10 Ways to Commit to Sustainable Fashion

This month I am little behind in work and life. My in-laws are away (and they usually help with my little ones once a week), and my husband is away in the US for a conference for 2 weeks. So today I’ve dug up one of my most popular posts from my archives. This was originally posted in 2013, but it is as relevant now as it was 3 years ago. I hope you get something out of it. Let me know if you think my writing has changed or improved in the last 3 years! You can find the original post here

Shopping for beautiful, eco-friendly and ethically made clothing is an essential part of any sustainable wardrobe. With more and more designers embracing ethical and environmental considerations as key elements of the design process, this is becoming easier and easier for eco-conscious fashion consumers. Yet this is only one part of the picture. Ensuring that you have a sustainable wardrobe involves a range of considerations, and ultimately it requires us to think differently about our own habits of consumption. So how do we go about this? Here are my top tips for achieving a sustainable wardrobe:

1. Less is More

As a global population, we already consume more than the earth can sustainably support, and while our wardrobes are only a small part of this picture, it would be naive to think that our appetite for fashion doesn’t have a significant impact. It is estimated that clothing accounts for 3.4% of global greenhouse gas emissions, so our wardrobes are an important sustainability consideration. In order to live sustainably, we need to move beyond our desire for consumption, and see shopping as functional activity rather than a pastime. Wardrobes full of impulse purchases we hardly wear are a wasted resource. So what do we do if we are bored with our current selection and desire a change? Lets be honest, we all love to buy something once in a while, and there isn’t anything wrong with that. But we need to take a closer look at our closets. Instead of expanding into more closet space, we need to make a deal with ourselves that we will maintain or reduce our current wardrobe size. Gift, swap, re-purpose, or donate items you don’t use that often to make space for something new.

2. Buy vintage or swap

Shopping for second hand clothing ensures that existing resources go to good use, plus, if you pick up your second hand buys in a charity store you have the added bonus of contributing to a good cause. Attending a clothing swap party is another great way to pick up something new (well, new to you) for your wardrobe, whilst finding a new home for your unwanted items at the same time.

3. Choose quality not quantity

The current fashion system churns out poorly made, low quality items that are designed to be discarded almost as fast as the shops change their selection. The average party top is worn 1.7 times before being discarded. If our wardrobes are going to be sustainable, we must choose to invest in quality pieces and ignore the allure of purchasing several cheap items instead. Personally, I have always felt uncomfortable about buying poor quality clothing. In the past, my main reason was that I have a habit of getting quite attached to my clothing, and I feel quite sad when something I love wears out quickly. Besides, cheap purchases are often bought under a false illusion- you feel as though you are getting a bargain. But when you add up the cost of buying several cheap items that wear out quickly, it is often just as economical to invest in one quality replacement that will last a decade. It is also worth remembering that today’s cheap fashion will be landfill tomorrow, but today’s quality items will be tomorrow’s vintage finds for someone else to love. When you consider these reasons, it hardly seems a burden to do right by the environment and choose quality over quantity.

4. Buy organic natural fibers

Synthetic fabrics are derived from petrochemicals, and apart from the carbon impact of their production, they are a finite non-renewable resource and cannot form a part of a sustainable wardrobe (unless of course they are purchased secondhand or the fibers are recycled). When sourcing clothing made from new fibers, synthetic materials should be avoided. Natural fibers are a renewable resource, but unless they are organic, they too have a significant environmental impact. It is estimated that around 16% of all insecticides and 25% of pesticides globally are used in conventional cotton farming, and several of these chemicals are known carcinogens. Cotton produced contributes 3.5kg of carbon dioxide emissions and one t-shirt uses about 2700 litres of water in production. Organic and rain-fed cotton offer alternatives which avoid or reduce these significant impacts. Similarly, organic wool ensures that livestock farming practices use land management techniques take care of the environment. Clothing certified by the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) are guaranteed to have met a high standard of environmental and social care in their farming and production.

5. Shop recycled textiles and yarns

Within the current fashion system, at least 15% of all new fabric is left over as off cuts from the production of new clothing. This waste usually ends up in landfill, but an increasing number of designers and textile producers are making use of this fabric waste. The off cuts are used to spin new textiles, such as recycled denim or recycled cotton. Alternatively, some designers use the off cuts as they are to produce quirky one-of-a-kind patchwork style pieces. Apart from recycling new fabric waste, some producers are finding ways to recycle waste items, and initiatives such as Cradle-to-Cradle design are creating products that are both recycled and entirely recyclable, ensuring that our finite resources don’t end up as landfill.

6. Choose Fairtrade or ethically made

With the great majority of clothing production occurring in countries with poor records on workers rights and protection, conventional fashion has a high social cost. These social costs include health conditions (including terminal illness) due to chemical exposure, workplace injury and permanent disablement due to poor safety protections, the use of child labour, and excessive working hours. There have even been cases of slavery in the production of products headed for Western markets. Fairtrade certified clothing is produced in conditions that ensure that workers labour under fair conditions for reasonable pay, and buying Fairtrade certified clothing is the best way to ensure that your purchase does not contribute to the exploitation of vulnerable workers. It is reasonable to assume that clothing produced in Western countries has ensured that workers rights are protected. However, the common practice of using factory out-workers has provided an avenue for some exploitation to occur on home soil. In these cases, it is best to do your research before assuming that the clothing is produced under fair conditions.

7. Buy handmade or make it yourself

Buying handmade from independent makers/designers is another way to avoid the social costs of exploitative factory working conditions. Buying handmade also enables creative individuals to make a living selling their handiwork, and ensuring the valuable time-honoured skills of knitting, sewing, spinning, weaving and alike continue to be valued by society and preserved. These benefits can also be gained by developing skills of your own and making your own clothing.

8. Choose natural and low impact dyes

Conventional chemical dyes have a huge environmental impact, especially in countries where environmental standards for industry are lax. In places such as China, it is common to see brightly coloured rivers flooded with the run off from industrial textile dying. In fact, there is a joke in China that you can tell what colours will be in fashion next season by looking at the colour of the rivers. When buying new clothing, chose fabrics that have been coloured with low impact or natural dyes. Textiles that have been GOTS certified (Global Organic Textile Standard) are a good choice, as the certification system requires the use of low impact dyes and has strict requirements for the protection of the environment. Choosing fibers that are already pigmented is another option, which eliminates the need for dying at all. It is possible to buy organic wool, cotton and silks that naturally come in selection of colours. If you are adventurous, you can also try your hand at eco-dying with botanical materials such as tea leaves and beetroot peelings.

9. Consider product care

Product care is an important sustainability consideration, and one that is often overlooked in considering the impact of a garment. However, the care required can have a huge impact on the impact over the complete life-cycle of a garment. My biggest rule is to never purchase items that require dry cleaning, as the chemical process creates a significant amount environmental waste. I have found that many items marked as dry clean only respond well to a gentle handwash, but if in doubt don’t purchase the dry clean only garment. As well as reducing your environmental impact, this decision will save you a lot of money over the life of a garment.  Since I have made the change to a more sustainable wardrobe, I have found that I have had to think much more consciously about product care. Old items can be so cheaply replaced that our way of life has become ingrained in throw away culture. However, often a garment will last for decades or more, if only we take the time to care for it properly and mend it.

10. Reduce, Reuse, and Repurpose

Most importantly, sustainable fashion requires us to re imagine our relationship to our clothing. We need to be able to leave behind craving for new and more items, and instead invest in fewer high quality pieces that are timeless. That doesn’t mean that our wardrobe’s can’t evolve as our tastes do, but we need to allow this to happen as a process of natural attrition rather than one of wardrobe expansion. When garments do wear out or go out of style, we need to look at these as items of use and value, rather than something to be discarded. Out of style clothing can be recycled into new garments that fit with current tastes. Worn clothing can be cut down for patchwork, or repuposed into household items. Ultimately, a sustainable wardrobe is one that puts garments to good use and then re imagines a new use to prolongs their working life to ensure they don’t end up as landfill.

I see sustainable fashion as a lifestyle choice, and moving towards a sustainable wardrobe involves a lifestyle change. It requires that we think differently about our relationship with shopping and fashion. This isn’t easy when our culture revolves around consumption as the measure of happiness and success. Stepping away from this takes time, and like any lifestyle change we will probably have relapses along the way. In the past year or so I have been going through this change. I have found that by being mindful for the things above, I have seen a transformation in the way I feel about clothes. I am no longer tempted by conventional fashion because I can’t look past the environmental and social costs that they embody. And I know that there are beautiful sustainable fashion alternatives, as long as I care to look for them.

For extra reading, try some of the following titles: Fashion & Sustainability , Eco Fashion , Factory Girls , DIY Couture , Eco Colour

So, what do you currently do to abide by your values when you shop? Do you have any tips that I haven’t covered? I would love to hear your thoughts

E BOOK SidebarIf you enjoyed this article, you will love my guide to sustainable fashion 6 Steps to a Sustainable Wardrobe. A 60 page guide and 21 page printable workbook packed with simple actionable advice and activities for living more sustainably without compromising on style.

If you want to confidently approach your wardrobe sustainably, untangle yourself from consumer culture, declutter mindfully and learn how to shop sustainably, how to assess a fashion label’s ethics and sustainability credentials, and much much more, 6 Steps to a Sustainable Wardrobe is the resource to help you do this.

  • KusKatStudio

    Thank you so much for this so well put together list. As a sustainable living person(:-) ) I have tried so much to follow most of the issues pointed out, like upcycling, handmade, natural coloring, support local sustainable business, natural diy,…. The only thing I haven’t managed is putting my mini-business fully bio-cotton, as there is not yet a good local producer I have encountered. Still the search isn’t finished, ha.
    So happy that I passed by here, thanks! I will be checking out more of the articles you wrote!

    • Thanks Kat for your lovely words. It can be difficult to do things perfectly- it is a long journey! The most important thing is to keep persisting. As we bring the rest of the world on this journey things will start to get easier for us. It sounds like you are doing a pretty good job

      • KusKatStudio

        Thank you so much! That’s so kind of you. Have an awesome weekend! Greets Kat

  • Marine Riche

    Nicely done Summer!

    I work at INDOSOLE (tire soled footwear https://indosole.com/) and Kyle Parsons, (founder ) did a TEDx talk in Bali about conscious consumerism.

    I think it would really interest you, so here is the link : http://tedxtalks.ted.com/video/Redesigning-our-consumer-habits;search%3Akyle%20parsons



  • Hi Summer – I really liked the article. Many folks writing on this topic tend to stay a bit idealistic, so you end up with the sense that things aren’t right, but not any clearer on what to do in practice.

    What resonated with me about this and some of your other pieces is that it’s very pragmatic, and reminds readers that it’s better to do something today – even if not perfect or world-changing – than to do nothing while waiting for the right time to do something bigger or better.

    Couldn’t agree more!

    • Thanks Was. I am so glad you appreciate my take on sustainable actions. If we aim for perfect we get overwhelmed and risk not even starting. As a recovering perfectionist I kno that too well! Better to accept that we are imperfect, in an imperfect system, and we can just focus on the small things we can do now, today, to make a difference. Individual small actions do add up to systems change, especially when we can form supportive communities around the changes we are making.

      Thanks for getting in touch. I really appreciated hearing from you.