Brands like Eileen Fisher, Patagonia try to curb carbon footprint

Clothing is a popular item on many holiday shopping lists. But some fashion companies want shoppers to buy fewer clothes in order to cut pollution. 

At a tiny factory in Irvington, New York, Eileen Fisher's small but mighty team of socially conscious employees are trying to make a dent in fashion's carbon footprint with their Renew program.

"We get between four and 6,000 pieces a week," Fisher told CBS News correspondent Elaine Quijano.

The program buys back worn Eileen Fisher pieces and sorts them to determine if they can be resold, resewn or remade.

"We see it as an important long-term investment for us. It's a bit hard to rationalize that cost but we do it because... we think it's the right thing to do and because we believe there's going to be no business done on a dead planet. So we better do the best we can," Fisher said.

The average person buys 60 percent more clothing today than 18 years ago, according to McKinsey & Company. Researchers also estimate the fashion industry will use 25 percent of the world's carbon budget by 2050, the estimated amount of carbon dioxide emissions the planet can have without the worst effects of climate change.   

Fashion accounts for 8.1 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, and 85 percent of unwanted clothing ends up in landfills, piling up to more than 12 million tons annually.

"It's daunting. It's -- yeah, some days I try not to get depressed. Some days I say, 'Oh, my God. It feels like we're moving deck chairs on the Titanic,'" Fisher said. "I'm just like, 'Oh, how many years do we have? Twelve before catastrophe strikes us.' … We're only a drop in the bucket… and we're trying to be a role model for other companies."

Other companies have tapped into the sustainable market too, like Patagonia whose Worn Wear program encourages customers to patch up old clothing rather than buy new. Even Ikea is testing a program to buy back their old furniture and H&M offers a recycling program where customers get 15 percent off when they bring in used items.

But sustainability expert Maxine Bedat says coupons just encourage more consumption, and only about one out of every 1,000 pieces sold is ever recycled.

"The last figures that have come in are showing that there are 150 billion new pieces of clothing that are made every single year," Bedat said. "If you look even at the global population, that's a disposable wardrobe for every man, woman, and child on the planet, every single year."

She said consumers need to be more conscious shoppers.

"You don't have to be wealthy to make these sustainable choices," Quijano said.

"Exactly, you can learn a lot from the clothes just from looking at the tags and looking at the inside of the garment," Bedat said. "I think that's the takeaway. It's not about, you know, getting a PhD in sustainability. It's about finding the clothes that we really love and only using our hard-earned money to purchase things that we're really gonna want to wear in the future."

Eileen Fisher's Renew program, has sold nearly $3 million worth of garments that would otherwise have ended up in landfills. Finding ways to reuse versus throwing away unwanted clothing could actually save taxpayer money. In New York City alone, it costs $85 million a year to collect and dispose of unwanted clothing.