APDGreen Conversations: Costumes

Imogen Ross shares some Costume Sustainability Tips she has gathered while researching Fashion’s environmental footprint.“Did you know that every time you buy something that is disposable you use it then throw it away. You are literally throwing your money away.”Everytime we make a decision, we have the power to support a practice that is either sustainable or one that is not.”Bea Johnson [Zero Waste is not recycling more, but less | Bea Johnson | TEDxMünster ]This quote by sustainability advocate Bea Johnson in 2016 highlights one of the most obvious things we can do as designers, makers and wardrobe coordinators to reduce our collective carbon footprint. Every time we make a DESIGN decision, we have the power to support a practice that is either sustainable or one that is not.To REFUSE to buy new and RE_USE what we already have in stock is a conscious zero-carbon choice and slows the textile-waste stream down. It does not support the constant TAKE-MAKE-TOSS model so many industries end up adopting.

Image: http://www.hairbyjulia.com/paper-dress-fashion-show


As costume designers and makers, we engage on many levels with the fashion industry, both here in Australia and overseas. Due to the inevitable juggling of time and money designers are faced with on productions both large and small, we often choose to buy online, to have products delivered from overseas, to buy cheaply from unethical chain suppliers or to use plastic polymer fabrics over natural fibres. This is just the way things have gone over the last thirty years as we are squeezed tighter and tighter in pre-production.

Yet did you know globally there’s one garbage truck of textile waste dumped at a landfill or burnt every second? With a carbon footprint accounting for over 10% of the global greenhouse gas emissions, it is not a secret that the ‘fast’ fashion industry is destroying the environment, as well as being a major water consumer at every step. And what we do counts. We are fashion consumers as part of our jobs, and our design choices are part of these statistics.

Synthetic fibers, such as polyester, nylon and acrylics, are plastic polymer fibers. Being petroleum-based plastics they are non-biodegradable, and can take up to 200 years to decompose in landfill sites. Synthetic fibers are now used in 69% of our clothing and every year, over 70 million barrels of oil (non-renewable fossil-fuel) are used to make the polyester fibers that eventually end up in our oceans, entering the food chain and killing animals by ingestion

Every time we wash a synthetic garment (polyester,nylon, etc), about 700.000 individual microfibers are released into the water, making their way into our oceans. Scientists have discovered that small aquatic organisms ingest those microfibers. These are then eaten by small fish which are later eaten by bigger fish, introducing plastic in our food chain.

*Much of this information was found on https://www.sustainyourstyle.org/en/environmental-impacts 

A recent study  indicated that wearing synthetic fibers can release plastic microfibers into the air! According to the study one person “could release almost 300 million polyester microfibres per year to the environment by machine-washing their clothes,

and more than 900 million to the air by simply wearing the garments”.

A huge quantity of freshwater is used for the dyeing and finishing process for nearly all the clothes we buy, regardless of the fibre origin. It can take up to 200 tons of freshwater per ton of dyed fabric and around 9,700 liters are needed to produce just 1kg of cotton  before it is turned into fabric. It then takes about 2,720 liters of water to make one cotton shirt and a whopping 7,000 liters to make one pair of jeans!

*Taken From: https://thevou.com/fashion/sustainable-fashion/#why-is-sustainable-fashion-important

These statistics are awful and frightening.

So what can we choose to do as Costume designers, Costume-department coordinators and Stand-By Costume departments to lower our carbon footprint on set?

  • Design for Sustainability. We set the look. We choose the materials. We discuss the overall colour palettes and textile materiality of the production – we have the power to make conscious choices that will reduce our design’s carbon consumption AND reduce the toxins/non recyclable items entering the waste streams. Start now and make sustainability and integral part of your design and make process.
  • Refuse to buy new. Use what you already have in stock or can be sourced from 2nd hand supply chains. Tell your Production Teams why you are doing this and get their support to make the production as sustainable as possible.
  • Use local sewers, tailors and makers. Save on carbon miles and unnecessary freight. Create jobs in your local area. Build skill-based relationships and local networks. If not possible to source skills locally, buy fabrics and clothing from ethical companies that pay their workers properly and have sustainable waste streams in place.
  • Go natural: If the budget allows, choose to buy clothing made with natural fabric fibers instead of synthetic fabrics. This will reduce the amount of microplastics being washed into our water sources and air.
  • Avoid inks and dyes that contain toxic heavy metals (for example, cadmium and beryllium) and preference natural dyes made from plant materials. Make a plan NOT to pour dyes or paint waste down the sink – what are the alternatives?
  • Invest in Energy efficient machines with the 5 star Energy rating. Talk to your production company about investing in Carbon Offset credits or installing solar panels to balance out the energy consumption of the Lights, Set and Costume departments.
  • Choose to wash in cold water using your washing machine’s energy-efficient cycles. Washing in hot water requires more carbon-based energy to be used.
  • Do you need to wash everyday? Wash clothing and towels only when necessary. Choose to use items that do not need to be frequently washed. Communicate clearly with the actors and crew to encourage their support.
  • Use earth-friendly detergents and softeners: Use laundry detergent without harmful, petrochemicals (petroleum-derived). Use vinegar in the rinse cycle. This small action greatly reduces non-biodegradable toxins entering the environment.
  • Think twice about dry-cleaning. Choose items that do not require constant dry-cleaning or look for less-toxic solutions to cleaning. If it’s necessary to dry-clean costumes, chose a dry cleaner that uses environmentally-friendly cleaning solutions and bring your own reusable bags and return the hangers.
  • Drip dry Instead of using electric dryers overnight, hang clothes to dry outdoors on a clothing line or inside on drying racks hung from the ceiling or on free-standing racks in warm dry areas of the set. This will save energy, reduce carbon usage and causes less wear-and-tear on your clothing.)
  • Upcycle and Recycle after the shootTalk to the production company before the bump out about different end-of-life solutions. What items can be stored? Re-sold? Donated or Gifted to charity or smaller production companies? Directed towards rag or creative re-use industries?

Don’t throw unused textiles or clothes in the normal bins as many of these fabrics consist of synthetic, non-biodegradable fibres that will just pile up in the landfill. Could blankets and towels be given to local animal hospitals?

Less than 1% of donated clothes end up for re-sale. Unfortunately the recycling bins in chain stores like H&M and Zara stores are a guilt-free placebo that encourages ever more consumption. Most donated items end up in landfills in poor countries.

  • See more info #WhatsInyMyWash and on Stop! Micro Waste

[Tips adapted from

The most environmentally sustainable jacket is the one that’s already in your closet…”  – Patagonia’s Chief Product Officer Lisa Williams

There is always so much more to the green conversation…please share your sustainability tips, suggestions and design concerns with us.

If you are interested in adding your professional design voice and suggestions to an APDG Sustainability Protocols group or promoting green initiatives in future Green Conversations, please send an email to Imogen Ross at apdgreenconversations@gmail.com or contact Rebecca Whittington at rebecca.whittington@apdg.org.au to offer assistance and find out more.

Imogen Ross, 2022