MOORESTOWN, New Jersey – Julia Mooney stands in front of a classroom of eighth graders wearing her simple gray, button-down dress.
It’s the same outfit she wore yesterday.
She also wore it the day before.
In fact, she’s been wearing it virtually non-stop since early September.
In a project that’s drawing national attention, the 34-year-old art teacher at William Allen Middle School has vowed to wear the dress every day she teaches for the first 100 days of the school year.
Wednesday is Day 47.
Mooney is trying to raise awareness of what she calls a growing “culture of excess” in America that has filled our closets to overflowing with throwaway garments.
“There is no rule anywhere that says that we have to wear a different thing every day,” she says. “Why do we ask this of each other? Why do we require that we each wear something different every day and buy more clothes and feed into this fast-fashion culture?”
Mooney is not alone. She hoped to spark discussion among her students, friends and coworkers about the peer pressure children face to buy the latest fashions and the sustainability of their “consume, consume, consume” habits. But she hasfound herself at the center of a wider national conversation around what is known as “sustainable fashion.”
Call it the antithesis of fast fashion, the inexpensive, quickly made, trend-of-the-moment clothing that has been flooding store shelves in recent years and allowing consumers to expand and quickly refresh wardrobes.
Sustainable fashion is about wearing clothing made in an eco-friendly way, buying fewer but better-made pieces of clothing, wearing them more often, and making sure garments eventually are recycled.
“This is becoming much more of a mass movement,” says fashion consultant Greta Eagan, author of Wear No Evil: How to Change the World with Your Wardrobe. “It’s spreading beyond people who are ‘green and clean’ to the general public.”
Eagan, who blogs about eco-friendly clothing at fashionmegreen.com, says the sustainable fashion movement is following the path of the organic food and clean beauty movements of recent years, which started on the fringes and eventually went mainstream.
At first people began caring more about the sustainability and healthfulness of what they put in their bodies. Then they started paying attention to what they put on their bodies. Now they’re thinking more about the sustainability of what covers their bodies.
“Fashion, I always like to say, is the last frontier,” Eagan says.
The clothing industry long has drawn criticism for its wastefulness – and not just from the outside.
Top American clothing designer Eileen Fisher is famous for calling her industry the second largest polluter in the world, behind only the oil industry.
“It’s a really nasty business,” she said at a 2015 event honoring her commitment to environmental causes. “It’s a mess.”
Industry critics say much clothing is made from materials that cause harm to both people and the environment. Textile makers use water that often is contaminated with bleaches, solvents, acids, alkalis, dyes and resins.
Now the growing volume of clothing being churned out is multiplying the environmental harm. The typical person buys 60 percent more items of clothing each year than the typical person 15 years ago – and keeps them for about half as long, according to a report commissioned this year by Bellevue, Washington-based thrift store chain Savers.
There’s been a concurrent surge in the volume of textiles being sent to landfills.
Savers, a “purpose-driven” company that advocates clothing recycling, says North Americans now are sending 12 million tons of textiles to landfills each year. The chain, which operates Value Village thrift stores throughout the United States and Canada, says 95 percent of the discarded items could be recycled.
Growing demand for more sustainable clothing is prompting a growing number of fashion brands and retail stores to make changes.
The global performance brand Under Armour began making NuTech shirts more than three years ago with REPREVE, a brand of recycled fiber made from recycled plastic bottles. The fiber, produced by North Carolina-based Unifi, has worked its way into 2.5 million shirts, diverting the equivalent of about 10 million plastic bottles from landfills, according to Unifi.
Other brands that use REPREVE include Haggar and Patagonia.
On the retail side, outdoor gear and clothing seller REI this year established social, environmental and animal welfare standards that brands must meet if they want a place on its store shelves. The requirements include a ban on products that contain certain chemicals, a code of conduct for manufacturers, and animal welfare standards for down and wool supply chains.
Eileen Fisher has long been focused on sustainable clothing. The brand has embraced the use of sustainable fabrics, eco-friendly manufacturing and shipping, and end-of-life recycling for garments.
Through a program called Renew, Eileen Fisher has taken back more than 1 million garments from customers. It’s using the material to create new designs.
Taking back clothing at the end of their lifecycle is a growing trend in the industry. The global retailer H&M, GUESS and Columbia Sportswear have partnered with the textile recycler I:CO recently to take back old clothes from customers via collection at stores.
I:CO processes the clothing for reuse, or recycles it into other products such as cleaning cloths, fibers for insulation or even new clothing.
In August, the fitness brand Reebok unveiled a new, entirely bio-based “Cotton + Corn” line of footwear featuring cotton upper and soles made from a corn derivative instead of the petroleum-based synthetic rubber common in the industry.
The product is designed, in part, to keep petroleum-based products out of landfills. Reebok’s long-term goal is to have a shoe that is fully compostable.
Bill McInnis is head of Reebok’s Future Team, which focuses on creating new products and techniques.
“Every athletic shoe on every shelf in Foot Locker or Finish Line or wherever you happen to go is made using petroleum products, and everybody knows that’s not a sustainable material,” McInnis says. “The idea was to replace the petroleum products with something that grows.”
McInnis notes Reebok, like other companies, has tried developing and marketing eco-friendly products in the past, only to see little interest from consumers.
But it’s clear now that the times have changed. McInnis says an initial batch of several thousand “Cotton + Corn” shoes, priced at $95 a pair, sold out in a single day.
“We’ve really seen a shift in consumer tastes here,” he says. “For the first time, you’re seeing consumers seek (these products) out and be willing to pay more for it.”
The point is significant, given that sustainable clothing often costs more than traditional garments.
The old knock on sustainable clothing, McInnis says, was that “everybody wants green, (but) nobody wants to pay for it.”
Now, he says, that’s no longer true.
Reebok continues to tinker with its new line. In early November, the company unveiled a second round of the “Cotton + Corn” shoes with a twist: In addition to being bio-based, they’re vegan, too.
A tiny bit of vegetable-tanned leather that had been on the first version was replaced with a vegan-friendly material, McInnis says.
Mooney is documenting her “One Outfit, 100 Days” project on Instagram. Her @oneoutfit100days account gives credit to fashion brands that are making it a mission to offer sustainable clothing.
She bought the dress at Thought Clothing, a London-based company that uses natural, organic and recycled fabrics including wool, hemp and wood pulp-based Tencel.
Thought, which calls it approach “slow fashion,” says the clothing is designed for long-term use. The company encourages customers to wear garments more than once before washing, to fix worn pieces and to find new users for unneeded or unwanted articles to give them a longer life.
Mooney says consumers shy away from better-made clothing that will last longer because it costs more. But the thinking is flawed: Better-made clothing can end up being cheaper in the long run.
Mooney paid about $50 for her dress. Over the 100 days she’ll wear it during the project, that works out to just 50 cents a day.
“Because we have to wear something different every day, (we think) it can’t be expensive,” she says. “So we buy more cheap clothing that isn’t really high-quality, and that uses a lot of natural resources to produce. And then we throw it out.”
Mooney says she buys used clothing from thrift stores and other venues to give them a second life. All of her three young children’s clothing is bought used, she notes.
“It’s cheaper, but even if it wasn’t cheaper, I don’t care, because I feel good that I’m reusing something that’s perfectly good,” she says. “And (the kids) don’t care. They think they’re perfectly new.”
Mooney recently bought a sewing machine and is teaching herself to make her own clothes – something she says we all should do. She’s also learned to knit.
Mooney thinks her middle school students are at the perfect age to start thinking about such issues.
“Middle schoolers are trying to define themselves, to figure out their identity,” she says. “And just naturally – partly because of their age but also because of the culture – they are defining themselves and judging each other based on the brands that they are wearing.”
Mooney didn’t talk about the project with her students at the outset.
“I kind of let it go at the beginning to see who would notice and who would bring it up,” she says. “Some kids noticed on the second day, and some didn’t notice at all.”
When she finally had a class discussion about the project a few weeks into the school year, she says, the students were very receptive.
“None of them have reacted like, ‘Oh, that’s so gross. You’re so weird,” she says, and laughs. “Some of them understand it on a surface level, because they’re 12. But I think even on a surface level the ideas are important, so whatever they’re getting out of it I think is positive.”
Student Nate Bunting says Mooney’s example has prompted him to consider wearing the same clothes for more than one day in a row.
Not for 100 days, though.
Maybe “for two,” he says.
“I think it’s really cool how she is doing it for a bigger cause,” Bunting says.
Adults in Mooney’s world have been mostly on board, too, she says. A few have joined her in wearing the same outfit for 100 days.
Among them is Mooney’s husband. Patrick Mooney, a teacher at nearby Moorestown High School, has been wearing the same khaki pants and dark blue shirt to classes since the school year began in September.
“It seemed like a pretty simple way of promoting something that most people probably overlook,” says Patrick Mooney, 38. “I was a little intimidated by the prospect of re-wearing the same thing every day, but it’s really become quite simple.”
Moorestown High School teacher Beth Glennon was inspired by Mooney’s project to create her own 100-day wardrobe challenge.
When her triplet sons went off to college a few months ago, they left a closet full of shirts behind. Now she’s wearing a different one of her boys’ shirts to school every day.
“With so many clothes left behind, there was no need for me to do any back-to-school shopping,” Glennon says. “For me it’s not just (about) wearing their hand-me-downs. It’s a fun way to keep the boys on my mind instead of missing them every day.
Plus, I’m forced to clean out their closet.”
The idea also has spread to Moorestown’s George C. Baker Elementary School.
“I thought if there’s a chance for me to be more sustainable, I’m gonna take it,” Baker student Sofia Rubich says.
Rubich, a 7-year-old at the grade school, decided to join Mooney in wearing the same outfit for 100 days after reading about her in a local paper.
“You shouldn’t be buying new clothes when you should be using the ones you have,” she says.
She thinks her effort is making an impact on the Earth.
“It was kind of hard when I started out, because you want to make your own ideas and let your style be free,” she says. But “then the fun part about it is that it is so easy to get dressed in the morning, and I can add my own style to it with leggings and different accessories. So my style still shines through.”
Both Rubich and Mooney say they do get one question about the project over and over.
“The first thing a lot of people ask me is, ‘do you wash it?’,” Mooney says. She chuckles.
“Of course I wash it!”
She often wears an apron over the dress in art class to protect it from stains. She wears other clothes on weekends.
“This is not a project about hygiene,” she says. “I always come to work clean.”
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