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Green looks good on you
Seamstress holding pink cloth over a sewing machine

Green looks good on you

The case for sustainable fashion

Anna Tempestoso '23
Photos by
Photos by

We all have to wear clothes. And while some of us use them as an opportunity to express ourselves, many of us accept clothes as a functional tool in our dynamic, busy lives. Regardless of our relationship to clothes, the intricate stitching and embellishments on what we wear were all purposefully arranged by people. Machines assist in the process, but all clothing is made by the moving hands of real humans—millions of them, eight out of 10 being women—worldwide.

All clothing is handmade.

That may come as a shock—it did for me too. The truth about what we wear is strategically hidden from us as consumers so we can continue to run on our automatic wheel of consumption.

The tough reality is that the fashion industry contributes about 10% of global carbon dioxide output (more than international flights and shipping combined) and a fifth of the globally produced plastic every year (60 million tons), and it is the second most water-intensive industry in the world—your favorite pair of jeans likely took around 2,000 gallons to make (equivalent to the amount of water the average person drinks over the course of seven years). Fashion is also one of the most labor-dependent industries on the planet—a staggering one in six people in the world work in some part of the global fashion industry.

But know this: We can choose to put clothes on our bodies that are mindful of the planet, people, and all our world’s inhabitants.

Anna Tempestoso sitting in a white chair in front of her sewing machine

Since the early months of 2020, when I first watched the chilling 2015 documentary The True Cost from Andrew Morgan, I challenged myself to choose only secondhand or responsibly made clothes. In both my academic career at UMass and in my personal life, I’ve been investigating the complicated supply chains threading in and out of the fashion world and encouraging more people to acknowledge the power they can have by wearing more sustainable, mindful clothes.

Here’s the exciting part: You can choose to enact sustainable style right now.

Get to know your closet

We’ve all been there: You look at your closet and think, “Ugh, I have nothing to wear,” while at least a hundred items of clothing are waiting to be taken for a spin. In these moments, when we aren’t happy with what we have, it’s been societally ingrained in us to react by consuming more. But the real problem is that we do not give our belongings the attention they deserve. Just like with people, we need to get to know what we have—how they can or can’t benefit our lives. We need to know when it’s time to be resourceful and find a new purpose for pieces, when to seek new additions to our valued collections, and when to say goodbye mindfully through resale or donation of what no longer serves us. Because the truth, backed by science, is that we’re happier with less.

Take some time to intentionally reacquaint yourself with the clothing you’ve been collecting for years. The image search engine Pinterest can provide ideas for how to pair items you already own. Let’s say you have a pair of sneakers you usually save for the gym. Searching the name of the shoes along with the occasion and/or season (“Nike running sneakers outfit winter ideas”) will provide some visuals for inspiration. These explorations can inspire you to rethink how the dress pants stored in the back of your closet for interviews or the maxi dress in your stowed-away summer wardrobe can be layered and styled to create a fresh look. This is a win for your wallet, your closet space, the planet, and you—building personal style translates seamlessly into stronger self-confidence.

A sewing needle and thread

Trading up

Stefanie Johnson ’06 founded a unique solution to the unsustainable fashion industry, dubbed SwapIt. Customers pay a minimal membership fee to swap an unlimited amount of clothes at the Medford, Mass., store. Johnson’s simple one-to-one swapping method encourages members to keep only what they need in their closets. SwapIt also offers styling services, so that members feel confident wearing what they take home.

With patrons, Johnson emphasizes the excitement and ease of an unlimited wardrobe, and that comes from a genuine place, but it’s also a backdoor strategy to encourage more people to dress sustainably. Shoppers already invested in sustainable clothing are “not who I’m going after,” says Johnson. Rather, she hopes to get everyone else on board with buying less, knowing that there are already plenty of clothes circulating to last us all a lifetime—and along the way, she hopes to make patrons feel more confident about what they are wearing.

The surprising power of sewing

There is no better way to transform how we think about clothes than to learn what it takes to make them. Now hear me out: Sewing seems much more complicated than it actually is. It used to be a widely known, simple yet practical skill, before it fell out of popularity with the baby boomer generation as more women explored careers beyond traditional homemaking roles. What secured the loss of the art of sewing was when the cost of clothing dropped significantly—business deregulations and tax cuts in the ’80s led to mass globalization, inspiring a wild and unstoppable growth of companies with complicated supply chains chasing a lower and more competitive price for all sorts of goods produced, especially clothes.

Picking up a sewing machine ignites endless opportunities to enhance your wardrobe, personal style, and (dare I say) life. And that potential is accessible to anyone, certainly not just women. Everyone wears clothes, and anyone can embark on the journey of making them, too.

Once you get your hands on a machine and some basic tools like fabric scissors, pins, and black and white thread, you only need three more things to get going on your sewist journey: an open mind, a fair amount of patience, and access to YouTube for unlimited tutorials.

Know that with every project you’ll be learning something new. It may not always be a smooth learning curve—it most definitely was not for me—but that’s why it’s important to focus on enjoying each step in the process with an open mind and some patience. Building an understanding of the immense effort it takes to craft what we wear every day will inevitably encourage you to think about how much energy goes into anything we own.

For your sewist journey: an open mind, a fair amount of patience, and access to YouTube.

If we thought more about where our clothes and our other belongings have traveled from and who they’ve met along the way before landing with us, maybe we’d feel more of a connection to those things—and maybe we’d learn to cherish our belongings more. That would be the start of rejecting throwaway culture and beginning to dismantle habits of nonstop consumption.

Shopping sustainably

There will come a time in all of our lives when we want a piece in our closet that isn’t already in it. But noticing the difference between a craving and a thoughtful desire is important. Deciphering which is which can be as easy as keeping a list of items you want to add to your wardrobe and then waiting for a bit, checking that list every so often to see if those pieces still spark interest for you. Once it’s clearer what you truly want, the world of secondhand clothes provides a great outlet, or you can seek out brands that are sustainably and ethically made.

A pile of colorful headed sewing pins on a pink background

If joining a big scavenger hunt sounds exciting, thrifting is for you. It can take some time to sort through the racks of clothing, which to some people can feel a bit daunting. But when you think of it as a fun way to discover one-of-a-kind gems rather than a typical shopping experience, it can feel much more approachable. If you don’t find hunting for clothes very thrilling, then consignment shops may be the right speed for you. They’re much more curated, and often feel like a more luxurious experience. If you enjoy shopping online, eBay and thredUP are my favorite online resale platforms to head to when I’m looking for very specific items or brands. I like to call eBay the “more sustainable Amazon,” as it shares two of the giant’s most desirable aspects: a wide array of services and goods and fast shipping.

ThredUP is a fabulous way to shop for kidswear or womenswear—from ordinary to luxury—when you have an idea of what you want. An abundance of filters narrow searches by size, color, print, occasion, and more. In fact, thredUP led me to fall in love with secondhand shopping during my pledge against fast fashion in 2020, and it has since been a go-to place to find secondhand gems for myself and to gift to my loved ones.

Shopping from sustainable and ethical brands encourages mindful fashion production through consumer demand, and it challenges unsustainable brands to step up their eco-responsibility game. Good on You is an incredibly useful web directory for reviewing the sustainable practices of the brands you love and for learning about sustainable brands that are making an impact.

A sewing needle and thread

Attention shoppers

Anne Trevenen studied business at UMass before receiving a fashion degree from Parsons School of Design and working for companies like Ralph Lauren and J.Crew. She is now the graduate fashion program coordinator at Lasell University, where she leads a program with a concentration in sustainable fashion operations.

Throughout her career, she’s watched public awareness of sustainable fashion increase dramatically. Online connectedness means greater surveillance of manufacturing, and companies “can’t say nothing” about the sustainability of their products, she says. From her career-long vantage point, she thinks we’re on the right track.

However, we’re certainly not yet where we ought to be. Trevenen constantly encounters students’ panic about the planet’s future, and says, “I think their fear is genuine.”

To create a brighter future, the change must be cultural, she notes. “When clothing got cheap, everybody got used to having way too much of it,” Trevenen says. So what’s the best thing the average consumer can do?

“Buy less,” she says. “That’s it.”

My personal favorite way to “do” sustainable fashion is not to buy new—even if it is a sustainable brand. I prefer to appreciate and take care of what I have, to upcycle, and to choose secondhand clothing over new whenever I can. More than 80% of clothing in thrift stores goes unsold and travels to incinerators and landfills—and enough clothing already exists on this planet to clothe the next six generations. Those truths alone inspire me to offer love to items deemed unworthy by their initial owners.

Everyone can join the sustainable fashion movement in their own way and realize the influence that changing purchasing decisions can have on their well-being and on the environment. Enacting sustainability can require a fuse of research, time, energy, and money, which can be challenging for us to integrate with our busy lives. That’s why it is vital for us to slow down and reflect on how we think about what we wear. Whether it’s rocking your favorite fast-fashion pieces to the ground before buying from the same store again or picking up sewing to enhance your thrifting experiences—we can all acknowledge the power we have as consumers and as humans to choose better for us and for the planet.

How to jump into sewing

I recommend asking your Facebook network for lonely sewing appliances and equipment, or purchasing them secondhand. Once you locate and watch a setup tutorial for the sewing machine you’ve acquired, you’re ready to take on your first project. Creating a bucket hat was one of the first sewing projects I was able to complete—with a lot of seam ripping and wonky seams (which, by the way, I can guarantee will never be noticeable. When was the last time you were staring at the stitching on what someone else was wearing?).

I was committed to using what I already had or what thrift stores offered, so I mainly used old denim for this project. I would often embrace the already existing seams of pant legs to add interesting accents to each hat. The tutorial I followed was accompanied by a free printable pattern—an awesomely common happening on YouTube.

Close up on Anna Tempestoso’s hands working with a green checkered piece of fabric

Here is a full guide to my beginner upcycling endeavors early on in my sewing journey.

Most of these are thrift flips, which is the exciting and fulfilling process of taking something you find at a thrift store and revamping it into something a little (or a lot) different than how you found it. It’s an amazing route to exploring your creativity on a budget and in a mindful way. It’s also a game changer in building your personal style sustainably and confidently—it gives you the opportunity to strut around in something that’s not only friendly to the planet and your wallet but is also entirely unique and is woven with your personal flair.

Thrift-flipping is a form of upcycling, which is taking anything that already exists, no matter where it’s from, and warmly awarding it new life. Whether it’s transforming thrifted bed sheets into a dress you’ve been dreaming of or merely mending a loosened stitch in your favorite sweater, upcycling clothing builds an ecological mindset. It’s a way of living that we so deeply need to adopt so we can better nurture our relationships with what we own and with our environment.

Once I completed a few projects and grew my sewing skill set, I gained some confidence in taking a jab at recreating pieces without a tutorial or pattern. Most often, I’d feel compelled to mimic classic feminine silhouettes by Reformation, or color block sweatpants and sweatshirts made by other sewists on Instagram. During the pandemic, I had seemingly unlimited time on my hands. So the moment I’d discover a piece that I found exciting, I’d consider if it was something I could replicate based on the few techniques I had conquered and the ones that I was curious to learn.

And from there, I would totally wing it. I would barely measure anything out. Beyond trusting my eye, tracing clothes I already owned, and the trial and error of sewing a stitch or two, trying on the work-in-progress, then pivoting—there wasn’t much strategic planning. Which I love to honestly share. Too often we think of sewing as a skill that always requires immense precision and perfection. Just like with any skill, there are incredibly talented experts—designers, pattern cutters, garment workers—who perform the skill in a remarkable way. But then there are people who enjoy that skill at its basic level: for fun, and for hands-on therapy. Recognizing that allowed me to relieve the pressure of perfectionism in what I created and to focus on enjoying the act of breathing new life into something. This process, of course, comes with wonky stitches and seam ripping—but it also comes with practicing problem-solving and taking each project a step at a time.

I’ll still improvise some of my projects, but with less time on my hands than I had then, I often settle for measuring and following patterns. But I still carry the mindset of prioritizing a therapeutic and fulfilling sewing experience, knowing that my work is important—not for its perfection or imperfection, but for its environmental mindfulness.

Learn more about how students like Anna design their own majors through the Bachelor’s Degree with Individual Concentration.