Philadelphia Writing Project

Supporting Civically Engaged Argument Writing with Primary Sources

Curriculum Collection

Environmental Impacts of Clothing

Clothing is an important part of our lives and identities. The clothes we wear may help us show our uniqueness while also communicating connections we have to specific communities. 

Over the past century, a range of technologies have changed the ways that we make, purchase, and engage with the clothes we wear, from department stores and mail-order catalogs to online shopping and social media. Some of the most recent technological changes have profoundly impacted our environment.

If clothes are cheaply made, they can be easy to throw out—even if they were never worn. Some of the materials we use to make synthetic clothing can shed microplastics when washed; these microplastics then wind up in bodies of water and ecosystems. Clothing production uses water resources and can contribute large amounts of greenhouse gasses to the atmosphere. With all of these impacts in mind, how should our clothing systems change, if at all?


Newspaper Article

Fashions by parcel post from the Wannamaker store. Harrisburg Telegraph, June 3, 1916. (Chronicling America, Library of Congress).


Noticing and Wondering to Launch an Inquiry

In Trey Smith's grade 4 digital literacy classes, students explored environmental impacts of clothing and fashion. To begin to explore the impact clothing has on the environment, students analyzed a series of infographics using a noticing and wondering routine. Early on, students might recognize that the issue is complex because more than one environmental issue is affected: water use, water pollution, landfills, raw material extraction, and greenhouse gases.

Clothing Impacts on Environment: Noticing and Wondering to Launch an Inquiry — Trey Smith, Philadelphia Writing Project — Spring 2022



Introduce the Issue

Teachers may introduce the topic using one or more of the texts below. Instead of asking students their opinions up front, teachers should encourage students to identify the multiple perspectives of others on the issue. One topic that should likely come up in discussion but may be less evident in these texts is that clothing is important to many people, for a range of reasons. Students may recognize that the issue is complex because of the importance that clothing has.

Infographic explaining how much clothing waste goes into landfills. “How much clothing do we waste?.” (World Resources Institute, n.d.).

Infographic showing how much water it takes to make a t-shirt and jeans. “The insatiable thirst of fashion.” (Statista, 2019).

Infographic explaining how microplastics get into water from clothing. “#BePlasticWise home laundry.” (Ocean Wise, 2019).

Web article describing positive impacts of fast fashion. “The economic impact of the fashion industry.” (Fashinnovation, 2021).

Go Deeper

Students may use these texts—or excerpts from these texts—to identify additional perspectives on the issue. Teachers may introduce students to a range of people, both past and present, who have advocated for changes in how we produce and consume clothing. Historical primary sources may also be useful in helping students to recognize how some of our production and consumption processes have changed over time.

News article explaining how changes in technology have facilitated the growth of fast fashion and environmental harms. “What is fast fashion? How it's destroying the environment.” (Good Housekeeping, 2022).

Informational video about sustainable fashion options. “A beginner's guide to sustainable fashion.” (VICE Asia, 2019).

Blog post detailing impacts of both individual and larger scale change that may address environmental impacts of the fashion industry. “Individual vs. systemic change: Reforms in the fashion industry.” (Imperfect Idealist, 2021).

Informational text arguing that sustainable fashion isn't very sustainable. "The myth of sustainable fashion." (Harvard Business Review, 2022).



Culturally & Historically Relevant Literacies: 5 Pursuits

In Cultivating Genius (2020) and Unearthing Joy (2023), Gholdy Muhammad introduced a Culturally and Historically Relevant Literacies framework. The framework encourages teachers to plan units using five pursuits that were central to the work and learning of Black literary societies. A unit on the environmental impacts of fashion may address each pursuit in these ways:



Joining a Conversation in Progress: The Atwoodian Table

With his grade 4 students, Mr. Smith was attempting to help students recognize that they were joining a conversation in progress about clothing, its importance in our lives, and its effects on the environment. Students watched and listened to an example video podcast. As they listened, they identified some of the different voices that were included. All civic discussions have multiple voices and perspectives. As we develop our own ideas, we should understand what others are saying in the conversation.

Drawing upon resources from the National Writing Project's (NWP) College, Career, and Community Writers Program, Mr. Smith asked students to create an Atwoodian Table to represent the many viewpoints they heard as they listened to and watched a video podcast about the issue. (The Atwoodian Table is named for its creator, NWP teacher consultant Dr. Robin Atwood, and is inspired by the Burkean parlor metaphor).

Clothing Impacts on Environment: Atwoodian Table — Trey Smith, Philadelphia Writing Project — Spring 2022



Unpacking Texts with "Board Meetings"

Students in Mr. Smith's class held a board meeting where we summarized what they learned from reading about how technology has helped to create “fast fashion.” As students dug into the complex topic of fast fashion, they needed to grapple with science, social studies, and technology ideas. Instead of reading the entire article (which Mr. Smith had edited to change some of the more complex sentences and vocabulary), students selected excerpts that they would then summarize with a diagram. Students were able to learn from their peers about what other ideas were in the article. 

Clothing Impacts on Environment: Unpacking Texts with Jigsaws and Board Meetings — Trey Smith, Philadelphia Writing Project — Spring 2023



Analyzing Primary Sources

Students in Mr. Smith's class also analyzed historical primary sources to help them better understand how technology has changed how we advertise, buy, and acquire clothing. He asked students to notice and wonder independently with sticky notes about a range of primary sources. In whole group discussion, he facilitated discussion and summarized what students figured out together.

Clothing Impacts on Environment: Analyzing Primary Sources — Trey Smith, Philadelphia Writing Project — Spring 2022



Creating Podcasts

Creating texts for audiences outside of school is one of the important features of civically engaged argument writing. NWP's College, Career, and Community Writers Program (C3WP) provides rationales and resources for supporting students in "Writing to an Audience to Urge Action."

Throughout the unit, Mr. Smith's students worked on different components of a podcast that they could share with audiences outside of school. Mr. Smith used a number of approaches and resources to support students in developing their podcasts:

Clothing Impacts on Environment: Podcast Planning — Trey Smith, Philadelphia Writing Project — Spring 2022



What Can Primary Sources Help Us Understand in this Unit

One thing that Mr. Smith was thinking about as he designed the unit was how historical primary sources would inform the arguments students made about clothing and fashion. Initially, he focused on how technologies and practices have changed around how we find, purchase, and acquire clothing. Here are the primary sources he identified. From clothing stores, to mail order catalogs, to social media and online shopping, our systems for buying clothes have shifted over time. 

However, what additional insights might historical primary sources provide? When he shared his wondering with teachers in a webinar and in a summer institute for teachers in the Philadelphia Writing Project, teachers suggested the following topics for further research: Wearing clothing for status, for style, and/or for practical purposes: 

Making Decisions About What to Address in a Multidisciplinary Unit

Mr. Smith is also wondering about how to best address political and economic topics connected to our clothing system. In designing a unit on he environmental impacts of clothing, Mr. Smith's primary goal was to invite his grade 4 students to grapple with complex issues about pollution and human consumption. He felt that the science curriculum resources they had been engaging with did not invite nuance or encourage students to go deeper than repeating "recycle, reduce, and reuse." As he dug into sources and texts, he realized that the issue required a complex understanding of social, cultural, economic, political, and historical systems. 

Mr. Smith is still wondering about how to provide depth while also keeping the unit manageable, particularly for fourth grade. In a history classroom or classroom with additional time and lenses, teachers and students may examine the history and present of sweatshops and low wages. Students more deeply explore how economic practices gave shifted over time, from US-based labor concerns exemplified by the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, to an international system of low wages enabled by global trade. Check out some of the additional resources below for ideas on where else this unit might go.


Additional Planning Resources

Research Guide

Clothing, costume, and fashion (Library of Congress)

Primary Source Set

Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire (Chronicling America, Library of Congress)

Informational Video

Rose Schneiderman [and the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire] (Weitzman National Museum of American Jewish History, 2018)

Lesson Planning Resource

Sept. 26, 1909: International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union strike (Zinn Education Project)

Lesson Planning Resource

Elementary student t-shirt workers go on strike (Rethinking Schools, 2017)

Informational Article

The exploitation of garment workers: Threading the needle on fast fashion. (U.S. Department of Labor, 2023).

Student Project Idea

Kids go green: Eco-fashion. (PBS, 2018).


This website features resources created by educators affiliated with the Philadelphia Writing Project (PhilWP), supported by a Teaching with Primary Sources grant from the Library of Congress.