And it doesn't involve hemp shrouds and rope sandals.
There’s a lot of guilting and brow-beating when talking about sustainability. It can feel overwhelming knowing where to start. But trying to be more sustainable isn’t about perfection— it’s about small gestures that become a movement and a lifestyle.
You won't need to sacrifice style or comfort to dress more sustainably and ethically. Nor do you need to get rid of your entire wardrobe and start again. It is possible to be an 'ethical fashionista', simply by being aware of how and where, and by whom, your clothing is manufactured.
It won’t happen overnight, and you probably won’t become 100% sustainable unless nude is your preferred sartorial state, but you can start by reducing your consumption and caring for the clothes you already have.
Here are some tips on getting a more sustainable and ethical wardrobe.
Start with what you already have in your wardrobe. The most sustainable clothes are those you already have, as Orsola de Castro, founder of the Fashion Revolution movement, the global movement that scrutinises industry practices, declares.
Love the clothes you have. Rewear them. Get creative with your wardrobe. Layer clothes, wear them in different ways so that you can create entirely new outfits out of old clothes. Alter or reinvigorate the clothes you have. Hem too long? Take it up and give your skirt a new lease on life and new style. Repurpose old trousers into shorts. Get that dress that’s been hanging in your wardrobe for too long fitted for you.
Repair your clothes. “Repairing our clothes is incredibly important” de Castro says. “ We know that lengthening the life of our clothing from one to two years decreases their carbon footprint buy 24% so it actually has an environmental effect. And obviously, keeping clothes means mending them, as things inevitably break”. Take pride in looking after your things. Understanding the work that goes into an article of clothing—the hand-stitching, weaving—will make you appreciate it more.
Get that scuffed bag and those shoes touched up at places like The Restory —or your local shoe and bag repair shop—who give old shoes and bags a new lease on life. Sew that button on. Fix that seam. If your DIY skills are a bit rusty take a workshop.
Which brings me to washing. Wash your clothes carefully to ensure longevity of the garment. Invest in good quality, clean and sustainable detergents like The Laundress, to care for your clothes. Hand wash in cold water. Avoid tumble drying and the dry cleaners. Most clothes can be hand washed delicately or spot cleaned despite the dry cleaning label—with only a couple of exceptions my clothes came out fine. Dry cleaning chemicals are toxic not just to the environment, but also to your health and can be damaging to your clothes.
Wash clothes only when you need to. And if they contain plastic microfibres–particularly the case with active and swimwear– invest in a Guppy Friend bag to capture the microfibre particles so they don’t enter our waterways.
An estimated 40% of clothes in our wardrobes are never worn, and most garments are discarded after just 7-10 wears before being tossed out resulting in 300,000 tonnes of clothing in landfill each year in the UK alone. Take a slower approach to fashion. Think twice, thrice before buying something new. Don’t impulse buy or self-medicate a crap day with a trip to a high-street shop. Break the cycle of compulsive overconsumption. Buy better. Buy less. Love it. Wear it longer.
Clothes are part of your story and your memories. Develop a relationship with what you already own. As you sort through your wardrobe think of all the moments you’ve experienced wearing a certain dress, jumper, whatever it is. Somebody put time and effort into making your clothes. Resources were used up for its manufacture. Waste and pollution was created for its production. Don’t just carelessly throw out something.
Think about the materials used in clothing. Do you need fur/ microplastics/ leather/ toxic dyes? Think about how the clothes were made. Will you wear that new dress more than a few times? Is it durable? Are the seams stitched well? Will it last you a long time?
If you need to replace items, buy well-made timeless clothing, pieces that will last beyond one season and that you won’t get bored of after only a few wears. Adopt a minimalist approach with a capsule collection of solid items of clothing that defy trends, and suit you, that are reliable and high-quality pieces. Monochrome is always a good bet. Black or darker colours, are easy to wear, and easy to mix and match. Create a uniform of well-tailored pieces that you can wear over and over again and become your trademark. It worked for Karl Lagerfeld and Steve Jobs!
Support Sustainable + Ethical Brands
Support, however you can, brands and businesses who have made a demonstrable commitment to reducing negative environmental impact, as well as protecting human rights and animal rights. Afterall, an ethical wardrobe cannot be ethical if we do not take into account the exploitation and harm our consumption has on animals as well as humans.
Try and buy, when/if you can, brands who incorporate sustainable and ethical practices in their process and supply chain. Look for brands who:
use salvaged, reclaimed, vintage, repurposed or upcycled materials
use high-quality natural fibres (e.g., cotton, flax/linen, hemp, jute, non-muelsed wool, alpaca, peace silk) that are sustainably and responsibly harvested. Natural fibres are renewable resources and biodegradable.
use environmentally-friendly cellulose fibres, such as tencel, lyocell, cupro and acetate.
use recycled materials, particularly those sourced from post-consumer or post-industrial streams, and recycled through energy-efficient and/or closed-loop processes.
employ water efficient and toxic chemical-free dyeing processes.
avoid virgin leather— it is not sustainable. Leather comes from cows, which produce greenhouse gas methane, and 90% of the Amazon deforestation is attributed to cattle farming for your meat and leather.
avoid or at least minimize the use of virgin synthetic petrochemical-derived fibres like polyester, acrylic and nylon, which do not degrade and only further contribute to our dependence on oil.
employ sustainable packaging.
Ask not just what materials the product is made from, but also who made your clothes, and under what conditions. Look for brands with transparency whose products are made in safe, healthy environments where workers are treated and compensated fairly, and where employees or contractors are afforded basic protections in line with international labour standards. A supply chain free of child labour, exploitation and cruelty should be the goal of every fashion brand.
But, beware of greenwashing. Sustainability isn’t just about how the cotton is produced. It encompasses everything from sourcing, creation of textiles, manufacturing and packaging, and then end-of-life cycle of a garment (can items be returned? Repaired? Recycled?). Garments must be designed with longevity in mind. Ask yourself, 'What is the impact of the garment, from production to end of life?' Everything ends up somewhere at the end of its life cycle, it doesn't just go away.
Buy Vintage, Swap or Rent
Buy vintage. Charity shops, vintage shops and flea markets are great places to treasure hunt and pick up gems, and you're not contributing to the production and waste of yet more clothing. Check out online vintage platforms like Vestiaire Collective.
Swap clothes with friends. Host swapping parties where you and your friends bring along the clothes you want to pass on, giving clothes a new lease on life and extending the lifespan. It’s not so revolutionary. C’mon, how many times did you borrow a friend’s dress, or cool jacket in high school? The future of fashion is open source!
Detox Your Inbox
Research has found that some women wear a garment only once because they don't want to repeat an outfit they've already posted on social media. Clean up your Instagram account. Ditch the influencers whose sponsored posts encourage fast-paced consumption of trends and a wear-it-once for Instagram approach. There’s nothing inspiring or subversive about being a walking billboard dressed for pay.
Follow influencers who demonstrate a commitment and passion to slower and sustainable fashion. While you’re at it, detox your inbox too and unsubscribe from all the fashion mailing list and sale alerts. Bye, bye Black Friday sale alerts!
Fashion and sustainability don't always go well together, but we can all consume a little more consciously, and demand that brands create with sustainability and ethics in mind.