by Elena X. Wang
Remember the days when clothes shopping was seasonal, and you would save up to buy that jacket or dress you’d been eyeing for months? Well, today, the average American buys at least one garment per week, and discards 80 pounds of clothing in the same year.
Not all of the tossed items go directly into the trash: we haul our tees and sweaters to our neighborhood Goodwill, thinking that our closet rejects will be resold to a local clientele. In fact, more than 80% of secondhand clothing gets packed in bales and shipped by the ton to Africa. There, because it is so cheap, it destroys the local textile and garment industry (you can read more about this shadow economy here). Used clothing is America’s number one export (by weight), and it’s not good for the economy!
As journalist Elizabeth Cline points out in her fantastic narrative of America’s googly-eyed affair with fast fashion, we are raising generations of children to treat clothes like plastic water bottles or paper bags – disposable and single-use. We no longer ask if the quality of our newest Target or H&M purchase is good. It merely needs to be good enough.
And, really, who can resist the appeal of a pair of $5.99 flip-flops? A $19.99 hoodie? I think we would resist, if we understood the true costs – social, environmental, psychological – of producing and consuming massive quantities of low-quality apparel. In light of recent consumer awareness campaigns seeking to reform our overflowing yet underwhelming closets (check out this documentary on your next Netflix and chill night, for example), here’s our step-by-step guide to thoughtful dressing.
1. The 6-Item Wardrobe Challenge
You may be familiar with the concept of a capsule wardrobe – a collection of versatile basics that happily outlasts today’s endless trend cycles – but how exactly do you start? Hint: Look through what you already own, and identify what pieces you wear the most.
Back in 2010, a group of women launched an online challenge called “Six Items or Less,” where you choose six or fewer items from your closet to wear for a month. You’re free to change up your shoes, accessories, and, of course, underwear as you wish (workout gear and outerwear are also exempt), but this “shopping diet” asks that you stick to various combinations of, say, a black blazer, work slacks, two button-downs, jeans and a tee.
Some participants chose reversible clothes for a bit of flexibility. Others decided to count multiple versions of an item as a single item (say, if you have 3 nearly identical black blazers).
Among the 200 or so total participants who tackled this seemingly daunting experiment, the most common – and surprising – finding was this: no one noticed. Not even the participants’ partners, much less their coworkers.
“I’ve freed a lot of bandwidth in my head,” said one Sixer. “Obviously, I didn’t need all of these clothes,” said another. More importantly, the items the participants chose for the challenge were the clothes that made them happiest and suited their lifestyle.
Go forth and pare!
2. Mending & Tailoring
Think about the last time you noticed a tear in your sweatshirt or dress. Is your reflex to fix it or toss it? Chances are, the quality of the clothing is so poor that having it fixed would cost more than buying a new one anyway.
“Currently, our entire economy is built on making crappy stuff that can’t be fixed and must be replaced,” says Patagonia’s Director of Global PR & Communications, Adam Fetcher. Gone, too, are the days when basic skills such as sewing were actually taught in school.
Patagonia, for one, is spearheading a repair-and-care revival through their Worn Wear project. The environmentally conscious outerwear company operates the largest garment repair facility in North America today, and publishes free repair guides.
So how can we extend this ethos to all aspects of our dress?
- If you are not baffled by a sewing needle, YouTube sewing tutorials are a great resource.
- Find tailors – and, for shoes and accessories, cobblers – in your neighborhood (we promise, they actually exist!). You’ll be supporting local business while you’re at it.
- Ask friends from older generations – you might need to thread the needle for them, but they will most likely know how to sew.
- Be creative! Turn a torn tee into a tank top, jeans into cut-offs and repurpose the scraps with other fabric into a rug, blanket, pillowcase or scarf. Have fun!
3. Clothing Swaps
Here’s an idea: go shopping in your family, friends’ and friend of friends’ closets! Exchanging clothing over pizza and wine is a fantastic way to circulate your used clothing locally. Organize a swap with friends, or find one on Meetup. Watch your long-neglected sweater transform into someone else’s new favorite fall piece.
Giving – and finding – clothes through clothing swaps makes an otherwise anonymous commercial exchange personal, social and environmentally sound.
Now that we’ve considered how to make the most of the clothes you have, let’s discuss conscious shopping.
4. Buying Vintage
Vintage stores are the original conscious shopping destination. Now there are also online options, such as ThredUp. Buying clothes that already exist has almost no environmental impact, and it keeps them out of a landfill. You can often find items that are almost new at great prices, as well as pricier designer items that have been taken care of quite carefully. However, you should be aware of the following:
- Vintage clothes run the gamut in quality, from rare period clothing with stunning detail to your typical used clothing item that’s been merely rebranded as vintage. So then, caveat emptor. Check the label and look for provenance.
- True vintage clothes can be just as expensive, if not more so, as new, high-quality clothing. Without a doubt, however, clothes from earlier decades were better made. Run a cost-per-wear calculation (see below) if you find yourself balking at the tag.
- You don’t have much choice with sizes when buying vintage, but remember that you can always make a trip to the tailor.
We’ve looked at ways you can use existing clothes. Now let’s tackle conscious shopping for new clothes.
5. Buying Clothes Made With Sustainable Fabrics
Try to buy clothes made from organic cotton, sustainably produced wool, or recycled polyester fabrics. You can find a good selection of sustainable apparel brands on GreenerDailyLife.com, and more sustainable brands are coming to market every day. For more, see Getting to Know Sustainable Fabrics.
When you’re shopping in a retail store, ask the salespeople if they have items that fit these criteria. The more shoppers ask, the sooner the fashion industry will hear the message.
6. Buying According to Cost-Per-Wear
We recognize that the allure of cheap fashion is undeniable, but next time you’re about to make a purchase, try this simple calculation (and remember: your smartphone has a calculator on it – this isn’t hard to do):
- Think about how many times you’ll wear the item in a month. Be realistic and consider each item’s durability. Multiply that number by 12 (or 6 if it’s seasonal), then multiply again by the number of years you think you’ll continue to wear it.
- Divide the price of the item by your final number.
- You’ve just figured out the item’s cost-per-wear.
Cost-per-wear is a great way to choose between more expensive, so-called “investment pieces” and their throwaway versions (you can read through some examples here). Is that cheaper coat really a bargain if the lining falls out after a year? Try to resist what Ecocult founder Alden Wicker calls the “fashion high,” and we’ll all be better off for it.
7. Buying Vegan
As we’ve covered in a previous post, veganism involves the removal of animal products from what you put on your body as well as what you put on the dinner table. Savvy consumers are now aware, however, that vegan ‘leather’ isn’t quite the environmentally sound alternative it was marketed to be (vegan ‘leather’ is usually petroleum-based and heavily polluting).
Luckily, other options abound! They include paper, cork, waxed cotton, recycled rubber, burlap and hemp (we’ve selected some great choices).
Here’s to a healthier closet!
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