THE LIFESPAN OF A PRODUCT: BUYING TO LAST

By  Julia B. Grinberg 


With ample attention given to products,  practices, and packaging; a key component often overlooked while navigating the sustainable shopping landscape is lifespan. 

woman shopping in clothing rack
Photo by: Beth McHaffie

The intended lifecycle of a garment begins at conception with design, giving consideration to both durability and relevance within a wardrobe. With longevity in mind, designers have the opportunity to drastically elevate a product’s sustainability by minimizing the need for it to be quickly discarded or frequently replaced. According to the UK-based nonprofit, Waste and Resource Action Programme (WRAP), extending the life of clothes by just nine extra months of active use would reduce carbon, water, and waste footprints by around 20-30% each.

But with a booming industry of fast-fashion creators churning out trends at rapid-fire speed to obey seasonal and short-attention demand, a growing closet of low quality products subscribes to the idea of “buy more” instead of “buy better.” In addition to the impact of mass manufacturing and maintenance, the volume of clothes waste (which weighs in at over ten million tons) has rapidly increased over the last two decades.  So, let’s take a look at the variables of a product’s lifespan, and what causes us to throw away or replace.  

1. DURABILITY:

The durability of a product can be broken down into three main categories: Construction, Resistance, and Care

worn in leather boots
Photo by: Oziel Gómez 

The construction of a piece refers to the manufacturing decisions - materials, cut, and fit. Resistance has to do with the  impact of surface abrasions and staining through active use. Care relates to the appropriate coloration techniques, and proper communication between maker and buyer on garment maintenance. These factors are often at odds with one another when it comes to using sustainable materials, especially when we look into the realities of real vs. vegan leather. 

The use and consumption of animal products have proven to come with a  juggernaut of a carbon footprint, but when looking at the lifespan of leather, a deeper dive is required. Real leather has a near  lifetime guarantee, making vegan leather alternatives pale in comparison when it comes to durability, clocking in with an average 2-5 year lifespan. Vegan leather is also often made from plastic-based materials that, when disposed of, make their way into our oceans or landfills where they never fully biodegrade. Real leather offers the ability to buy vintage / second hand, allowing a fruitful afterlife and a more responsible way to shop leather. If you are going to buy vegan, consider options that are plastic- free. Also, be mindful to care for your purchases, adjusting your active use to mirror what it can withstand. 

Another set of materials to take a closer look at is organic vs. conventional cotton. Organic farming is significantly more environmentally friendly than conventional farming by eliminating the use of harmful chemicals. However, organic cotton’s high demand and low yield (averaging 25% less than non-organic cotton) can actually end up using more resources. Studies show that it takes more than double the amount of water to produce an organic cotton shirt then it does a conventional one. While it is still better to promote organic farming, it’s also important to be mindful of the amount of clothes we’re buying even when the material is organic. 

2. RELEVANCE:

With the relevance of a product we’re looking at the aesthetic heavy hitters; Comfort, Age, and Style

fashion magazine covers

Where durability focuses on the physical aspects of our clothes, relevance focuses on the emotional. How do we feel in what we wear? Comfort comes in the product’s materials, size, and fit. Age relates to how a product looks over time, after wear and washes. Style speaks to the trends and seasons of the clothes we’re buying. Taking things back to the beginning, designing with the intent to create something that is timeless, and transcends fast fads, extends a product’s lifespan. Slow fashion is a movement that is the antithesis of fast fashion, and works to actively slow down the pace of shopping and consumption. Slow fashion aims to unite ethics and aesthetics, dismissing the conventional output schedules. Fast fashion brands can have one new “collection” a week, and with such a rushed production schedule quality takes a backseat to quantity.   

In addition to creating classic styles with quality materials,  other design details that can extend a clothing’s lifespan include built-in features for size adjustments, reinforcing weaker areas more susceptible to stress (i.e. knees and elbows), multifunctionality, and clear guidance on care. 

As a conscious shopper there is a responsibility to be more purposeful with your purchases, investing in articles of high quality instead of seeing clothes as a disposable object. Studies show that many of us are only likely to wear our clothes 7 to 10 times before it ends up in a landfill, and that we only really wear 20% of what is in our closets. Marie Kondo advocates that if a possession doesn’t spark joy, it needn't be in your collection. Those in fashion developed the term capsule closet, to not only decrease consumer buying, but also eliminate the stress that comes with too many options. Capsule closets provide a minimalist aesthetic that help to hone your personal style, and pare down your wardrobe to a versatile small selection of key pieces. Fully committing to this approach may not be for everyone, but the idea of only owning what you need is something we all can implement into our everyday shopping habits to better serve sustainability. 


Before buying a new product, let’s all try and go through this quick mental checklist: 

person thinking
Photo by Anthony Tran

  • Is this product built to last and made with high-quality sustainable materials? 
  • Is this product biodegradable? Does it have the potential for an afterlife? 
  • Is this something that I really need, and will I care for the product as required to extend its lifespan?

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