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The Toxicity of Halloween: How Costumes are Polluting the Planet

As the Halloween season approaches, a sinister trend shadows the festivities. Once used as a protective layer against evil spirits, costumes are now donned for a night of merriment. However, modern costumes are far from entertaining and protective—instead, they’re stuck in a toxic consumption pattern, laden with hazardous chemicals, and designed to become pervasive waste after October 31st.



Gears That Govern The Season

The commercial exploitation of Halloween is nothing short of a calculated strategy. Fast fashion giants like Shein, Forever 21, and Fashion Nova are eager to capitalize on the holiday fervor, unveiling an array of costumes earlier and earlier every year. This premature introduction of Halloween merchandise, coupled with orchestrated drops in prices, fuel a consumerist frenzy, encouraging impulsive and unnecessary spending. In fact, nearly half of those celebrating Halloween are looking to start shopping before October, a 33% increase compared to a decade ago.

The total spent on Halloween costumes in 2023 is projected to reach a record high $4.1 billion

In a report released in September 2023 by the National Retail Federation (NFR) and Prosper Insight and Analytics, the total spent on Halloween costumes in 2023 is projected to reach a record high $4.1 billion, an increase of $500 million since 2022.

The same report also found that spending on adult costumes is projected to increase by 18% this year, while spending on children’s costumes is expected to rise by 20%. Even spending on pet costumes is projected to run steady at $700 million.

Many credit this increase in consumerism to Halloween’s increased commercialization, mainly on social media platforms like Tiktok, Instagram and Pinterest.

Adult costumes is projected to increase by 18% this year, while spending on children’s costumes is expected to rise by 20%

“Younger consumers are eager to begin their Halloween shopping, with more than half of those ages 25-44 planning to shop before or during September,” Prosper Insight and Analytics Executive Vice President of Strategy Phil Rist said in the report. “Social media continues to grow as a source of costume inspiration for younger consumers, as more people under 25 are turning to TikTok, Pinterest and Instagram for ideas.”

As a result of increased clothes shopping, many in the sustainable fashion industry are calling for drastic changes to buying habits as the same retailers hyping the holiday are also the continuous culprits behind toxic fashion.

 

Clothes That Make Us Sick

Many Halloween costumes contain toxic chemicals and not all of them are safe for wear. While substances like flame retardants and azo dyes enhance the perceived safety, color, and overall appeal of costumes—they are also carriers of potential health risks.

“If we start tackling [chemicals in clothing] as the interconnected and holistic problem it is, as a war against autoimmune disease, infertility, and chronic poisonings…we can revolutionize our health.” – Alden Wicker

For instance, flame retardants used to create fire-resistant costumes interfere with brain development and function, making them especially harmful to children in their developmental years.

BPA used to extend the lifespan of fabric is associated with reproductive harm and cancer, as reported by the Center for Environmental Health.

Azo dyes used to color synthetic fabrics such as polyester are also characterized as mutagens, contact allergens, and skin sensitizers. It is worth noting here that polyester is the most common ingredient used in Halloween costumes from top retailers according to the Halloween Clothing & Costumes Survey 2019.

The European Chemicals Agency also warns against other harmful chemicals such as phthalates which can harm one’s ability to reproduce. These substances and more slowly gets a wearer sick.

 

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“If we start tackling this as the interconnected and holistic problem it is, as a war against autoimmune disease, infertility, and chronic poisonings — instead of a series of disparate skirmishes over finishes, dyes, and plastics — I believe we can revolutionize our health, as well as start to reverse the environmental degradation of our planet in the name of fashion,” said Alden Wicker, journalist and author of “To Dye For: How Toxic Fashion Is Making Us Sick – And How We Can Fight Back”.

What’s scarier is the opacity of the industry, which further compounds the issue. A lack of comprehensive research and transparent labeling leaves consumers navigating a minefield of undisclosed chemicals. The absence of an “ingredient list” in clothing mirrors a disturbing lack of accountability, allowing harmful substances to lurk unseen and unregulated.

What Goes Around, Comes Around

The environmental impact of Halloween costumes is equally alarming. A 2019 study by the Fairyland Trust and The Hubbub Foundation, revealed that the UK’s Halloween celebrations generate over two thousand tonnes of plastic waste from clothing and costumes alone.

60% of fabric fibers are now synthetics, deriving directly from fossil fuels

Furthermore, the transient nature of these costumes, often discarded post-celebration, means that they often end up as pollutants, infiltrating our waterways and soils, and disrupting ecosystems.

According to the New York Times, more than 60% of fabric fibers are now synthetics, deriving directly from fossil fuels, and will not decay as they end up in landfills along with 85% of all textile waste.

Microplastics have already been found in the bloodstream, deep inside the lungs, and even the placentas of unborn babies. Evidently, Halloween’s impact lingers long after October 31st.

Undoing The Horror

How can one ensure their costumes are free of toxic chemicals?

Wicker advised in her book to avoid ultra-fast-fashion brands, choose natural materials over synthetic fibers, and buy secondhand clothes that had time to off-gas.

“Avoid synthetic clothing whenever possible, especially for things you’ll wear next to your skin when you sweat,” wrote Wicker in an article published by Remake.

Wicker goes on to caution consumers to avoid brands like SHEIN and Boohoo, noting that secondhand items of natural fiber that have been washed and worn already are a great alternative along with brands with robust chemical management programs.

“Ask yourself, ‘If I was making a fire, would I (theoretically) be able to use this material as tinder?’ Not that you would actually set anything on fire, but it’s a good heuristic to check whenever you’re finding your next costume,” Hannah Le, the founder of RE.STATEMENT shared as a rule of thumb.

Le also encouraged eco-conscious consumerism and re-wear, urging costume buyers to think of Halloween as an excuse to treat themselves to something sustainable and fun that they’ve already guaranteed to wear multiple times. This offsets environmental damage and pollution that would later spell adverse consequences to health.

The path forward also involves a collective reimagining of Halloween traditions. Activism and institutional pressure are crucial, as well as pushing for transparency, research, and sustainable practices within the industry.

Read our article to Learn How to make your own sustainable Halloween costume!

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