots of sustainable options for dealing with clothes we no longer need or want. We can resell them online (on those secondhand shopping websites), host a clothing swap with friends or in our communities; donate to thrift stores; or even turn old clothes into cleaning cloths.

But while there’s a lot you and I can do to be more sustainable, the problem is much bigger than the actions of individuals.

The fast fashion industry produces staggering amounts of waste long before any of it ends up in a shopper’s cart. Some countries have passed laws to prevent clothing companies from destroying unsold, unworn products, and we can do the same here in the United States.

We’re also calling on fast fashion companies, including Forever 21, to commit to never trashing or incinerating their overstock. Winning those commitments could trigger a wave of changes — if companies can’t throw out overstock, they’ll need to stop overproducing their merchandise and stop using precious resources to make more clothing than they can possibly sell. 

Add your name to our petition calling on Forever 21 to commit to not trashing or burning new, unsold clothing today.


Kathryn Horvath

Zero Waste Campaign Associate, WashPIRG

As the Zero Waste Campaign Associate with WashPIRG, Kathryn is working on our Waste is Out of Fashion campaign. Kathryn lives near her family in Seattle where she enjoys exploring the beautiful Pacific Northwest through skiing, kayaking and practicing her photography.