How to Build a Sustainable Wardrobe

Sustainability of clothes is not just about what kind of clothes you buy. It's also about why you buy them and how you use them. Here are my own rather simple – and thoroughly explained :) – tips for a more eco-friendly wardrobe:

1. Use what you have.

In Finland each person buys on average 19 kilos of clothes each year, which is enough to fill four washing machines. In the USA people buy on average 1,5 new items each week. Buying large quantities means also less uses per garment: clothes are used on average only four times before they are discarded! And since this is an average figure, it means that while some garments are used many times more, many of them are thrown away without a single use. The amount of clothes sold nowadays is many times more than a couple of decades ago. Textile industry as a whole is the second most polluting industry in the world. The environmental problems caused by textile manufacturing and waste would be a lot smaller if we bought less stuff and used it longer. That's why the very first, and the most simple and inexpensive way to care for your environment is to use what you already have instead of buying new stuff.

2. Buy it only when you need it – and learn to discern need from want.

Most of us probably already have a wardrobe full of stuff that makes it is easy to follow the first point. When we think that we ”need” something new, we mostly just want it rather than need it. Fashion industry lives and thrives out of constant change and therefore keeps it up deliberately. Trends are changed and new stuff brought into stores regularly to make people feel outdated, and to make them feel the ”need” for new clothes. It is difficult to resist this feeling even if you are aware of where it comes from. That's why it is important to consider all your purchases well, and avoid impulse buying. If you really like a garment, you can wait for a week or two before buying it, and if you forget it in a week or two, it probably wasn't that important. If a garment is very trendy, you will probably get fed up with it sooner than with more timeless models. You can also think about the garment's use value: if you can use it in many different situations and pair it with many items in your current wardrobe, it is less likely to stay unused.

3. When you need something, buy it second hand.

When you need – or want – a new garment, buy it second hand rather than new. This way you will lengthen the life cycle of one of those garments that will otherwise end up as waste, and save the energy and resources required to make a new garment. Of course the new garment is already made before you make a purchase, but I believe that if more and more people start to buy second hand and ethically made good quality clothes, even the fast fashion chains must eventually react and reduce their production quantities.

4. If you need a new garment, find a sustainable alternative.

There are times when second hand is not an option. People rarely want to buy their socks or underwear second hand, and sometimes you can't find second hand clothes in a right size. In that case look for sustainable materials such as organic cotton, lyocell (tencel), mulesing-free wool or recycled materials. Avoid blended fibres (such as polyesther-cotton blends), because it will be difficult to recycle them later. Microscopic pieces of plastic will come off of synthetic fibres such as polyesther, polyamide (nylon) or acrylic, especially the soft and fluffy ones such as fleece. These microplastics will pollute the waters as they don't degrade. This is why it is always advisable to buy natural or biodegredable fibres when possible. Durable fabrics are also more sustainable, because the garment itself will last longer, and generally thick fabrics are more durable than thin ones. Avoid elasthane blends, because they will lose their shape faster than unblended fabrics.

Also think about the social aspect of production: is the garment made in a safe factory? Do the makers earn enough to provide for their families? Using child labour has decreased in those factories which export clothes to Western world, but if the adult workers are not paid enough, their children must work somewhere else.

5. Proper care will make the clothes last longer and decrease their ecological footprint.

Most of the ecological burden of a garment is created during it's use, especially from it's wrong care. Heating the water for laundry takes a lot of energy. Cool water (30º) is mostly enough to make clothes clean, so hot water is not even necessary. You can reduce washes by airing your clothes well between uses or rinsing them briefly. Woollen clothes can in fact be cleaned by just airing them out. Use a biodegradable detergent and follow its instructions: it will not make the laudry any cleaner if you use too much detergent, on the contrary it will only stain your clothes. If you break a garment, mend it or find a tailor to mend it for you. Seams can be taken in or let out if your size changes, and a trendy piece that becomes old fashioned can often be remade to make it feel like new.

6. Use up your clothes and recycle them correctly.

We are back to where we left from: when you have a garment, use it. According to some estimates, the ecological burden of a garment stays moderate if it is worn at least 30 times before it is discarded. 30 is a lot more than the avarage four times that clothes are now used, but a good and usable garment can easily be used many times more. The more you use a garment, the less it's ecological footprint will be. When you don't use it anymore, you can sell or donate it. However, do not donate trash. Charities and second hand stores receive a lot of clothes that are worn-out, dirty, or otherwise in such condition that they can neither be sold nor given to the needy, and sorting them out just takes their resources. We can't count on the developing countries either: especially African countries receive so much of our used clothes that some countries are planning to ban their import as a means to save their own clothing industry. The most ecological alternative is to use the clothes up ourselves, and recycle them afterwards. In Finland clothing waste will be burnt to energy which is a better option than landfills. The best option of all would be reusing the textile waste. It is now used for example as a filling material for car upholstery or as insulation material. Making new fabric and new garments out of used ones is still quite rare. It will probably become more common in the future, especially if we use more recyclable clothes, so stay away from blends :)