Children grow quickly and are often rough on their clothes. This means parents find themselves shopping for children’s clothing often. Though buying the least expensive clothing possible might seem practical, the environmental impact of mass-produced children’s clothing, like with modern fashion in general, is significant.
“I’m on the frontlines of textile recycling and waste,” said Andrea Palise, owner of Bubbles and Bean Children’s Consignment in Camden. “The things that I am seeing are shocking in the way that the producers of fast fashion have zero accountability. I find that the children’s clothes [are] even made more cheaply. Three washes and they’re already getting pilly and worn out.”
Fortunately, there are a few simple steps you can take if you are looking to shop for children’s clothing in a way that is better for the planet without breaking the bank. Here are some tips for shopping more sustainably for children’s clothes, whether you’re on your first kid or your fifth.
Buy better quality garments
It seems counterintuitive, especially if you are on a budget, but buying better quality children’s clothing will help you save money and be more sustainable in the long run. Quality clothing will not only last longer, but it will also have a higher resale value if you want to pass on the garments to a consignment store.
Aside from shopping brands known for better quality, Palise said that you can look at the stitching of the clothing you are considering to judge whether it is quality or not. Better quality garments will have more stitches per inch and tighter seams. If you pull the seam from the inside of the garment and it comes apart, the garment is likely lower quality. The stitches should also be neat, even and lay flat in order to avoid snagging.
“Look at the quality of the cloth [too],” Palise said. “You can easily feel the difference between a good quality garment and a fast fashion garment.”
Quality clothes can be expensive, though. If you are on a budget, Palise said to splurge on a few key items, and then look to second-hand shops for others. Palise said that she might splurge on items like shoes and coats for children, especially a climate like Maine’s, but items like jeans she would feel confident finding a quality product at a second-hand shop.
“Jeans these days are just jeans for kids,” Palise said. “The knit wear, that’s when the price usually reflects the quality.”
As with any clothing, consciously choosing fabrics that are grown in a more sustainable way is one way to reduce the impact of your children’s clothing.
“The way that the fiber is grown is a big factor,” said Vero Poblete-Howell, owner of the Etsy shop BAOBAOrganics that sells organic baby clothes, toys and accessories based in Waldoboro. “I would recommend that all the people read the labels. Read the composition of the fabric. Get informed about what your kids are really wearing.”
Poblete-Howell said that, for example, organic cotton will be grown in a more environmentally-conscious way, without harmful pesticides and synthetic fertilizer that could harm local ecosystems.
However, she said not even all organic fabrics are created equal. For example, organic cotton that is dyed bright colors are still contributing to environmental ills through the dyeing process. Organic cotton that is grown abroad will also have a large carbon footprint associated with transporting it.
“Organic fabrics made in the U.S.A. are just very, very limited,” Poblete-Howell said. “I do work with organic fabrics made in the U.S.A. and the price range goes to the sky, but I can certify that it can be done in a way that is sustainable from top to bottom.”
Poblete-Howell recommended looking into other sustainable fabrics, like hemp.
“Hemp is an amazing fiber,” she said. “It’s way more sustainable than the cotton [and has] antifungal properties. Hemp has a touch that is not as soft as the cotton so the combination of the two of them is the best of the two worlds. I have also used recycled polyester [made from] scraps from cutting rooms that were being chopped again and made into new yarn. It was like working basically with no waste which is a huge part of being sustainable, too.”
Buy or swap 2nd hand
Buying second hand children’s clothes ensures that no new resources go into the production of the clothing and is one of the best ways in general to reduce the impact of your clothing in general.
Palise said that for most basics like t-shirts and jeans, parents should be able to find quality garments at a much lower price.
“I would definitely say consignment is the way to go for your basics,” Palise said.
Even Poblete-Howell recommended that people shop secondhand.
“I think recycling clothing is today our duty,” Poblete-Howell said. “Even though I have a business, if I want to give advice to someone, it’s go find clothes that have been already made and recycle. I think that’s more sustainable than anything else at this moment.”
Setting up groups and events where you can swap children’s clothing is another great way to get second-hand clothing for free, while also bonding with other parents.
“If you find a piece of garment beautiful, they can tell you something about it, [like] she wore it every day, it’s so warm, this one’s not itchy,” Poblete-Howell said. “They’ve been experienced, they’ve been worn. I love that part. It’s beyond just the way it looks.”
Opt for bigger, adjustable clothing
If you buy larger clothing for your children, you can make simple adjustments to make it work for them until they grow into it, which extends the usable life of the garment. Adjustments range from the very basic, no-sew fixes, like cuffing a pair of pants, to ones that will require some sewing skills, like adding an extra button to adjust the waistline on a pair of pants.
“I usually recommend that my friends don’t buy anything [sized] for zero to three months,” Poblete-Howell said. “Just buy bigger so they can wear it during that time and wear it later too.”
Some children’s clothing will even have adjustability built in.
“If you see my stuff many of them are designed with that in mind — you can roll the legs up, tie the straps more, grow into it,” Poblete-Howell said.
Cycle through clothes more
Again, it might seem counterintuitive, but Palise said that donating clothing more frequently and purchasing second hand clothing that actually fits will make the clothes last longer. This is especially helpful if you are able to donate those clothes to a consignment store, where you can make some money and use it to purchase better fitting products.
“Some moms say, ‘I want to keep that pair of jeans until they absolutely don’t fit in them anymore and they’re destroyed,’” Palise said. “[But] you can make money off of it while it’s still in good condition. If you revolve the items more frequently, it would actually save you money because you’re making money before it’s worn out.”
Another thing to consider: children might be less inclined to wear their hand-me-downs if they are out of style. Instead, pass those clothes along to another parent, or donate them while they are still in, that way they get the maximum use instead of just sitting in your closet.
“Fashions change quickly,” Palise said. “Ninja Turtles might not be popular in four years when you have the next baby. [For example] Elsa [from ‘Frozen’] is out. Nobody wants Elsa anymore. If you’re stuck with a bunch of Elsa t-shirts, nobody’s going to want to wear them. Go ahead and put that stuff out there. Don’t hang onto stuff because fashions will change.”
It can be hard to curtail your shopping when you have a cute new baby, but one of the best ways to reduce your fashion footprint is just to buy fewer items for your child. This goes for clothing as well as other baby products.
“Just ask around and say do I need this,” Palise said. “One of the biggest items [I receive at the consignment store] is grocery cart covers. Nobody wants them. Our consumer world will invent any product and they will tell you that you need it, and you don’t.”
Plus, Palise said, your children are likely only going to have a few clothes they love to death, anyway.
“Kids are notorious for picking their favorite two pairs of jeans and that’s all they’re going to wear,” Palise said. “A lot of parents in our consumer society just buy way too much. Pare it down.”