How to Build an Ethical and Sustainable Wardrobe

How to Build an Ethical and Sustainable Wardrobe

Minimal clothing for a sustainable and ethical wardrobe

The Ellen McArthur Foundation worked out the shocking statistic that a rubbish truck full of clothes ends up being thrown into landfill every second. Not only that but this clothing waste is expected to increase in volume by 50% by 2030. To 138 million tonnes a year. For more on our clothing waste problem, see here.

The fashion industry is responsible for 8-10% of all global carbon emissions, more than the aviation and maritime shipping industries together. And we’re only increasing our consumption. We now buy on average 60% more clothing than we did 15 years ago and keep it for only half of the time.

This is terrible but what can we do about it? Believe it or not, learning how to build an ethical and sustainable wardrobe is one of the best things you can do. 

It’s a fact that the most sustainable clothing is the clothing you already own, no matter where it came from. Learning how to update your wardrobe doesn’t involve going out and buying all new eco friendly clothes; it means falling in love again with what you have, repurposing, selling or donating what you don’t and adding to it in a mindful and purposeful way.

Tips to Create an Ethical and Sustainable Wardrobe

In this guide, we’ll share the best tips for creating an ethical and sustainable wardrobe step by step. Read on to find out how to contribute to preserving our planet for future generations by changing your clothing habits.

1. repurpose Your existing clothes

Your existing wardrobe is the place to start. According to WRAP, around 30% of the clothing in most people’s wardrobes hasn’t been worn for a year and 80% of people own clothes they’ve never worn!

If your wardrobe is overflowing with such clothing, don’t despair; with a bit of effort and thought you could come to love it again, or if not somebody else could. 

Here are some of our favourite suggestions:

A. Get creative with what you have

Getting creative with your clothes to create an ethical and sustainable wardrobe
Photo by Yaroslava Borz from Pexels Photo by RF._.studio from Pexels

When I stopped working in an office every day, I couldn’t believe how many of my lovely dresses, shirts and blazers just sat there unused. I felt like more than half of my wardrobe was unusable now. 

But then I started to think about my clothes differently. What I’d previously mentally categorised as ‘work clothes’, I now thought of as my ‘cool to wear at home’ clothes, or ‘funky to visit the in-laws in’ clothes. My work shirts look great with a t-shirt underneath and a pair of (second hand) ripped jeans. My beautiful dresses look great on in the summer to meet up with friends, to head into town or even to feel smart while doing the housework!

What I’ve found is that I quite like my new style. I am a typical jeans, or shorts and t-shirt girl, so smartening up my act out of the work environment has been really fun for me.

B. Upcycle

But you don’t have to stop there. People are getting way more creative with their unloved clothes. Upcycling put simply is taking what you have, be it damaged, worn or just not your taste anymore, and making it into something different. Something one-of-a-kind and unique to you. This could range from sewing patches and buttons onto an unloved jacket (Levis now do this in some of their stores or sell patches for you to do it at home), or turning an old shirt into a dress.

There are many designers now taking upcycling mainstream. UK-based Antiform, Beyond Retro, Lara Intimates, and even Urban Outfitters take vintage or donated clothes and make fashion statement pieces. You can also find smaller upcyclers on places like Etsy, and those that will upcycle clothes especially for you.

Upcycling really can hold the key to help you build your ethical and sustainable wardrobe. Read our interview with upcycling supremo Danny Calero for more on upcycling.

c. Repair or alter

Alter your clothes to be more sustainable
Photo by Los Muertos Crew from Pexels

WRAP also found that over half of women and almost a quarter of men were interested in learning more about how to repair their clothes. This obviously extends to altering them to fit when your waistline has increased or decreased a tad.

Clothes repairing workshops are popping up all over the place. You can choose from a full course on the likes of Udemy or a Zoom or in person class from organisations like Fast Fashion Therapy or the Crafts Council. You’ll find tonnes more with a quick Google search.

If learning to sew isn’t your thing, or you just don’t have the time, that’s fine too, there are many clothes altering services out there. Get to know your local tailor, become a regular customer and maintain your sustainable wardrobe that way.

D. Washing and care

For the clothes you’ve decided to keep, the most sustainable thing you can do with them is to look after them well.

“depill”

Buying a depiller, or fuzz remover, for clothes is an investment you won’t regret. Get those fluffy bits off your jumpers or out of the inside of your jeans and make them look and feel like new.

Wash your clothes at lower temperatures

It sounds obvious but read the care label and follow it! Wash your clothes at lower temperatures. Washing at higher temperatures can actually set in stains and wears out your clothes’ fabric and colour faster. Washing at higher temperatures also means that synthetic clothing is more likely to emit microfibres.

The Energy Saving Trust calculate that by washing your clothes at 30 degrees over a year will save you about 40% in energy compared to higher temperatures, so it’s good for your bank balance too. Plus modern washing machines and detergents wash just as well at lower temperatures.

And choose your washing detergent carefully, there are toxins lurking that most people don’t know about. See our article “The Clean Clothes Conundrum: Is Scented Laundry Detergent Toxic?” for more info.

Wash your clothes less

What may sound less obvious is that it’s ok to wash your clothes less. Apart from the obvious contenders of underwear and the clothes we sweat a lot in, it’s simply not necessary to wash our clothes after every use. The dermatologist Dr Annie Gonzalez at Riverchase Dermatology in Miami recommends waiting 2 to 4 washes depending on the clothes you’re wearing and the activities you’re doing in them. 

What’s more, Levi’s former CEO Chip Bergh admits to not washing his jeans in a washing machine in 10 years and recommends that you don’t either!

Our clothes emit less microplastics too when we keep them out of the washing machine. For more on how often to wash your clothes, see our article Airing the dirty laundry: how often should you do your laundry.

Air dry

The final part to the care conundrum is minimising your use of a tumble dryer. While this isn’t always easy in damp climes such as the UK, the high termperatures in tumble dryers aren’t doing your clothes or your energy bills any favours.

Air drying clothes for a sustainable wardrobe
Photo by Katy Cao on Unsplash

2. Never throw away

There will obviously be clothes in your wardrobe that you simply don’t want to keep. But throwing your clothes in the bin means they will almost certainly end up in landfill. Never throw your clothes away. There are many other options to keep your wardrobe on the ethical and sustainable straight and narrow.

A. Sell

Selling your clothes is probably the best and most fun option, and it’s getting easier. The second-hand clothing market is growing at an exponential rate and is predicted to grow 11 times faster than the normal retail market by 2025. You’re also helping others build a more ethical and sustainable wardrobe by avoiding the need to create new garments and textiles.

It applies best to your clothes in tip-top condition, including those never used, and especially those from well-known or ‘aspiring’ brands. It’s worth mentioning that you’ll likely get a fraction of what you paid, but the point is that somebody else is going to use them. And they’re going to give you money.

I personally sold a load of clothes that I wasn’t wearing any more on Vinted. Every time that I packaged an item off, I patted myself on the back that I now had more space in my wardrobe, and hence my life!

Apps like Vinted and Vestiaire Collective to name but a few make selling your clothes easy. They market your unloved fare to a huge fashion fanbase across Europe and you don’t even have to pay for postage! And eBay of course is massive, in 2020 they reported selling three second-hand items per second. For more places to sell your preloved clothes online, check out our article with tonnes of recommendations. And if you can find a local place to sell your clothes, even better, saving energy in transport.

If you’re going to sell your clothes, or donate them for that matter, it goes without saying that they should be clean and in good condition. And don’t underestimate the power of the photograph, the more the better. And photograph yourself wearing them if you can, people like to visualise what the clothes look like on.

B. take them to a clothes swop

The clothes swop party movement is gaining momentum and is a great way to build your ethical and sustainable wardrobe! You might never have heard of them but organisations like Eventbrite are running more and more. Attend one of theirs or organise your own, here are their top tips on how to do so.

Photo by Becca McHaffie on Unsplash

c. Donate meaningfully

While selling your clothes is highly satisfying, not everything can be sold. You might find it hard to sell your standard run of the mill basics, un-named brands or clothes that have seen their best years. And not everyone is inclined to photograph and sell their clothes. But if they’re in good condition, and I repeat, clean, you could give them away.

Friends and family are a good place to start. My sister and I are more or less the same size and I’ve donated her some of my surplus to requirement clothes and shoes in the past when, frankly, I was buying more than I needed. She was quite pleased to receive it!

Those with less than you too might be very happy to receive some of the great clothes or shoes that you no longer wear. 

The obvious stop for most is the charity shop. But hold on a minute. We don’t realise just how much excess clothing they receive and that a huge portion of what we give actually ends up getting shipped overseas and ends up in landfill anyway

That’s why it’s doubly important that you only give clothes in clean and decent condition to charity. They don’t have time to wash or mend your thrown away clothes and they’ll most likely end up being shipped overseas where someone else, who doesn’t have time either, will throw them on a dump.

That’s why it’s doubly important that you only give clothes in clean and decent condition to charity. They don’t have time to wash or mend your thrown away clothes and they’ll most likely end up being shipped overseas where someone else, who doesn’t have time either, will throw them on a dump.

Find out what’s needed

A good idea is to find out what’s needed. What about the local homeless shelter? If it’s winter, there’s a good chance they’ll be looking for winter coats. And homeless people often need shoes, believe it or not they get stolen when they’re asleep. Ask your local charity shop what they are short of. Try to be as sure as possible that your donation will be useful and used.

There are also some great donation schemes that we cover in our articles for bras and wedding dresses.

d. downcycle

Present wrapped in fabric
Photo by Suzy Hazelwood from Pexels

Of course not everything can be donated either. While upcycling is turning an item of clothing into something of better quality, downcycling is turning it into something of lower quality, but still useful. For example, t-shirts could make a great cleaning cloth or windscreen demister. Not forgetting the recent boom in wrapping presents in fabric!

e. recycle

What about everything else? My old underwear? My t-shirt with a hole in? When it comes to this level, it’s time to recycle. At the moment only 15% of used clothing is recycled but the technology is getting better all the time for both mechanical and chemical recycling. Have a look at our articles on recycled cotton and recycled polyester fabric for more information on this.

Unusable old clothing collected by your local authority can be used for things like insulation materials and for stuffing mattresses. So you see, there is always a use, please don’t throw your clothes away! You can find your nearest local authority collection point here.

For more info on what to do with hard to donate items, see our articles on recycling your glasses, denim, shoes, running shoes and even your underwear.

So you’ve cleared out, upcycled, repaired and fallen back in love with the items in your newly built ethical and sustainable wardrobe, but what about if you want something new?

3. Buying new clothes for your ethical & sustainable wardrobe

There are many different ways to satisfy your craving for variety and newness in your wardrobe. But could you first try to enjoy the peace that not buying anything new brings? And really give you time to fall back in love with what you already have? Buying less can actually make you happier, and we have a whole article about that here!

#nonewclothes challenge

Remake.world launched the 90 day #NoNewClothes challenge back in May 2020 and relaunched it in May 2021. Their idea was simple: to give you time to reflect on your “consumption and waste habits and learn how to better challenge them.” They don’t specify whether it’s no ‘new’ clothes or no new clothes (e.g. second hand) at all, that’s up to you. 

I completed my 90 day challenge some time ago and to be honest haven’t stopped it yet as I realised that I just don’t really need anything new at the moment, second-hand or new.

Lauren Bravo took the challenge for a year and it changed her opinion so much that she wrote the book, “How To Break Up With Fast Fashion – A guilt free guide to changing the way you shop – for good“. She has a great take on shopping vintage and it’s well worth a look.

Buy second-hand / vintage

Buying cool second hand clothes
Photo by Taylor Simpson on Unsplash

Before looking at ‘new’, you’d be amazed what you can find second hand. Often only worn once or not even worn, you can pick up quality clothing at a fraction of the original price.

Check out online marketplaces like Vinted, Vestiaire Collective, Depop, Beyond Retro and of course eBay. Even ASOS has a second hand store; ASOS Marketplace. There are many more. Each has it’s own niche and you can search by brand, size and condition to find exactly what you want.

While if you know your size for a brand, second hand online shopping can be great, many of us prefer to try on first. It goes without saying that the UK is a great place to find charity and second hand shops, and some specialise in more upmarket brands than others. 

UK charity WRAP calculated that extending the active life of a piece of clothing by just 9 months would reduce its carbon, water and waste footprint by 20-30%. So buy second hand if you can!

Rent, borrow or swop

I wore one of my most expensive dresses, once, to a wedding. I can’t imagine when I’m going to wear it again. I can’t bring myself to sell it yet as I know how much I’d probably lose! If only I’d thought of renting a dress. So much more sustainable, way cheaper and never lingers in your wardrobe gathering dust!

It’s also true that if you’re going to spend a lot of money on a piece of clothing, make it something that you’re going to get a lot of use out of, like jeans or a winter jacket. If you’re only going to wear something once or twice, it makes so much more sense to borrow or rent!

The rental market for clothes is booming in the UK and you can now rent everything from party dresses, to clothes for a weekend away to maternity and baby wear. In fact, you can change your wardrobe every month with a selection of new clothes either selected by you or by styling specialists. Our article on clothing subscription services has tonnes more info and a run down of some of the best services.

Friends swopping clothes to create an ethical and sustainable wardrobe
Photo by cottonbro from Pexels

Buy from ethical and sustainable brands

Given all of the above, we sometimes still want to buy new, either for ourselves or for others. Luckily, thanks to a boom in ethical and sustainable fashion brands, there is now a huge selection of environmentally friendly clothing available to buy. 

It’s a common worry that sustainable fashion is expensive, and it can be, but it isn’t always. Read our guide to 22 of the most affordable ethical fashion brands on the market to get you started.

How to find the most sustainable brands

It’s also hard to know where to start with the amount of smoke and mirrors marketing, aka greenwashing, employed by the fashion industry to lull us into buying more. We have a guide with tips to avoid greenwashing which is worth a read, and you can also refer to the excellent brand directories by remake.world and Good On You to check out how well your favourite brand fares.

As well as brand directories, there are a whole host of certifications that brands can hold to verify their credentials. These range from material certifications such as OEKO-TEX that no harmful chemicals were used to Fair Trade showing that people were treated fairly and Social Accountability International SA8000 certifying ethical factory conditions. 

Our article on why ethical and sustainable fashion is important has a breakdown of the most important ones to understand.

Voting with your feet and supporting ethical and sustainable fashion brands is a great way support change in the industry. Make no mistake that fast fashion is taking notice of our buying decisions and you can make a difference.

Fabrics

Synthetics such as polyester, neoprene, acrylic, nylon, and others have certain advantages. They don’t wrinkle as easily as natural fibres and generally cost less. 

The cons outweigh the pros, though. Synthetic fabrics take from 20 to 200 years to degrade, inevitably harming the environment. They’re also often unpleasant to the skin, not allowing it to breathe, and may even cause allergies.

When shopping for new garments for your ethical and sustainable wardrobe, search for natural fibres, preferably organic and/or recycled. You can sometimes find out whether a fabric is sustainable by checking its certifications. Some of the best organic textile marks are GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard), Oeko-Tex®, BioPreferred, and PEFC (Programme for the Endorsement of Forestry Certification). There’s more information on the GOTS certification here.

Alternatively, check out our article “What is the Most Sustainable Fabric? Your Ultimate Guide

Recycled fabrics are made from other garments or other materials, including synthetics, previously used. 

Today, you can easily find brands selling clothes from recycled natural fibres or accessories from recycled plastic. Such garments require up to 70% less energy, 75% less CO2, and 86% less water during production. See our article on brands that use recycled materials in their production from fire hoses to bottle tops.

Photo by Alexandra Gorn on Unsplash

Buy local

Sustainability isn’t only about saving the environment. Social and economic sustainability is a crucial part of preserving our planet, as people are a part of it. By purchasing clothes from local brands, you’re supporting the growth of your local community and helping small businesses to develop.

As Aysegul Parlar from Vesper put it in my interview with her, “You’re so little, but you take care of everything and that one sale means a lot for you. You put your heart and soul and everything on that product. And then when someone buys one piece, it means a lot. It really means a lot.”

Buy for quality

The super interesting book The Conscious Closet by Elizabeth Cline has an excellent section on this. She goes into everything from the different types of seams, from a serged to a bound to a French, to how to check for fabric quality and much more. This is a must read book for people who care about building an ethical and sustainable wardrobe!

what to avoid

1. Clothes that need dry cleaning

Clothes that need to be dry cleaned look lovely, but the reality is, how often will you wear them if you have to take them to the dry cleaners every time they need washing? Not only that, but petroleum solvents used in dry cleaning are highly toxic, not only for the environment causing air pollution, but for you too. Try to choose easy to care for clothes to build up your ethical and sustainable wardrobe.

2. Distressed fabrics

While jeans with tears and holes can be super fashionable, the chemicals required to make them weren’t any good for the people who made them, the rivers that took the wastewater from the process, or your skin at the end of the day. Look for the least distressed fabrics that you can buy, or buy them second-hand.

3. Marketing emails and online shopping

While we all love a discount, signing up to brand marketing emails makes you a lot more likely to buy things you don’t need. And online shopping, while convenient, with the huge selection available, makes us much more likely to buy more than we need. 

Consider your clothing purchases carefully. Sleep on it overnight and see how strong your urge to buy is the next day, or even the next week. We often need less than we think.

Girl swinging from a lamp post in her ethical clothes
Photo by dusan jovic on Unsplash

4. What else can I do?

Use your voice

You can use your voice in many ways, not only by writing to brands, via email or the highly effective social media, but also by signing worthwhile petitions. One that we love is #PayUpFashion campaigning for workers who were left unpaid during the Covid pandemic. They are owed millions of dollars by big multinational brands. Sign the petition here and check out the brand tracker to find out the progress with big brands here.

Stepping to the sustainable beat

Learning to live consciously and consuming rationally may be hard in a world that’s constantly in a rush and is focused on trade. Sustainability isn’t a fast trend but rather a way of life. If you’ve decided to step to the ethical fashion path and to build a sustainable and ethical wardrobe, we applaud you. It won’t happen overnight but it will be well worth the effort.

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