Realistically Building A More Sustainable Wardrobe

Whenever I read articles about building an ethical wardrobe, it often involves the sharing of ethical and/or sustainable clothing brands. While I think that’s really helpful for those looking to make the shift from fast to slow fashion, I think it sometimes misses the point. The ethical fashion movement should not just be about buying better, but also about buying less. This is the real cultural shift that I believe needs to happen.

I got this very helpful image from Anuschka Ree’s blogpost titled 5 Ways to build a more ethical closet (no matter your budget)

If we buy more ethical and sustainable brands, is it really all that “sustainable” if we are still having to extract more resources from the earth, whether it’s the material used to produce the fabrics or the electricity and power used to put them together into a shirt or the fuels used to transport them? Indulging in the luxury of more is the root cause of the problem in my opinion.

In this article, I want to list some of the ways by which we can begin the shift from hyper-consumption to mindful consumption.

1. Learning About the Fast Fashion Industry

Without knowing and understanding why the fashion industry and the fast fashion model as it stands are harmful, it’s difficult to take any serious, meaningful, long-term actions.

One of the documentaries often referred to in the ethical fashion space is A True Cost which is available for streaming on Netflix. I think it’s a great starting point for learning about fast fashion. (Though I do have some criticisms of the film, namely that it tries to cover too much ground too quickly without going in-depth into many of the topics. This ultimately sacrifices quality in favor of quantity thereby oversimplifying some of the nuances and complexities of the fashion industry and economy). That being said, I do think it serves as a really great overview of some of the main problems with fast fashion and I’d argue that it’s enough to get most people motivated to start thinking about how their wardrobes have a much larger impact on the world around them.

If you don’t have time to sit through an entire documentary, I’d recommend the following articles:

What Happens When Fashion Becomes Fast, Disposable, and Cheap?

In Trendy World Of Fast Fashion, Styles Aren’t Made To Last

I’m also planning on reading the book Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion. I’ll be sure to report back with my thoughts on it once I do.

2. Buying Trend Pieces Sparingly

Of course not everyone wants to look like they stepped out of a time machine whose last stop was the 1920s, but that being said, I don’t think the other end of the spectrum of constantly surveying the fashion landscape every season to purchase the latest and greatest trends should be everyone’s goal either. A healthy balance in between is sufficient for starters. One thing that I’ve found to be helpful is to keep track of my Pinterest fashion board. I’ve found that over the years, the style of clothes I tend to gravitate towards has mostly stayed the same. This means that now the majority of my closet consists of pieces that I am pretty sure I will enjoy for years to come.

I suggest using Pinterest as a tool to find your personal style. Also just plain experience is the best teacher here. I think as someone grows older, they tend to know their body more and understand what flatters them best and what makes them feel the most comfortable and confident.

Sure we can buy trend pieces every once in a while, but the main focus should be on purchasing items we are confident we will like in the long-term. (And trust me, this advice is coming from someone with prior major commitment problems, so if I can do it, so can you!)

3. Learning to Live with A Little Less

You don’t need a new outfit every time you meet someone and you don’t need a new outfit for every post you make on Instagram. You can wear an outfit multiple times, I promise you it’s not a crime and I guarantee you no one notices. I certainly don’t notice if a coworker comes in with the same pair of jeans and t-shirt three times a week and even if I do, do I really genuinely care? No. I absolutely do not. It literally makes absolutely zero difference in how I view that person and, if it does, that’s a whole other problem.

I also do want to add that I think this is a more female-oriented problem than a male one. It definitely feels like there’s an expectation among women to always be wearing something new and eye-catching. If Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs do it it’s super cool, but if we do it, it’s considered weird.  That needs to stop. I wear the same outfit multiple times in a single week and I couldn’t be happier since it certainly helps with decision fatigue.

(I wrote a short article dedicated to minimalism which you can check out here if this topic interests you in general.)

4. Using What We Already Have

You don’t need to toss out all your Forever21 and H&M pieces just because they’re not “ethical”. It’s a waste of resources to do that.

5. Buying Fast Fashion MINDFULLY

Not everyone has the time to do in-depth research on brands to see what is ethical and what is not. And not everyone has the large amounts of disposable income needed to invest in expensive ethical brands. Many americans are working multiple jobs just to be able to put food on the table and provide for their families. I think it’s insulting to deride those with fewer resources as being “unethical” for shopping at places like Forever21 and H&M. The low costs of fast fashion are often necessary for low-income families and anyone financially struggling in general.

That being said, I don’t think this should serve as a free pass for us to go on shopping sprees at places like Forever21 and H&M. I think buying fewer pieces from fast fashion brands and taking care of them as best as possible can be just as meaningful as dropping $128 on a blouse from Amour Vert. I personally have a romper I got from Forever 21 almost 6 years ago that’s still going strong. So if you do buy clothing from H&M, Zara, or other similar stores, just make sure you (1) minimize how many items you purchase, and (2) you take good care of the clothing you do purchase. And it goes without saying that this applies for any brand, not just fast fashion brands.

6. Thrifting

Thrifting is great if you have the patience for it. Like I said, not everyone has hours they can spend sifting through endless sections of clothing at Goodwill. If you do though, I think this is a great option for building a more sustainable wardrobe. Another option would be more high-end thrift stores like Crossroads, Buffalo Exchange, and Wasteland (I did a whole post on those stores which you can check out here). These stores are only available in select cities and locations so I realize they’re not readily available options for everyone. Some online options that are more accessible include Poshmark and ThredUp (for a more complete list of online buying/selling apps:

I really think thrifting is a great option and in terms of how ethical it is, I’d say it ranks second after buying less clothes in general. That being said, it can be harder to devote the time to it since it’s not as convenient as buying from stores which sell new clothes. One possibility is to try to build a wardrobe that’s maybe 70% new clothes and 30% used clothes (or whatever percent works best for you given your time/money constraints).

7. Buying From Ethical Brands (if we are able to afford it)

If you are able to afford clothing from brands that are trying to be more sustainable in their practices, that’s also great! But do make sure to stick to the quality over quantity rule. Some stores I would recommend looking into are Everlane (what I consider to be the H&M of at least somewhat sustainable/ethical shopping), Amour Vert, imogene+willie, PACT Apparel, Christy Dawn, Reformation, and Whimsy and Row. A quick google search of “ethical clothing brands” should also return a lot of helpful articles and lists.

8. Taking Care of the Clothes We Have

If a clothing item is salvageable, mend it. Don’t just toss it away or donate it.

Another easy way to take better care of your clothes is to do less laundry! (That was probably some of my favorite advice to give) Over-washing clothes is one of the easiest ways to make sure they don’t last long. If you don’t sweat (i.e. you’re sitting indoors all day) and you are careful to not spill anything on your clothes, I don’t think you really need to wash them. It’s up to you how often is “too often”, but I’ve found the smell and sight test to be the best method in my opinion. If the clothes don’t smell bad and don’t have any noticeable stains, then don’t wash them. Simple as that.

9. Appreciation

It all comes back to being mindful. Recognizing and trying to understand the amount of effort, labor, and resources it took to create our clothes is always good way to appreciate them and not treat them as disposable commodities. If you have the time, maybe try knitting or sewing a piece of clothing to try to get a basic sense for the process involved. I think I will try to knit a scarf this year, we’ll see how it goes…

I also know Reformation does a really cool thing where they invite people to see their factory in L.A. so if that’s an option for you, definitely try it out! I’ll definitely be signing up soon. You can check it out here:

Really, the point of this article is to highlight that the problem is not what we buy but rather how much we buy. I’m not saying to be ascetic about this and only allow ourselves three outfits to wear and re-wear everyday and that anything more is blasphemous and a sign that we don’t care about the welfare of people and the environment.

I am, however, proposing a more mindful approach to shopping where we buy no more than what’s reasonable and to treat buying clothes as a serious decision, not something to be done frivolously or on a whim whenever we have some spare time or money.

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