Ideas to make your wardrobe more sustainable and maintain your style

It’s probably safe to say that the documentary The True Cost was a wake-up call for many about the clothes we wear. If you haven’t seen it yet, please do so. Not that there hadn’t been enough signs before that something’s fishy if fashion gets cheaper and cheaper. The collapse of the garment factory Rana Plaza in Bangladesh in 2013 had been all over the news and I am surely not the only person who wondered what seamstresses live of if a t-shirt costs 3 Euros.

The documentary finally gave everyone the chance to take a peek behind the scenes of the fashion industry. Like many, I was horrified to learn how ugly the fashion business can really get against people and the environment. What now? I was overwhelmed by all the information available and all the information that was still missing. Where could I shop to protect workers and the environment? What was okay, what wasn’t? In the following, I’ve collected some best practices. They are by no means comprehensive and I will update this post from time to time with new insights.

Create a minimalist wardrobe

When was the last time you cleaned out your wardrobe? I do it once a year and throw out everything that I haven’t worn in two years. By throw out I often mean donate or gift to someone. Last time I did this I realized I seem to wear the same favorite pieces over and over again until they literally fall apart. I asked myself why not to go for favorite pieces only in my wardrobe and started looking for ideas how to achieve this. As most posts on the concept of ‘minimalist wardrobe’ feature a lot of black and white I wasn’t sure whether it is something a color lover like me could pull of. So I downloaded a guide by the clothing brand Encircled and worked through it. Bingo! A minimalist wardrobe is achievable even by someone who loves their daily overdose of colors. You get the guide by subscribing to their newsletter. The brand itself is worth your time: Encircled is a sustainable women’s wear brand, entirely made in Canada. This is not an ad, I just really love the workbook and also their collection of versatile fashion.

1. Define your ideal style

The first step in the booklet is to think about where you spend most of your time. Let’s say you spend most of your free time at the gym – why would you need 30 party dresses then? One little black dress might already do. This part was the most eye opening for me. Also – and this made me smile – your style determines your neutrals. So pink is a neutral for me!

2. Perform a closet audit

This was weird for me as I thought I knew exactly what I would find. But it’s still surprising when you actually count how many blouses, jeans, sandals etc. you have. When you hold this against how you use your time you quickly see what you have way too many of and what pieces are still missing.

3. Architect your minimalist wardrobe

The last step is about putting together outfits and making a list of what you still need for your minimalist wardrobe. After the first two steps this is really easy. With the resulting shopping list I will hopefully not be tempted to buy something that just catches my eye or because it’s on sale. The stuff we buy on impulse we hardly ever wear more than a couple of times.

Buy and use clothes consciously

Ask yourself why you buy something and how often you will wear it. Livia Firth, an Executive Producer on the documentary The True Cost, challenges people to only buy things if they would wear them at least 30 times. This alone might reduce your shopping by a lot. If you ask yourself this question you might skip buying a ‘fun’ t-shirt that you would only wear to a single party. This already will save the environment the 2700 litres of water that are needed to produce a single cotton shirt.

Buying less will allow you to buy better quality, which will also last longer. If sustainable brands are not an option, go and buy the highest quality clothes you can afford. Then care for them correctly. This is no joke – Follow the washing instructions on the labels and your clothes will look good longer. Learn how to repair them or find a tailor who can do it. You might be surprised how much longer your jeans can live after a professional mend. This also goes for coats, dresses and shoes. 

Prefer sustainable clothing brands

When I started researching sustainable clothes a few years ago I expected to be faced with a small choice of rather plain looking pieces. Thankfully this is not the case at all, and through online shops many brands are available even to people who do not have shops near them carrying sustainable brands. Depending on where you live you might want do your own research but there are a few helpful lists readily available:

  • Austrian activist and podcaster Madeleine Alizadeh, better known as dariadaria has put together a great list of sustainable brands for different kinds of clothes, shoes, beauty products but also IT hardware and books. This is my favorite list and I have discovered several brands through her.
  • The True Cost has also put together a short list of sustainable fashion brands. Next to the list you will also find some tips to shop more sustainably.
  • Keep your eyes open for online shops that feature various sustainable brands. I love Avocadostore in Germany but a quick a search introduced me to Gather&See in the UK and ethica in the United States. Living in Germany, Avocadostore has become my one-stop shop for all things ethically and sustainably made. Again, this is not an ad, I just love their effort to make shopping sustainably so much easier.

Buy second-hand or borrow clothes

The best method to look out for the environment is of course to shop second-hand, swap or borrow clothes. Many times used clothes will do just fine (just as used furniture by the way). If you need clothes for a special occasion it might make more sense to borrow a dress from a friend instead of buying a new one that you will wear just a couple of times – if at all. When I showed up to a company Christmas party in a little black dress borrowed from my mother, no one knew and it did not matter. I was wearing something “new” and enjoyed the night. Please also consider passing on clothes to family and friends which you have outgrown in size or style. This has become a tradition among my friends and I have given and received a couple of favorite pieces this way.

As you can see, making your wardrobe more sustainable and ethical does not have to be expensive but you will have to go the extra mile of thinking before buying. That is a small price to pay though to reduce slave labor in third-world countries and also your carbon footprint. There is a lot at stake and it’s on us in the first world.