Faced with the staggering amount of emissions and resources typically associated with clothing, you might think the key to having a more sustainable wardrobe is obvious: Stop shopping.
“It’d be very easy for me to say, ‘Just stop buying stuff,’ ” says Mark Sumner, a lecturer focusing on sustainability within the textile, clothing and fashion industry at the University of Leeds’s School of Design. “But that is a very lazy response and does not reflect the complexity of fashion and its positive impacts for workers.”
Fashion and clothing are a critical part of culture, society and individual expression. And at some point, most people are going to want or need to buy new clothes. To help reduce environmental and social impacts, how you shop — finding ways to reduce unnecessary purchases of new items, thinking about how you might wear what you buy and looking for clothes that will last — matters.
“At the end of the day, it’s not about what brands do you shop,” says Katrina Caspelich, chief marketing officer for Remake, a global nonprofit advocating for fair pay and climate justice in the clothing industry. “It’s about what kind of changes are you going to make to how you do consumption.”
While ditching shopping isn’t the answer, many people are buying new clothes too often. One 2021 survey of consumers in the United Kingdom reported that nearly 39 percent of respondents said they shop for fashion at least once a month. Almost one-fifth of people surveyed said they buy something new every two weeks, according to the report from Drapers, a U.K.-based fashion retail publication.
“The biggest thing that anyone can do to make a difference is to lower their consumption of clothing,” Caspelich says.
Even clothes from brands touting how they use less resources still have an environmental cost. What’s more, each new sale can signal to companies that they need to keep producing to meet consumer demand, adding to the staggering amount of textiles already in circulation. Despite increased efforts to donate, resell, repurpose and recycle used clothing domestically, garments can end up shipped overseas, often to Africa or elsewhere in the Global South, creating a waste problem and potentially hurting local economies.
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Clothes also wind up in landfills in the United States. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, discarded clothing ranks as the top source of textiles in municipal solid waste, above furniture, carpets, footwear, linens and towels. In 2018, the agency reported that landfills received 11.3 million tons of textiles, more than 7 percent of its total waste.
“The best thing that people can do is keep materials that have been extracted in use for longer,” says Lynda Grose, a professor of fashion design and critical studies at California College of the Arts.
Instead of buying everything new, experts recommend trying to get the most out of what you already own. Extending the life span of your clothes through proper care and repair accomplishes that.
If you’re looking to add to your wardrobe, consider alternative ways to refresh your closet. If possible, experts suggest shopping secondhand from thrift or consignment stores or resale platforms, participating in clothing swaps, or renting clothes for special occasions.
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There’s a difference, according to University of North Carolina at Greensboro professor Elena Karpova, between what she calls “affluent consumption” and “I-need-to-function consumption.”
With the rise of e-commerce and the ability to buy things with a single click, have them delivered within a matter of days and then return what you don’t want with relative ease, she and others say, it’s not surprising that many people are often purchasing things they don’t need.
“This is not about saying don’t buy stuff,” Sumner says. “This is about saying let’s just be careful that we don’t just do impulse, impulse, impulse.”
Whether you’re buying a brand-new article of clothing or acquiring used items, your first step should be to think through the decision. “You shouldn’t approach secondhand the same way you would approach fast fashion,” Caspelich says. Be mindful, she suggests, and try to add to your closet more purposefully.
Karpova, who studies textile and apparel sustainability, recommends ranking clothes you want to buy on a scale of one to 10. “I never buy anything that’s lower than nine,” she says. “Shoot for 10.”
Before you’re about to get something, take a moment to consider the purchase, Sumner says. “Just stop and put the phone down, or stop and walk away from the cash register and ask yourself, ‘Why am I buying this?’ ”
A significant proportion of a garment’s overall environmental impact typically occurs in the use phase, experts say, largely because of how clothes are laundered, used and cared for. This is also the stage, experts note, in which consumers have the most control.
“The magic to me is really in the use phase,” says Cosette Joyner Martinez, an associate professor in the department of design, housing and merchandising at Oklahoma State University.
Buying clothes should be thought of as a long-term commitment, Joyner Martinez says.
“I think about it like a marriage, like I’m entering a relationship,” she says. “Not only am I going to think about how I’m going to use it and how long I’m going to use it, but I’m also going to think about how that thing is going to end its life.”
Experiment with a capsule wardrobe, or a small collection of clothing that can be worn interchangeably to create a number of different outfits. If you’re adding to your closet, try to pick higher-quality items, experts say, but remember that price isn’t always a reliable indicator of how well clothing is made. Shop less for trendy styles or hues and choose more classic silhouettes and staple colors, such as black, brown, navy, gray or white.
“You can wear things longer without it looking dated,” says Karen Leonas, a professor of textile sciences at the Wilson College of Textiles at North Carolina State University. Timeless, well-made clothes could also have a better chance of finding a new home once you’re done with them.
But while considering those factors can help you buy better and reduce consumption, the key, several experts say, is to focus more on what you will actually use. “As long as you feel good in it and you’re going to wear it, then that’s what really matters,” Caspelich says.
An inexpensive fast-fashion T-shirt that you take care of and wear all the time, for instance, may be more sustainable than a shirt made from organic fibers that you get rid of after only a few wears.
What’s more, caring for clothes properly, such as not machine-washing and drying too often, can extend their life span. The Waste and Resources Action Program, a U.K.-based charity, estimates that if clothes stay in active use for nine months longer, which would increase their average life span to about three years, carbon, water and waste footprints could be slashed by 20 to 30 percent.
“The longer we can keep clothing in use, the more we can keep out of landfills,” Caspelich says.
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