New year, new wardrobe

The sustainable way to give your wardrobe a makeover for 2020


What you wear can make a big difference to how you feel. Making do with ill-fitting, unflattering, uncomfortable clothing can affect your mood and erode your self-confidence. However, in an age where we are becoming increasingly aware of the detrimental impact that the fashion industry has on the environment, it is hard not to feel guilty about going on a shopping spree to rejuvenate a tired-looking wardrobe of clothes that you no longer enjoy wearing.

The "fast fashion" clothing industry stats are pretty shocking and is worth taking a quick look at the damage it causes before exploring ways in which we can acquire clothing that we love in a more ethical way..


How does the fast fashion industry harm the environment?

The term "fast fashion" refers to the cheaply produced collections that appear both on the high street and online. They are usually on a tight seasonal cycle and tend to mirror catwalk looks and celebrity trends. The pressure on manufacturers and retailers to get the clothing from concept to store quickly means that corners are more likely to be cut in production and both the environment and the human rights of the people who make the garments are prone to suffer in the course of their manufacture.


Water pollution

The vibrant colours of much of today's fast fashion are created using toxic chemicals, which find their ways into waterways during the course of production. After agriculture, textile dying is one of the largest polluters of clean water.

It is not just the dying process that pollutes our water. Polyester, one of the most popular fabrics in today's clothing industry, releases microfibres when it is washed in a domestic machine. The minute particles easily pass through filters at water treatment plants and ultimately end up in the oceans, where they do not biodegrade. Plastic micro-particles pose a real threat to marine life and they also find their way into the human food chain via our consumption of many ocean-harvested foodstuffs.


The trust cost of cotton

Cotton is another hugely popular material in today's fashion industry. It is a natural fibre that has a less damaging impact post-production than man-made fibres such as polyester. However, a huge amount of water and pesticides are required to guard against crop failure. This can result in serious human rights abuses and environmental damage in developing countries, where the resources are not available to invest in a sustainable cotton production process.

To put things in perspective, it takes 20,000 litres of water to create 1kg of cotton (the equivalent of a t-shirt and a pair of jeans).


Increasing levels of textile waste

15% of all fabric produced ends up on the cutting room floor as wastage and 60% of all the clothing produced globally ends up in landfill before it is a year old. It wasn't always like this. In the 14 years between 2000 and 2014, clothing production doubled, with the average consumer buying 60% more garments compared to 15 years ago.


What can we do to make our wardrobe choices more ethical?

The answer lies in the concept of slow fashion, which asks us to look further than a bargain price tag, to interrogate the manufacturing practices of the companies from which we purchase, to accept responsibility for the lifecycle of the items we buy and to reduce, reuse and recycle wherever we can. In practical terms this means:

  • Buying from retailers who produce their garments with due consideration for human rights and the environment.

  • Buying clothing made from natural fibres, the crops for which are nurtured without the use of toxic chemicals, in an environmentally sustainable way. Not only are these garments made in a way that is less environmentally damaging, they also biodegrade naturally at the end of their lives (e.g. linen, hemp, organic cotton, tercel and jute).

  • Seeking out clothing that is coloured using natural dyes. This is easier said than done, as only a small fraction of clothing on the market is treated with natural dyes, but it is growing in popularity, especially with smaller, independent companies who do not need to produce identical garments on a mass scale and who revel in the unique nature of naturally dyed items (one of the disadvantages of natural dyes is the fact that a uniform finish can rarely be guaranteed from one batch to the next).

  • Buying items made from recycled material. This can either mean items sewn from cloth that has been repurposed in its entirety (up-cycled) or clothing made from fibres that were once used for something else before being broken down and re-constituted (recycled).

  • Shopping in second-hand stores, both on the high street and online. Some people love the serendipity of occasionally discovering garments and brands that they love as they trawl the charity shops in their local towns and cities. The act of searching is a pastime in itself and they love nothing better than thumbing through hundreds of items in search of their treasure. Others find it a time consuming chore with potentially little reward. Second-hand shopping in the modern world can accommodate both these types of people. If you don't want to spend precious weekend time in the charity shops on your local high street, set a saved search on eBay and get notified when someone lists an item similar to the one you are looking for; it's the perfect way for the time poor to get what they need second-hand (provided you don't need it in a great hurry).

  • Holding or attending clothes swapping parties. This can be done informally with friends or in a more organised fashion with a company such as Swish

  • Don't buy into the 'Impulse Purchase High'. Many of today's retailers attempt to get our business by offering limited time discounts. They want us to make getting a bargain our main concern and to buy first and think later. It is at times like this that we are likely to buy things that we don't need and which languish at the back of the wardrobe before being chucked out. The best way to avoid this pattern of purchasing is to ignore sales publicity, both on the high street and online. Of course, it may be that your favourite jumper wears out at just the same moment as the brand has their end of year sale (in which case you have every right to think that the retail gods are favouring you), but don't ever buy something just because it's cheap. It is not a bargain if you didn't need it and you won't wear it.

  • Take advantage of social media and get to know brands really well before purchasing from them. We are far more likely to enjoy wearing garments from brands with whom we feel an emotional connection and, in an age where most companies - from the smallest start up to the largest multi-national - have Instagram, Facebook and Twitter accounts, we can get to know how they operate and what is important to them very easily.

  • Don't buy items that do not suit your body shape just because they are in fashion! Buy clothing that is classic in style and durably made to last for years. It sounds cheesy, but clothes worn with confidence never go out of fashion, and what could give you more confidence than a garment that fits and flatters your body?

  • Dispose of clothing you no longer want in a mindful way. Take good quality items to charity shops, sell them online or take them to swapping parties. Consider cutting up worn out garments and using them as household cloths. Only as a last resort should you throw something in the bin.