Building a Sustainable Wardrobe

Erica wears a white striped shirt and navy blue skirt on her back patio

I don’t know about you, but I’ve reached the point in the summer where all I want to wear is loose cotton and linen clothing. It is HOT in Austin right now. It doesn’t help that we spent all last week running our AC at 78 to conserve electricity because our grid is a mess. But I digress. I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about natural fiber clothing lately because I’ve been trying to figure out how to make my shopping habits more sustainable. Natural fibers play a huge part in that goal, and they also help fight the summer heat. It’s a win-win! Today I’m sharing more tips for building a sustainable wardrobe, so let’s get into it:

  1. Wear and repair what you have: The most sustainable thing you can do is wear what you have, and repair anything that wears out so you can keep using it. Buying anything new, regardless of how sustainably it was produced, has a carbon footprint attached to it. Every step of the process, from growing/creating materials, manufacturing the product, and transporting it to its final point of sale takes energy and resources.
  2. Shop for used clothing: I will admit, this is the tip from this list I engage with the least. There are a lot of options for buying used clothing, from online resale shops like Poshmark and ThredUp to vintage and thrift stores. I’ve had a hard time getting the fit right on online consignment shops and I’m not someone who enjoys spending time sifting through merchandise at thrift or vintage stores. If this is your thing, though, go for it!
  3. Focus on natural fibers: When you can, focus on buying natural fibers over synthetics. This may be tough for buying used clothing, but it’s absolutely something I look for when buying new things. Synthetic fabrics release microplastics into the water when they’re washed, which then make their way into our environment and food supply. Natural fibers will break down as they shed, while synthetics won’t. Also, keep in mind that not all natural fabrics are created equal. Rayon and viscose, for example, use harsh chemicals in their production process and can contribute to deforestation. Conventionally grown cotton also uses harsh pesticides. I look for fabrics like linen, organic cotton, and Tencel (a type of rayon that is more sustainable to produce). Also look for environmental certifications like GOTS and OEKO-TEX.
  4. Install a microfiber laundry filter: Chances are, you already have some synthetic fabrics in your wardrobe. There are also some things that are really hard to find versions that work well without synthetic fibers. Athleticwear and bras are examples for me. In these cases, a laundry filter can help filter out the microplastics released in the washing process. It’s not a perfect solution, but it’s better than nothing. Be aware that some solutions for microfiber pollution capture more fibers than others. This study helps illustrate the differences between different types of microfiber capturing products. I use this filter by Filtrol, which was super easy to install and is easy to see when the filter needs to be emptied. We have a more thorough post about this filter here. Girlfriend Collective also sells a filter that is cheaper, but harder to see what’s going on inside.
  5. Look for small batch or made to order clothing: I used to think I was winning if I got a good deal and scored something on sale. Now I look for companies whose products tend to sell out before they have any need to be discounted to clear excess inventory. Brands that create products in small batches help mitigate waste associated with unsold inventory.
  6. Try to avoid returns when you can: It’s tempting to buy a bunch of clothes online, figure out what you like, and then return what doesn’t. Keep in mind, however, that there is a carbon footprint associated with returns. Those products have to be re-shipped back to the stores and warehouses, which takes gas and fuel. When shopping online, try to buy things that you know you’ll keep and avoid things that you’re not sure about. Check the size guides and take your measurements to try to get the right fit. If you can bundle errands, try returning in-store so you can take advantage of the company’s existing shipping chains to and from their locations. Just remember that driving your car also adds to the carbon footprint of a purchase, so avoid taking a special trip just to make a return if you can help it.
  7. Remember that sustainability isn’t just about the environment: Building a sustainable wardrobe also means paying attention to the conditions in which our clothes are made. Remember the 2013 Rana Plaza factory collapse? Buying sustainably produced fabrics isn’t enough. We also need to pay attention to the working conditions and wages afforded to the people who make our clothes. We tell companies what we value by how we spend our money. If we spend our money with companies that employ factories with unsafe working conditions and unsustainably low wages, we will continue to fuel that industry.
  8. Avoid fast fashion: I know it’s cute and convenient, but fast fashion companies aren’t great for the world from both an environmental and a human perspective. Their products are made with cheaply produced, often synthetic fabrics in unsafe working conditions. They also create a huge amount of waste because of how much product they produce to maintain constant inventory turnover, a lot of which goes unsold. This video about greenwashing in fast fashion is really interesting and eye-opening.

I hope this is helpful, but I know the process of taking on a more sustainable lifestyle can be daunting. I think the best way to do it is taking it on in baby steps. Pick one or two things you can start with, and then build from there. Maybe it’s repairing a hole in a shirt you love but has worn out. Maybe it’s installing a laundry filter. Stopping purchasing products from a fast fashion company is free and passive-it’s something you can avoid instead of adding more work to your plate. Remember, we don’t need a few people to do sustainability perfectly. If we all work on taking small steps and doing what we can, that can add up to a huge impact!

Do you have any sustainable wardrobe tips or favorite sustainable clothing brands? We’d love to hear your thoughts and recommendations! Hit us up in the comments below or on social media. You can also find some of our other sustainability tips in these posts about creating a sustainable cleaning routing, sustainable toiletry swaps, and sustainable kitchen swaps.

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