We have a problem. Quite a big one, and it’s about how much clothing we as a society use and throw away. The UK alone sends enough clothing to landfill each year to fill a hole the size of Wembley Stadium. (www.dailymail.co.uk). On top of this we donate and recycle enough clothing annually to fill 359 Olympic sized swimming pools. And when clothing production is the second largest planetary polluter after coal and oil production (Source: BBC1 “Fashions Dirty Secrets” 2018), its plain to see that the way our society currently uses and disposes of clothing is simply not sustainable.
High street store brands bring in new fashion items of clothing with increasing regularity in a bid to have us buy more. And with the relative inexpensive cost of new clothing (the price of clothing has been falling since the 1980’s) it’s no wonder we are in a culture where clothing is sometimes perceived as temporary and disposable.
As well as the environmental impact of clothes production and manufacture, owning too many clothes can have a detrimental effect in our homes. I’ve seen inside many a rammed wardrobe to know that space is a definite issue, and when we have too many clothes, it can often lead to us forgetting what we do have and sticking to a few select favourites. In fact most people regularly only wear about 20% of their wardrobe on a regular basis. Many of us have a lot of clothing (and therefore a lot of money and energy) hanging in our wardrobes not getting worn.
So what can we do to help reduce the environmental impact of clothes production, purchase and disposal without having to resort to a tie dyed hemp kaftan and raffia sandals?
Here’s a few ideas to help get you started thinking about how you can create a more sustainable approach to your wardrobe.
1. Buy less new clothing or stop buying new clothes for a time.
When I spent 12 months not buying new clothing, I learned so much about what I liked and how I liked to wear it, (I even wrote a book as a result I was so excited!) but I recognize that the idea of not buying new clothes for a year can sound a little bit daunting. So how about setting a smaller goal, such as not buying new clothes for 3 months? 3 months is a manageable amount of time (and also co-incidentally a perfect length of time to form a new habit!). You might surprise yourself and decide at the end of the 3 months to continue. There will of course, be things that you’ll still want to buy new such as underwear, socks and tights, swimwear, pyjamas and sportswear. Some people insist on new shoes, and the point is to decide from the outset what you’ll commit to not buying or experiment with buying second hand, and what you’ll have to buy new. Another alternative is to commit to buying a percentage of your wardrobe from second hand sources rather than new. Even if you start with a small percentage initially, any change is positive, no matter how small the step.
2. Understand what it is you like and what suits you.
I run a dress agency and I get a lot of clothing with the labels still on. Often the lure of a sale price, or the persuasion of a friend or sales assistant is enough for us to buy something we never wear. And when we have mistakes hanging in our wardrobe, they never make us feel good because we are reminded of the cost and the fact that we’ve never worn it. When you understand more about the colours, shapes and styles that suit you and you love, you shop more mindfully, and therefore are careful to only buy things that will work with your wardrobe and your lifestyle, and that you’ll love wearing over and over again. Buying new in this way, means you buy a lot less but love it a lot more. In my members club, we’re always asking what is it about this item I love so much? Is it the colour, is it the fabric, is it the cut? Looking at the colours, cuts and styles that suit us and we love is always the first step to a cleaner, leaner and more gorgeous wardrobe.
3. Wear what we already have more often.
This might sound obvious, but did you know that just by extending the life of our clothes by 3 months, we can reduce our waste, carbon and water footprint by as much as 10%? (Salvation Army Trading Company)
In our wardrobes, we often get stuck in habits, thinking that this top goes with those trousers etc. When we challenge ourselves to mix it up, to wear more things and put different items together, we often find we can be more creative, and it opens us up to new ways of wearing our clothes and new outfits. A great tip is once a week to challenge yourself to create a new outfit from the wardrobe that you haven’t put together before.
It might sound counter-intuitive, but I find that by packing away out of season items, I wear more of my clothes more often. If we have sight of all our clothes all the time, we can get bored of them, so by putting away the thickest of winter items it frees up more space in summer and means an exciting day happens in the autumn when all the winter items come out to play.
Having a well organized wardrobe will also help you see what you have, so you can plan your outfits and wear more of your clothes. Hang only one item of clothing on each hanger so nothing is lost or forgotten. Sort your rail by colour and in groups of type (trousers, skirts etc.) In your drawers, a great tip from Marie Kondo is to fold clothing so that it stands up on its side; that way nothing is left at the bottom of a pile and squashed or forgotten about. Make sure the things that are right for this season are all easy to see, easy to choose from and readily accessible as you get dressed each day.
4. Mend or repurpose what you already have.
We’ve all got things we don’t wear because….. (fill in the blank). Do you have something that just needs a button sewn on, or trousers that could do with taking up? If you’re good with a needle and thread, then fixing these small issues will mean you have another useable item to add to your collection. And if there’s a larger job, like darts need taking in, or trouser widths adjusted, then finding a good local seamstress can give your clothes a new lease of life. Love the shape of something, but not the colour? You could try dyeing it, and I’ve had great success in the past with changing the colour of something and getting years more wear out of it.
If you’ve got clothes that need completely re-working, have a look in Pinterest for some great ideas to repurpose clothing that you’re not wearing – it can be very addictive! Socks past their best make wonderful dusters, or jeans could be cut off to make a pair of shorts. With a bit of creative thought everyday items of clothing can be given a new lease of life, by refashioning them or using the for another purpose.
5. Buy second hand.
This is the ultimate in guilt free sustainable style shopping to spice up your wardrobe! If you’re a second hand newbie, start hunting on eBay for brands you love, or look at the Oxfam Fashion website, or sites like Thrift Plus. If you want to venture out, try your local charity shops, vintage shops, dress agencies, or even local car boots or jumble sales. Finding treasure second hand means you’re saving money, reducing the environmental impact of new clothes production, you’re helping a charity or recycling organisation, and you’re creating a look that is completely unique and your own – what’s not to love! Even if you don’t go fully down this route (and we probably can’t buy everything we want second hand) you could adopt a second hand first policy. If you want something new, look for it first second hand.
6. Understand fabrics, and question brands on their production policies.
Opting for natural textures and fibres may mean your clothes last longer, but also are less environmentally damaging. You can also ask your favourite brands where and how they make their clothing, and what they are doing to offset any environmental damage in their production chain. With an informed awareness, you’ll be able to pick out brands that are conscious, that shout about their ethical and environmental credentials and that work to improve the environmental impact of production. Many local and artisan producers are now creating labels, designs and fabrics that are more sustainable – have a look at this article for some ideas on where to get started.
7. Buy things that are made to last.
Cheaper clothing is just that. Jumpers are more likely to bobble, seams to split. Fabrics may be cheaper and not designed to last. Five pairs of terrible jeans that don’t last long may equate to one really great pair that will last and last and last. Buying cheaper brands can be a false economy, so when you are able, consider a slow fashion approach and buy pieces that will stand the test of time.
8. Ask “Do I really need this?”
Before you buy anything. Do you really need it? Can you think of at least 3 occasions when you will wear it? Do you have at least two other items in the wardrobe that it will go with? If you have doubts or hesitations as to how much use you’ll get out of something, you’re probably better off leaving it in the shops. The worst time to go shopping is during the sales, because the lure of the price is often enough to secure a purchase even if you haven’t decided when and where you’ll wear something.
If you’re off to a wedding or a one off event, it can be a costly affair to buy a new outfit for a one-off occasion, and how often are you going to wear it again? Consider borrowing something from a friend, doing a swap or renting from companies who hire clothing on a monthly or by event basis. Have a look at Love Your Clothes for some ideas.
9. Clear out regularly.
It may seem strange, but when it comes to our wardrobes, less can often be more. Having an uncluttered wardrobe will help you see what you do have and make it easier to out outfits together and spot obvious gaps. When you’ve finished with an item of clothing, it’s great to pay it forward and pass it on for someone else to enjoy. If you’ve got clothing in remarkable condition, you can sell it at a dress agency, or on sites like eBay, or you can donate items to charity or swap with friends & family. Even if you have clothing that is no longer wearable, you can still recycle it, either through your local council recycling scheme or some charity shops will take all fabrics regardless of condition as they will get paid a recycling fee for your items – check with your local charity shops.
If you’d like to have a go at creating a more sustainable approach to your wardrobe, join us for Sustainable Style Studio, a 12 week online programme to help you buy less new clothing and love more of what you already have in your wardrobe. Our next class opens on 3rd August, so sign up now to secure your place.
If you'd like to hear more about sustainability and how you can find treasure second hand as well as browse the rails of the dress agency, I will be at the following events:
Mrs B's Kitchen Cafe in Newbury for a dress agency pop up shop on the 18th & 19th July
The Sustainable Living Market in Thatcham for a stall and dress agency rail on the 20th July
GreenFest at Hampstead Norreys for a talk and a pop up stall on the 7th September
Rowan Hospice Charity Fashion Show in Havant for a talk and a book signing on the 25th September