Your Halloween Costume Is Probably Bad For the Environment; Here's How to Dress Up Sustainably

Halloween is easily one of the most clothing-centric holidays of the year, and like anything else fashion-adjacent, it comes with massive problems. Every year, thousands of stores pop up all around the world, filled wall-to-wall with costumes representing everything from classic Frankensteins to modern-day presidents. The majority of these costumes, unfortunately, are made in the same way fast fashion is — overproduced with cheap labor and containing fossil-fuel-based fabrics like polyester.

In 2019, the UK environmental group Hubbub found that some 83 percent of material in Halloween costumes were plastics. What's more, that same year, an estimated 2,079 tons of Halloween costume waste was sent to landfills. When these plastic-based garments sit in landfills, they take hundreds of years to biodegrade.

"Halloween costumes are what I would call ultra-fast fashion."

In the time since that study, Halloween has had its ups and downs, with COVID-19 making festivities scarce, but this year, the holiday's set to be back and bigger than ever. According to the National Retail Federation, US spending on adult costumes will reach $2 billion in 2023, and children's costumes are anticipated to hit $1.4 billion.

"These Halloween costumes are what I would call ultra-fast fashion," journalist and "To Dye For" author Alden Wicker tells POPSUGAR. "They are the cheapest possible rendition of an outfit, made with ultra-cheap materials in opaque conditions. [It's] when the only consideration is making something as cheap as possible, because it's inherently a one-time-use, disposable product."

Wicker also notes that the chemicals that go into making those quick and cheap costumes are not only bad for the environment once they are disposed of, but they can be harmful to our health. "It takes some care and investment to ensure fashion products aren't contaminated with heavy metals, pesticides, and hazardous petrochemicals," she explains.

What's more, when costumes, like other fast fashion, are made at a high speed for a low price, it's often the people who are making them who pay the cost. In some factories where costumes are made, workers are paid as little as two cents for each piece they make. For some fast-fashion brands, costumes are even part of the seasonal offerings, with the production process being no different than that of a skirt.

Of course, store-bought and ready-to-wear Halloween costumes aren't the only way to dress up for the holiday. Our advice? You can wear something from your closet. Designer and stylist Kelsey Randall explains that getting creative with what you have — or buying secondhand — makes for the best kinds of costumes.

"Hit the thrift store and make a decade costume, which is always an easy, fun one to do," she says. That way, you can get some pieces that scream the decade you wish you lived in, but you can later incorporate them into your everyday wardrobe. "If you wanted to be an '80s rocker, you could go get a really sick acid-wash denim jacket and just pair it with the right accessories, and all of a sudden, you're an '80s rocker, but you can still wear that jacket in your fall wardrobe."

If you really want to buy something specific and on-trend, Randall suggests supporting a local maker and getting something that will still work after the holiday. "Halloween is a great time to support other creative makers, whether it's on Etsy or at local flea markets," she says. "A lot of those places are going to have costumey stuff. If you're going to buy something, take the opportunity to spend the $50 on something that someone's made and support their business. Nobody wants to wear your old Halloween costume next year, and you're not probably going to want to wear it again either."

Not wanting to be a ghost every year or rewear a costume over and over again is certainly understandable. Still, the impact one-time-wear costumes have on the environment can't be overstated. If you want to do a fun, trendy costume (like thousands of people did in 2021 with "Squid Game"), consider just how quickly that will become outdated, and perhaps go for the pre-loved Adidas tracksuit on ThredUp rather than the itchy, plastic, overproduced one on a seasonal site. For example, if you're dressing up like Barbie, it might be fun to take inspiration from Margot Robbie's press tour looks then scour the internet archives for pieces that look similar.

If not for the environment or your own health, consider that buying a one-night-only costume might not be the best use of your time and money. As Randall puts it, "If you're going to buy something, you should probably be able to wear it more than once."