Our clothing tells the world a lot about who we are and what we believe. Everything from the pattern to the material used to construct the garments that adorn our bodies is indicative of our socioeconomic class, our personal beliefs, and our aesthetic tastes. But what is less obvious is the way our habits at the shopping mall effect the environment. It is vitally important to reconsider our personal choices when it comes to fashion in order to decrease our footprint on the globe.
Quality vs. Quantity: The easiest way to reduce your effect on the planet is to buy fewer items. However, since it is not realistic for human beings to not wear any clothing at all, we should consider spending a little more money on products of higher quality, produced in countries with fair labor and environmental standards. These products will last much longer and are usually more comfortable. In addition, many companies include warranties on their products so that the garment can be repaired instead of replaced. For example, Danner will re-sole any pair of Danner boots at a fraction of the cost of a new pair of shoes, but Danner boots are quite expensive. You really do get what you pay for. Repairing uses significantly fewer materials than the production of any entirely new product and also contributes fewer pollutants. Buying less items of poor or lesser quality and instead purchasing a limited number of higher quality items will also result in less waste in the landfill when articles of clothing inevitably end up there.
Natural vs. Synthetic Fibers: This is a trickier issue than it may appear on the surface. On the one hand, fibers such as vinyl and polyester take decades to decompose in a landfill. On the other hand, one has to seriously consider the quantity of water and other natural resources used to grow plant based fibers such as cotton and bamboo. The sheer size of a plot of land required to grow plants for use as cloth fibers is enough to seriously question it's sustainability as growing practices currently stand. A really interesting article on the costs of cotton growing and potential sustainable solutions can be found here: http://www.sustainablecotton.org/images/media/Sustainable_Cotton_Production_&_Processing.pdf
Hemp is, to some, a viable alternative to cotton because of it's decreased requirement for land and water, but it presents some problems of it's own: http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/the_green_lantern/2011/04/high_on_environmentalism.2.html
While polyester has a rather nasty reputation for its perceived lack of eco friendliness, it is recyclable. Most natural fibers degrade at an accelerated rate, compared to their synthetic siblings. Teijin, a Japanese company, has developed the technology to recycle spent articles of polyester clothing into "virgin" quality fibers which can be utilized to make new garments. Unfortunately, this practice has yet to be embraced globally. Polyester is a petroleum product so it certainly has its unsustainable aspects as well.
I did a little research on natural textile recycling, but the consensus seems to be that it is almost impossible to recycle natural fibers for use in the manufacturing of new or new-quality garments, but that doesn't necessarily mean it has to go to waste. The Cotton Lobby, for lack of a better word, has developed a program wherein old denim is converted into insulation for Habit for Humanity Homes. You can read more about that here: http://cottontoday.cottoninc.com/sustainability-about/recycling/
This seems a bit like downcycling and almost counter to the central theme of re-thinking sustainability, but it is certainly better than rotting in a landfill.
When shopping, do your research. It is incredibly easy to fall prey to a price tag, but buying clothing from a company who does not value the health and well being of it's employees or the environment is only increasing demand and thus harm to the planet, especially in those countries with loose emissions and labor standards. In addition, always donate your items to a second hand store because I can guarantee there is someone out there who could use it. If an article of clothing has clearly reached the end of it's lifespan, look for textile recycling programs in your community and be very wary of purchasing items constructed with synthetic fibers. Here is a website that features designers in a multitude of price points who are making steps towards long term sustainability: https://sites.google.com/site/sustainablestyles/sustainable-examples-nike
Ultimately, the answer lies in convincing ourselves that we don't need as much clothing as we presently believe and making sound choices in the disposal of these items at the end of a much longer life cycle than is currently maintained. But it does stand to reason that adopting the practices of recycling our textiles, both synthetic and natural, into fibers that can be used for new articles of clothing as well as more eco-friendly growing habits will lessen greatly our impact on the planet.