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The Prom Dress Problem

It’s that time of the year again; the time of the year when brands start pumping out prom dresses and boutiques are flooded with students looking for their dream dresses. Prom is a milestone in many young students’ lives, a special moment to look back upon for years to come. People are willing to shell out big bucks for this big event for their perfect dress.

But what happens after? What happens to these big, beautiful dresses once the one event they are worn to is over? The answer is that many of them either end up in the trash or end up sitting in the back of a closet for the rest of our lives. Prom dresses can often cost hundreds of dollars, sometimes even thousands. Regardless, hundreds of thousands of new prom dresses are purchased every year by students in schools across the world. The prom dress industry is unsustainable, and it greatly contributes to the fast fashion world and landfill waste.

Prom Fashion

Although there are no widespread definite rules regarding prom fashion and the type of dresses that should be worn, new dress designs become popular each year as they follow the most recent prom dress trend. From the big bows and tulle of the 1980s prom dresses, to the spaghetti-strap beaded satin dresses of the 1990s, to the most recent 2000s styles, prom fashion has changed over time. With each new style change, it becomes increasingly difficult for prom dresses to be reused.

With regular types of fast fashion, many people are open to continue wearing a no longer popular clothing style due to the sheer variety in fashion styles of people around the world. However, with prom dresses, this issue becomes more apparent, as students dread the idea of attending this special event with an outdated dress. Many people are not open to the idea of “ruining” their prom with the wrong dress.

Although this issue was faced only every decade or so for much of the 1900s, prom dress trends have become much quicker to come and go. The presence of social media is driving these trends and also pressuring young people to follow them. Random people often criticize others’ prom dresses online that are not to the status quo. This form of bullying and pressure to follow the most recent trend contributes to increasing waste, as students are unwilling to buy a used prom dress with an outdated style even if the dress was popular a few years ago.

Most recently, there was a wave on TikTok of people claiming that they needed a new prom dress because the internet said their Easter-style prom dress, which was a short-lived trend, was ugly. As people continue to discard their unworn prom dresses for fear of breaking the prom dress status quo and wearing a dress considered ugly by random people on the internet, more waste is created.

Toxic Materials

Prom is an occasion to stand out, to look and feel your best among a crowd. Prom dresses often reflect this wish with the use of polyester tulle, polyester satin, and sometimes silk to acquire that shine. This is typically accompanied by an array of sequins, beads, and other sparkly accessories. All these materials can be harmful to the environment based on how they are produced and how they are disposed of.

As a fabric made from natural silk threads of a silkworm, silk is a biodegradable material. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that silk is environmentally friendly. Silk production is often more harmful to the environment than synthetic fabrics because of the large amount of energy needed to harvest the silk, water to grow mulberry trees so silkworms can eat their leaves, and chemicals to clean and dye the silk threads. These chemicals can even hinder the silk’s biodegradability, making silk a non-environmentally friendly fabric that is used for prom dresses.

Polyester is often used in satin and tulle, which are also popular prom dress fabrics. To put it simply, polyester is a plastic fabric. As such, polyester fabrics have the same environmentally damaging impacts as other plastics. Like other plastics, polyester can take hundreds of years to dissolve and are not biodegradable. These toxic materials thrown into landfills can contaminate the soil and water as they leach into the ground. Microplastics are shed each time polyester fabric is worn, continuing to wreak the same havoc other microplastics do as they go. Polyester, though a cheap fabric that allows for a budget-friendly prom dress, is not environmentally friendly. Its large participation in the prom industry is damaging to the environment.

It is of little surprise that beads and sequins are also plastic products. For any person who has ever owned a sequin or beaded dress, it is a known fact that not all the sequins and beads stay on. They will fall off over time, leaving plastic bits behind. This plastic will not biodegrade, but will break into smaller pieces over time. Microplastics will leach into the soil and water. Animals may accidentally eat the plastic and suffer the consequences. Beads and sequins, like polyester, are an example of the negative environmental impacts of the prom industry’s use of plastic.

As shown, prom dresses are often made of materials that have negative impacts during both their production and disposal. The sheer amount of prom dresses disposed of yearly is an issue, as the materials used to make the dresses negatively impact the environment as they break down.

Renting Prom Dresses

If you are someone who has no reluctance about not being able to keep their prom dress, renting a prom dress is an attractive option. Rented prom dresses often have the advantage of not being outdated, being budget-friendly, and being sustainable too. These dresses will be reused over and over until they are out of style and nobody wants to wear them. Although the issue of dresses becoming undesirable cannot be solved by renting a dress, for the few years that the dresses are in style, this can allow people to avoid contributing to the prom dress waste. Some online websites prom dresses can be rented from are:

  1. Rent the Runway offers monthly membership plans or one-time rentals for all kinds of clothing, including designer prom dresses. This company offsets 100% of its carbon footprint from shipping as well, making it one of the most sustainable prom dress rental websites.

  2. Lending Luxury is a unique option for those who are wary of renting a prom dress because they fear they might get attached to the dress. This online website offers a selection of dresses as low as $50, including dry cleaning, with the option to purchase the dress at a discounted price at the end of the rental period if you would like to keep the dress.

  3. Armoire, a membership-based website, offers a 30-day lending period to rent all types of clothes, including prom dresses. Armoire stylists are also available to lend their expert opinion to find the best style for your body type.

  4. Charlotte’s Closet is also a great renting option, as they allow you to request a second size for free to ensure your dress fits right. The dresses can only be rented for five days, however, so this website can be a great option for last-minute renting.

  5. Poshare is a great budget-friendly option, as their dresses start as low as $40. Renters have access to a variety of designer dresses and accessories, and prom dresses in a variety of colors, sizes, etc.

Sustainable Prom Dresses

Although borrowing, thrifting, or renting a prom dress is always an option, for those who do not want to use a second-hand dress, there are many sustainable prom dress options. These sustainable prom dresses are made to last and can be used for a variety of other formal events as well. Some brands that sell sustainable prom dresses are:

  1. Bastet Noir creates beautiful prom dresses made of discarded materials such as silk and cotton. This brand openly discloses each step of the production process to its customers, with the creators of the dresses being a community of single mothers in Macedonia. Bastet Noir reinvests the profits to help the business of these single mothers grow and to fund the education of their children.

  2. Whimsy & Row makes long, elegant prom dresses made of Tencel and cupro. These fabrics are biodegradable, vegan-friendly, hypoallergenic, and thermal-regulating. This brand also makes use of cotton fibers that would normally be discarded for a closed-loop system to make the dresses. The products from Whimsy & Row are produced from low-impact, locally sourced materials, and are dyed with low-impact dyes in limited quantities to reduce waste. Whimsy & Row works towards sustainability with all their products being made within a few miles of their headquarters to reduce their carbon footprint from shipping.

  3. Transcend handmakes and embroiders eco-friendly fabrics, like organic cotton and linen, to make beautiful dresses inspired by the colors and textures of India’s shopping bazaars. The brand works towards providing women with high-quality embroidery and prints in timeless silhouettes. The handmade production of these clothes leaves a much lower impact on the environment than a large prom dress production company.

  4. Reformation is a brand that specializes in providing women with sustainably-made clothing and shoes for special occasions, including prom. Their dresses are made of silk, Tencel, viscose, and organic cotton. Although some of these fabrics are not completely sustainable, nearly every piece from Reformation has information on how much water was saved and the carbon emissions circumvented during the production process to show that they are more sustainable than many other prom dress brands. Reformation is climate-neutral certified, and a member of the Fair Labor Association, Sustainable Apparel Coalition, and Textile Exchange.

Donating Prom Dresses

Perhaps you’ve already bought your prom dress and have enjoyed the event. In case you do not wish to hold onto your dress forever, there are options other than discarding the prom dress in the trash. Many stores and websites will accept prom dress donations, which can later be given to those who cannot afford a new prom dress or do not wish to buy a new dress and contribute to the unsustainable industry. Some organizations these dresses can be donated to are:

  1. Fairy Godmothers, Inc. is an organization that provides prom dresses, shoes, and accessories to qualified high school girls who would otherwise not be able to attend prom due to their financial situation. This organization has 6 locations, mainly in the Eastern U.S.

  2. Becca’s Closet collects dresses and accessories in dress drives for students who cannot afford them. These dress drives were started by Rebecca Kirtman, who sadly died in a car accident at 16. Her efforts live on in the organization, as chapters around the country collect dresses under the organization in her name.

  3. Operation Prom is a multi-state organization that collects dresses and accessories for girls hoping to attend prom. It also aids guys in financial need in renting tuxedos.

  4. Project G.L.A.M. is a project by the international non-profit WGIRLS that provides prom dresses to underprivileged women and children. WGIRLS’s broader mission is to support underprivileged women and children, as well as provide them with the resources necessary to achieve health, happiness, and successful adult lives.

  5. Cinderella’s Closet runs through churches in several states to provide princesses with an environment of love, respect, and grace. To make every princess feel cherished, Cinderella’s Closet accepts prom dress donations.

These organizations are great options for those looking for a way to part from their prom dress without adding to the prom dress waste in landfills. However, if these organizations are not an option for you, many schools, local dress drives, and regular stores such as Goodwill will accept these prom dresses. Donation is a great option to keep dresses out of the landfill and provide the prom experience to those who cannot afford it.



Prom dresses are purchased yearly by each generation of students. With each new year, new prom dress trends emerge and old prom dresses become outdated. This issue has impacted the ability of prom dresses to stay out of landfills, as young people avoid outdated dresses to avoid criticism. The industries producing these hundreds of thousands of dresses also use unsustainable materials such as silk, polyester, and plastic which have negative environmental production and disposal consequences. To prevent so much landfill waste, there are options such as renting a dress, buying from a sustainable prom dress brand, or donating used prom dresses rather than throwing them out. Despite prom trends making the usability of these old dresses limited, for the few years they are still in style, prom dresses can be worn by many people to reduce additions to landfill waste.

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Author: Karen Wong

Editor: Charlotte Wang


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