10 Small Steps Towards A More Sustainable Wardrobe
Illustration by Mr Harry Haysom
Ah, sustainability. A buzzword thrown around with increasing frequency and perhaps decreasing meaning, it’s hard to know where to start with it all, especially as far as our clothes are concerned. But from knowing more about how your favourite pair of trousers is made to researching better ways to care for them, there’s plenty you can do to make more responsible wardrobe choices that don’t involve donning a hemp sack and running away to a commune.
If you’re new to thinking about all of this, don’t feel bad about taking it slow at first. It’s easy to get overwhelmed – by both the sheer volume of advice and, sometimes, the all-or-nothing tone of it – before giving up entirely. The goal here is to make some difference, however small.
Being sustainable isn’t about feeling guilty for buying things you like (we love a new style season as much as the next guy), but about learning more and adjusting your mindset so that you can get the most out of your clothes, and benefit other people and the planet while doing so. So, from being a better online shopper, to sharing clothes (yes, really) and the reality of donating, here, for Earth Day, are 10 things to help start you off on your journey to becoming more sustainable in your style choices.
Conduct a wardrobe audit
First things first, you need to know what you’re working with. By organising your wardrobe (you can read our cheat sheet here) you’ll quickly discover the extent of your sartorial haul. Use this time to take stock of any, shall we say, profligate shopping patterns – you’re bound to find a few things you haven’t worn or used in a good long while, as well as several pieces that need mending or no longer fit. Separate these items out from the rest of your closet and make a plan for what you’ll do with them. Which brings us to…
Donating is a last resort
It’s a sad truth that most of the things we donate don’t actually get sold at charity or thrift stores, Mr Alex McIntosh, creative director of sustainability agency and consultancy Create Sustain, tells MR PORTER. In most instances these items end up being shipped overseas (as much as 70 per cent according to the Waste & Resources Action Programme), to enter the second-hand garment trade, which impacts existing local textiles trade and businesses. Instead, McIntosh advises taking items that no longer fit to the tailor or recycling old jersey pieces, such as tees, wash cloths or towels. Even reselling items that you no longer wear, but are in a good or repairable condition, or gifting them to a friend who will actually use them, is a better option, he says.
Invest in “classic” items
It’s a sobering stat, but, according to the Wall Street Journal, the average item only gets worn seven times before we discard it. To avoid this, commit to the 30 Wears Challenge when you buy something new. Started by Ms Livia Firth of Eco-Age, the campaign’s aim is to reduce impulse buys for good.
The best way to do this is to keep your pledge in mind every time you shop, buying only so-called “classic” items. What one considers a “classic”, of course, will vary depending on the individual, although you’ll probably have a decent idea of what pieces you wear most often after your wardrobe audit. Just be sure that you’re investing in high-quality items that you know you’ll wear over and over from season to season. Adopting this intentional attitude with each and every purchase will mean you’re making more responsible choices with very minimal effort.
Repair before replacing
If you’re guilty of getting rid of a shirt or pair of jeans because a button has fallen off or the zipper has gotten stuck, you are certainly not the only one. But it’s a bad habit to get into when mending these items at home is so simple and not as time-consuming as it seems.
There are countless YouTube tutorials at your disposal to take you through it step by step and for trickier repairs or alterations, you can always ferry them to a tailor or seamstress – you’ll likely be surprised how thrifty it is to have trousers patched up or taken in.
The same goes for shoes. A good cobbler will be able to help re-sole your best Oxfords or tell you if they really are past their prime.
Consider your fabric choices
Does buying one organic cotton T-shirt erase a litany of sartorial sins? No. But moving forward, being more aware of your fabric choices will make a difference. Do your research when considering a new purchase so you are as informed as possible, advises Ms Francine Heath, a sustainable style journalist.
“‘Organic’ means less water and a lack of harmful chemicals,” she explains. “But the term can be vague and doesn’t always account for every step of the supply chain – unless you look for the GOTS certification.”
And don’t always take brand’s claims at face value. “As the appetite for vegan leather rises, our focus should ideally be on innovative, plant-based alternatives (such as Pinatex® or VEGEA) instead of plastic substitutes, which can take an incredibly long time to biodegrade,” Heath says. If in doubt, don’t be afraid to ask labels or retailers for further details about where they source their fabrics and how they are made.
Sharing actually is caring
If you’re lucky enough to have someone in your life who doesn’t mind sharing your clothes occasionally, then you can give your sustainability chops a considerable boost. Plus, with brands embracing genderless collections in recent seasons (truly, anyone can wear an oversized hoodie) the possibilities for sharing clothes with your other half – or even a close friend – are expanding. Got your eye on an expensive new jacket for spring but are afraid to splash out? Consider going halves and splitting the cost between you. It might make the break-up messier (god forbid), but if it looks good on you in the meantime, well, that’s a win.
Wash with care
We’ve all been guilty at some point of barely touching a piece of clothing before condemning it to the washing machine to “freshen it up”. According to The Guardian, a habit of washing and drying a load every two days creates around 440kg of CO2 each year – the equivalent of a return flight from London to Paris. We’re definitely not suggesting you stop washing your underpants or your gym kit, but does that pair of trousers you’ve worn twice really need sending to the dry-cleaners?
Also consider that though many clothing labels do say dry-clean only, the high majority of fabrics (including silks, linen and rayon) will often be fine on a delicate wash. If you do need to dry-clean something special, look up your local environmentally friendly dry-cleaners that use less toxic chemicals to care for your clothes – they are popping up more and more in cities and towns around the world.
Be a responsible online shopper
A few hundred years ago, if you’d have told people that they could have whatever they wanted at their door by simply pressing a button, they’d have burned you for being a witch. And though online shopping is a defining feature of our age of convenience, the back-and-forth nature of it can cause a lot of wasted energy and emissions. “When you order clothes online, try to do it as though you can’t return them, even if you can,” advises McIntosh. “Also, obviously, try to make sure you’re at home for the delivery window.” Though this isn’t always going to be possible, this slight shift in mindset about how we approach buying clothes – and the environmental impact of returning them – can make all the difference.
Engage in the conversation
Though implementing small changes in our own choices can help, moving towards a sustainable future for our clothes can also involve raising awareness and being part of the conversation. If you want to learn more about ethical practices in the clothing industry and join the fight for change, Fashion Revolution Week (which is on now until 25 April) is a great place to start. A not-for-profit organisation founded in the wake of the Rana Plaza disaster in 2013, it works to educate and mobilise communities to make the fashion industry a fairer, more sustainable place and create more transparency in the supply chain.
Ask for more information
It might sound obvious, but if you’re not sure where your clothes are made or where they come from, just ask. The French brand De Bonne Facture, for instance, has an incredible amount of information on its labels, from the artisan the piece of clothing was made by to the town and factory it came from, but we appreciate not everyone has such applaudable transparency. Asking for more information from the brands that you love is a good way to drive accountability and learn more about who you want to spend your money with.