Updated: Apr 14, 2021
Today I'm discussing something I have had loads of problems with on my journey towards greater sustainability: building a sustainable wardrobe. I first started becoming more aware of how terrible fast fashion really is for the environment about four years ago - around the same time I decided to aim towards being zero waste. As I delved more and more into the minimal, eco-conscious world, I started gaining a greater understanding of what being eco-friendly actually meant. It wasn't just about considering the effect of plastic on the environment, or using greener electricity, it was also about the entire chain behind it: what goes into producing the electricity, the plastic bottles, the item of clothing you can't live without.
Let's start with one garment. You check the label, it's made of 100% acrylic, or nylon, read: plastic, meaning it won't break down, ever. When you wash that garment, plastic micro-particles will be chased into the water supply, and eventually, into our oceans. Behind it, thousands of tons of machinery have worked, using energy probably gained from dirty energy sources, to turn plastic into the cheap, fast fashion (fashion that gets through multiple looks, seasons and trends very quickly) you now hold in your hands. If it is cheap, it's probably been made somewhere like India, where the workers are paid not even minimum wage, sometimes work in terrible conditions, seven days a week, for long, unforgiving hours, and may even be poisoned by the dye that's gone into the garment (especially true of jean production). These workers have a very short life expectancy and low quality of life. Thousands of tons of water may have been used to make a single t-shirt, in a world where drought is becoming more and more common and people whisper of the 'water wars' that may end human life as we know it. Because the fashion is fast, and has responded quickly to an in-the-moment trend, making hundreds of thousands of garments, the moment that trend is over, the leftovers are burned: plastic waste sending toxic chemicals into the atmosphere. At the end of life, because your garment is not made of a natural fibre, it won't break down, it will stay in the earth forever, unless it is recycled, and even then, because plastic can't be recycled infinitely, it will still end up in the earth at some point.
I think you get my point.
But what can we do about it?
STEP 1. START WHERE YOU ARE
There's no need to chuck out your whole wardrobe in disgust, wear it to the end of life, dispose of it responsibly, then seek out an eco-friendly alternative. Try not to be daunted by the enormity of the task before you, take it one step at a time. Find some organic cotton socks, my favourite are from Thought, or pick up some organic cotton, fair trade pants, next time you need them. Go on, throw out those old granny pants with holes in. We've all got them.
STEP 2. MAKE A LOOKBOOK
I found all of these on Pinterest just scrolling through. I took a screen shot of each and made a board of how I wanted to look and what looks spoke to me. This helps to keep me in line when I'm shopping. It also helps on Depop (more about that later). I also aimed for timeless things that could be paired easily with the other items in my wardrobe.
STEP 3. CHECK THE INGREDIENTS
When you're replacing things, check the labels and the descriptions and make sure you refer back to your lookbook (does it go with the wardrobe you're trying to build?). Go for organic cotton, linen, hemp, rayon or tencel. Try to go fair trade. Try to avoid anything that says acrylic, nylon or poly-anything, even if it's only half that. And avoid silk, if you can, 2,500 silk worms have to die to make one pound of silk. Some other pitfalls include the term 'recycled' (there is no legal limit on how much recycled fibre companies can put in clothes before calling it recycled, so it could be made of 10% recycled acrylic and 90% nylon: no good). Also, you might find the Better Cotton Initiative label on clothes from several places, but only some of their cotton is organic, and it gets mixed with non-organic cotton, so even if your clothes bear the label 'better cotton initiative', you can't actually be guaranteed that any percentage of that cotton is organic).
STEP 4. RE-USE AND RECYCLE
Can you fix those jeans with the hole in? Can a tailor bring your jeans in because you've lost weight? Can you dispose of that yellow-shirt-that-was-once-white in a clothes recycling bin? And now for the fun part: can you re-purpose a charity shop find? Or, my current obsession, can you find what you want on Depop? Or even learn to make your own clothes, if you're so inclined.
TOP TIP: IT DOESN'T HAVE TO COST THE EARTH
Depop is a second-hand clothes app, much like ebay used to be, or Vinted, where users sell their old clothes, often mostly unworn (it is estimated that the average western person wears clothes they've bought only 5 times before getting rid of them). I like to look at my lookbook, and then search specifically for 'white lace blouse' or 'long tan coat'. Items that will go with anything, and that I currently have missing from my wardrobe (for example, I wouldn't buy a long tan coat, if I already had a smart-ish winter coat). Before discovering Depop, I really struggled getting eco-friendly clothes on a low budget, sometimes that beautiful organic cotton pair of culottes at £120 is just unaffordable, but if you head to Depop and grab something second hand, you're still being eco-friendly by re-using the older item. It's not an ideal solution, as most of the clothes are still made of plastic, but you are one step closer to helping the environment than you were heading to Primark. And you can always grab a guppy bag, which will stop those micro plastics from getting into the water supply when you wash. As buyers we have a lot of power to let companies know they need to do better, simply by avoiding them.
STEP 5. DO YOUR RESEARCH
And head to people who know a lot more than I do. I highly recommend checking out Jessica Rose Williams' blog. She is very eco-conscious and also a minimalist, so she has a very small wardrobe, something highly useful for the planet and your wallet. I am less of a minimalist, but I still try to keep the amount of clothes I own down to around 30 items (not including shoes or coats, or hobby items, like those old gardening jeans). Jessica has also written an entire ebook on how to build your own minimal, sustainable wardrobe.
Finally, some other random things I've learned:
Bras: If you have a chest, it's almost impossible to find supportive, eco-friendly bras. Organic Basics for example, is a lovely brand, creating gorgeous, soft underwear that is brilliant for the environment. I really don't like wearing it out and about though. As a D-cup, my boobs bounce everywhere. I have, to date, only found one supportive, entirely eco-friendly, everyday bra brand, and that is The Very Good Bra. Unfortunately they're in Australia and it costs a further £20 to get their bras into the UK, on top of the shipping and bra cost (THAT was fun to find out).
Have a look on Etsy: There are lots of shops specialising in clothes made of eco friendly fabrics, like linen. One of my personal favourites is Lela Silk, a store which creates stunning linen dresses, made to measure.
Some cheaper options: Rapanui is a good one for basics, and really sustainable clothing from factory to finish, and sometimes H&M Conscious can be great, although I'd take a look at the labels before you buy (I did just recently buy a 100% recycled cotton rug from them and I love it). Tentree is a good one for more comfortable basics. And finally Monki often do 100% organic cotton clothing for a good price. I would also highly recommend The Cotton Story, but they stopped trading last year, set up shop under a different name, (Basicly, which, in my opinion is a horrible name, not least because the misspelling is super annoying, intentionally or no), then that name vanished and all accounts associated with it seem to be closed, then until last week they had a website under The Cotton Story still, which said they'd be re-launching, and now they're just gone, but if they ever do come back, they were wonderful. Also, definitely wait for the sales! I've got a few absolute bargains from places like Beaumont Organic (on items I wanted already) because of the sales.
Period: Hello, do you have periods? I've never been able to use a mooncup, and found most period underwear very ill-fitting and uncomfortable. Instead I opted for ImseVimse reusable, organic cotton pads, and they work just fine, even with very heavy flow.
Washing: Oh yes, even your laundry powder can have a terrible effect on the environment, the best solution I've found so far is Tru Earth strips. They come in a cardboard packet, are super easy to store, are made with no nasties, and you just pop one in the wash and go.
Do you need any other tips? Let me know below and I'll do my best to help!