As someone who is eco-conscious, dressing sustainably is something that is on my mind. I have never been much of a ‘shopper’ and buying clothes has never really been something that I’d choose as a pleasant day out. My, let’s call it, un-standard figure, doesn’t make it much fun. Nevertheless, I do have to clothe myself in something.
For a couple of years now, I been trying to make more sustainable choices regarding the clothes I wear. In this time I have bought very little. I wear my existing clothes until they are worn out, often having repaired them along the way. I have also avoided replacing things but when I’ve needed something, I’ve tried to shop in secondhand stores first.
My primary approach really has been avoidance. This is something that I got away with quite successfully through the COVID Winter, as someone who works for myself. I admit I was lost when my ‘COVID cozy pants’ had to be washed!
The uncomfortable truth is, however, I can’t avoid it any longer. I need to add to my wardrobe because I am not hibernating through the Spring and Summer too – and my COVID cozy pants will be, well, too cozy. The question is, how do I do this in a sustainable way – and on a budget? It is something I’ve been researching and I’ve collected a few tips which I will share here.1
Tips for Dressing Sustainably
Build Around What You Have
The most environmentally-friendly garment is the one you already own, as I discussed in my Use What You Have blog post. If you already have suitable clothes, build your wardrobe around that and only buy items to fill the gaps.
Choose Style over Trends
Choose styles that will stand the test of time, not a passing trend. Anyone interested in environmental issues has heard the term ‘fast fashion’, where cheap clothes are produced in response to fashion trends (a cycle which is even shorter than a season these days) and designed to be replaced quickly. The key for dressing sustainably, is to buy clothing items that can be worn again and again – from one season and one year to the next. The longer the active life of a piece of clothing, the lower its impact.
Just by doubling the time we use an item of clothing from one year to two years reduces its emissions by 24%.1 Million Women
Buy Good Quality
Which leads into the next tip which is to buy the best quality you can afford so that it is likely to be well-made and durable enough to last several seasons.
Investing in stylish, durable pieces also makes it sensible to repair items if necessary. Many repairs, such as sewing on buttons, are easy skills anyone can master. For more complicated mending, it is worth paying someone when the garment is of good quality.
Create a Capsule Wardrobe
Many people are creating capsule wardrobes these days. Courtney Carver’s 333 Project is just one example of how to do this. The practicality of it is one thing but, ecologically speaking, creating a flexible wardrobe with fewer garments means you buy less and wear each item more often. A double win for dressing sustainably.
Favour Natural Fibres
The argument for natural fibres isn’t clear cut. The production of some fibres uses a lot of water and chemicals. There are some, such as hemp and linen, that are better than others, such as cotton.
“According to figures from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), it takes 3,781 liters of water to make a pair of jeans, from the production of the cotton to the delivery of the final product to the store. That equates to the emission of around 33.4 kilograms of carbon equivalent.”The World Bank, 2019
The production of synthetic fabrics, however, also requires a lot of water and chemicals and frequently the mining, refining and transformation of non-renewable oil products into what is actually a plastic. There are recycled synthetic fibres available which are an improvement on the virgin alternative but they will still shed microfibers and will end up in landfill at the end of their life.
Research is underway to produce better synthetic fibres which are also biodegradable and sustainable. Until these are widely available, natural fibres might be the more sustainable choice, particularly if care is taken to find items in fabrics with higher environmental values. At least they can be composted at the end of their useful life and will biodegrade back into the soil.
Since neither natural nor synthetic fibres are an impact-free choice, reducing the amount of clothing we buy is a sensible, more sustainable choice.
There are a lot of small and larger clothing manufacturers doing good work to reduce the impact, both environmentally and socially, of their products. Research which brands are doing well in this area and support them if you can. Generally, they are more expensive which can be a barrier but buying fewer higher quality items might make up for this difference.
As always, look out for green-washing too. Check that the claims made, and the endorsements given, to particular brands actually stack up in terms of environmental credentials.
Look for Secondhand
Getting more life out of a piece of clothing includes buying secondhand clothes that have had a life with someone else before you. With so many people buying clothes and discarding them within a year or two, the quality of secondhand clothes is very good.
“The throwaway culture is creating a serious environmental problem, with 24% saying they threw out a garment after one wear. One in six people binned at least three garments they’d worn only once.”The Guardian
There are a number of ways to source secondhand clothes. The obvious place is charity stores such as Vinnies and the Salvos here in Australia. I really enjoy the thrill of the hunt shopping this way. Recently I picked up an entire outfit (top, pants and shoes) for a night out in one trip to my local Vinnies store. Shopping this way isn’t for everyone but don’t believe the misconception that shopping for secondhand clothes is only for ‘creative types’. You don’t have to have a preference for quirky or retro style to find clothes to suit you secondhand.
There are lots of online options for finding secondhand clothes, such as listings on EBay. This may work well if you are searching for used designer clothes and if you generally find your body easy to dress. I don’t so I tend not to buy clothes online, new or old. It is essential that I try on things before I buy.
My Buy Nothing group is a great source of secondhand clothes. I am more willing to give this a go as there is no financial risk and I can pass items on if they don’t suit me.
The other fabulous and fun option is a clothes swap. My friend, Virginia, from WellSorted Professional Organiser shares here great tips for hosting a clothes swap on her blog.
Rent instead of Buy
Don’t forget the rental option too. It isn’t just for tuxedos any more! There are a growing number of options for renting glam frocks for special occasions too.
My final tip for dressing sustainably is to get garments altered if necessary. They might be things already in your wardrobe that you don’t wear because they are not quite right or they might be things you’ve sourced secondhand and would be great if they were just a little shorter, or taken in a little. If you have sewing skills, taking up a hem may well be within your abilities. For more involved alternations, a professional might be required. Find a good one and hold on to them!
Do you have more tips? Which eco-brands do you like? What have been your best secondhand finds? I’d love to hear. Share in the comments below.
1 I am not discussing here the social sustainability of clothing in this post. To discuss the ethics of clothing production along side the environmental impacts would create a post that would end up TLDR. Suffice it to say, making ethical choices is also important.