This story is part of “Earth Day Every Day,” Word In Black’s series exploring the environmental issues facing Black Americans and the solutions we’re creating in the fight for climate justice.
From fashion YouTubers uploading videos of clothing hauls to celebrities posting on Instagram in new outfit after new outfit, in the age of social media, the pressure to always have something new and better to show off never ends. This is great for fast fashion brands — which produce double the amount of clothing today compared to in the year 2000 — but terrible for our planet.
Thankfully, many Black folks, who have been at the forefront of the climate justice movement for decades, are embracing sustainable fashion in an effort to protect our shared communities.
Oakland, California-based stylist Tye Coffey switched to thrifting and upcycling in 2017, and she hasn’t looked back since.
“I saw a documentary in school called ‘True Cost,’ and it’s a documentary that talks about fast fashion, what happens in fast fashion, and what the ’true cost’ of fast fashion really is. Unfortunately, it’s a lot of sweatshops and people who have to be displaced and taken away from their families,” she explains.
By consistently overproducing products made of non-recyclable materials like polyester and nylon, the fashion industry is the world’s second-largest contributor to climate change in terms of water and plastic pollution. Additionally, it’s estimated that the average person throws away 81 pounds of clothes every year — and 85% of those discarded clothes end up in landfills or burned.
“A lot of things happen that are so ugly when it comes to the clothing industry, and I felt the weight of that on me with my clothes when I was shopping at Forever 21 constantly, and all these other places I knew were doing harm to people,” Coffey says. “It felt really heavy on me.”
How Sustainable Fashion Inspires Inclusivity
When Coffey first started going to her local thrift stores, she found that the clothes were not only more sustainable, but they were also cheaper, more size-inclusive, and gave her the space to develop her own personal style.
“Switching made me embrace myself. I’ve never had a more unique, more colorful wardrobe than I have right now,” Coffey says. “People don’t realize that you don’t have to spend so much on looking good.”
A 2020 survey by OnePoll found that 50% of women have shopping anxiety, and 14% of women say they can rarely find clothing in their size. When Coffey was still consuming fast fashion, she says she also felt embarrassed after going into stores and finding nothing that fit. Since switching to sustainable fashion, her self-confidence has increased.
“You have to look in thrift stores because sizes are not always labeled properly,” she says, “but community members of all sizes bring the clothes in, so it’s nice to know that the sizes are out there for everybody.”
For those new to thrifting, the National Thrift Store Directory provides a searchable database — complete with reviews — of about 12,500 charity-driven thrift stores in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Coffey also suggests checking out Georgia Avenue Thrift, her favorite place to shop when in Washington D.C., and national chains like Goodwill and The Salvation Army.
In addition, to help folks make their wardrobe more environmentally friendly, Coffey has an online shop where she curates thrifted and upcycled clothes for others.
The Power of Upcycling
In addition to thrifting, Coffey is also a huge advocate for upcycling, which explains the process of using worn clothes and items to make something beautiful.
Coffey describes upcycling as “giving clothing another chance at life.”
“Getting stains on your clothes doesn’t mean you have to throw the piece of clothing away,” she says. “I had a sweatshirt that got wine stains on it, and I ended up cutting off the mushrooms that were on the sweatshirt and embroidering them onto my jeans and gave them a new life. I liked the jeans even more after that. You never know what you can create.”