Building a Sustainable Wardrobe

Part I: No Collateral Damage

 

I was in my last year of college when a garment factory collapsed in Bangladesh, killing over a thousand workers and bringing industry practices under public scrutiny. 

I remember the sinking feeling as I realized that despite my commitment to social and environmental justice, I had a closet filled with clothes made by modern slaves or in toxic conditions. I wanted to start over with a clean slate, stat. I didn’t feel good about wearing anything I owned; they no longer represented who I hoped to be. However, I couldn’t afford to replace my wardrobe with high-quality, ethical pieces. I felt stuck, unsure how to proceed. 

We all have different journeys to recognizing that our clothing doesn’t represent our values. Maybe you stumbled across The True Cost on Netflix. Maybe you’re tired of having a closet overflowing with clothes but never feeling like you have anything to wear, and are ready for something better than off-trend, falling apart fast fashion pieces. Maybe you realized that you were paying more attention to what you put in your body, and that you wanted to be equally attentive to what you put on it. 

For me, it was learning how my clothes were made, and recognizing that I could not separate myself from the system that I was participating in. 

Whatever the process, we find our way to “what next?” For me this was an overwhelming place, and judging by countless conversations over the past few years, I’m not the only one who feels this way. 

What follows below and in the next few posts is a guide for navigating the challenge of building a sustainable wardrobe.

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Above: In a Lazlo linen shirt, California.

 

Stop buying. Odds are, you won’t go naked if you don’t buy any clothes for a while. There is nothing to panic about.

Assess what you have in your closet, and don’t beat yourself up over what’s already in your rotation. That is a sunk cost in terms of its impact; the best thing you can do is to get as much use as possible out of what you already have. 

Get ready to pay more and have less. Many of our current expectations about price are based on systemic exploitation of people and the planet. You will pay more but will feel great about it. 

Be patient. It will take time to build a sustainable wardrobe. You will slip with an impulse buy, or you will feel that you need something, but can’t find a sustainable option that you like or can afford. That’s ok. 

This moment represents a shift in the way you think about consumption. Constant consumption of cheap clothes is inherently unsustainable, and also deeply unsatisfying. Dressing sustainably is about having a few things that you really care about, rather than a lot that you don’t. 

Recognize that fashion is an expression of who you are, not a path to external validation. How you present yourself to the world is a big part of your identity. Building the values you represent into the clothes you wear is much more meaningful than chasing trends or labels to fit in. This doesn’t mean you won’t have on-point pieces or wear hot labels, but that the motivation will come from a very different place.

Understand that this will take some effort and self control, but be totally worth it. It’s a shift from impulsive purchases to conscious, planned consumption. Instead of buying things because you see them, you will have a plan of action. This means you get to look for the things you want, rather than feeling guilty about the things you wish you didn’t buy.

It means greatly simplifying your life, and knowing that whatever you put on will look and feel great. 

Bonus: Your clothing will become a conversation starter to talk about things you care about.

 
 

Coming Next → Part II: Determining the Sustainability of Products