How to dress sustainably

[Source: Unsplash/Fernand De Cannes]

[Source: Unsplash/Fernand De Cannes]

What’s the problem with fast fashion?

In the UK, we send 11 million items of clothing into landfill every week. Every week! Let that sink in. This alarming, and ever-increasing number is fueled in part by the rise of cheap, disposable clothing, often referred to as fast fashion. 

Fast fashion is cheaply made, low-quality, rapidly produced clothing that responds to the latest trends and is therefore often only worn a few times (or sometimes never). Due to the rise of fast fashion, clothing production has roughly doubled since 2000. Fashion companies in Europe went from offering an average of two collections per year in 2000 to five in 2011, and some brands offer even more: Zara puts out 24 collections a year, while H&M offers 12 to 16. Unfortunately, the cheap prices and trendy designs encourage overwhelming amounts of consumption: on average, people bought 60% more garments in 2014 than they did in 2000. On top of that, people only kept these new clothes for half as long. The majority of new clothing goes to the dump to be incinerated within a year: the equivalent of one garbage truck full of clothes is burned or dumped in a landfill every second (!). In the UK, each family throws away about 70kg of clothes a year and they go straight to landfill to release methane. 

The immense overconsumption and the cheap production methods not only result in horrible conditions for garment workers, but fast fashion is also incredibly harmful to the environment. In total, the fashion industry accounts for 10% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions -- that is more carbon emissions than all international flights and maritime shipping combined! A study from 2017 suggests that, if the fashion sector continues on its current trajectory, that share of the carbon budget could increase to 26% by 2050. What is more, the fashion industry also pollutes rivers and streams and dries up water sources. It is responsible for 20% of all industrial water pollution worldwide and is the second-largest consumer of the world’s water supply.

In recent years, award-winning documentaries like The True Cost (2015) have started to raise awareness for the environmentally and socially unsustainable circumstances of fast fashion. The good news is, more and more people are realising that there are plenty of creative ways to dress more sustainably without breaking the bank or being boring. Here are a few of our favourite ways to incorporate sustainability into your wardrobe.

[Source: Unsplash/Chrissie Kremer]
[Source: Unsplash/Chrissie Kremer]

Alternatives to fast fashion

1 Shop second hand

As consumers become more environmentally aware, second hand shopping has had a resurrection. Even though charity shops have been around for over 60 years, second hand shopping has exploded in popularity over the last decade. Thrifting is the countertrend to fast fashion and the throwaway mentality, which is why we have the ‘reclaimed section’. Which excitingly is getting a complete revamp over the next month, watch this space!

When you buy a preloved item, you’re limiting the amount of natural resources it takes to create a new fabric, make the clothing, and ship it hundreds or thousands of miles to the store. You’re also preventing or at least prolonging the process of it ending up in landfills.

Second hand shopping has recently expanded from charity thrift stores to the digital age, with popular websites and apps such as Depop, Vinted & Co that make buying and selling used clothes more convenient. Research has shown that 77% of the U.K. population want to shop second hand but only 27% actually do. The rise of apps and online platforms is a step in the right direction to make shopping second hand clothing easier and more accessible for more people. 

Aside from protecting the environment, what’s great about second hand shopping is that you can purchase stylish items without the bad conscience and often for a much cheaper price. Another major advantage of second hand shopping is that it is affordable and accessible for most people. Buying second hand gives people the opportunity to begin their journey into sustainable fashion even if they don’t have the means to buy new ethically made options. 

Also, when you buy from a charity shop, this will often mean that a portion of the proceeds benefits a charitable organisation. Double win! 

Finally, when you’re done with your preloved item, you can donate it again for someone else to find and love. 


2 Swap clothes with your friends

Swapping clothes with friends is another great way to freshen up your wardrobe that will cost you exactly nothing. You can either ask around in your group of friends (or family) if anyone has any good-condition clothes they would be willing to lend you or exchange for some of your clothes or you can take part in an organised clothes swap in your town. Universities will often offer these kinds of events, so look out for posters or online ads. Here’s another great idea: for your next birthday or any party that you’re throwing, ask each guest to bring at least one item of clothing that they don’t wear much anymore. Then, at the party, guests can have a look at the clothes everyone brought and pick an item in exchange for one of the items they brought. Or why not throw a clothes swap party - a great way to socialise and have a few drinks while, at the same time, saving clothes from landfills and fighting fast fashion! Swapping clothes regularly means you’re supporting a more circular fashion system while at the same time keeping your wardrobe fresh! 

If you have a special occasion coming up and need something a little bit more fancy, why not ask around if any of your friends can lend you something before you buy that new dress that you’re likely to only wear once or twice? Alternatively, there are now great fashion rental sites, such as Hurr Collective or By Rotation that let you rent clothes for a fraction of what you would pay when purchasing a piece of clothing. They have everything from designer clothes to mid-market fashion and even handbags and wedding dresses! 

3 Support slow fashion
Sometimes you just need new clothes. The good news is, you can purchase new clothes and still make sure your environmental impact is as small as possible. Try supporting brands that are socially and environmentally responsible and produce ethical, sustainably made, good quality clothes that last you a long time. Very often, you’ll see these brands use sustainable materials, such as organic cotton or recycled fibres for their garments. This is important for multiple reasons. Firstly, organic cotton protects farmers from harmful chemicals that can lead to disease and death. Secondly, the production of artificial fibres such as polyester (a type of plastic) not only releases two to three times more carbon emissions than cotton, but it also does not break down in the ocean. Every time you wash your clothes, microfibres are released into the water and end up in the ocean where they cannot biodegrade. Experts suggest that cheaper fabrics shed fibres more easily than good-quality apparel from smaller labels. Yet another reason to support small, eco-friendly clothing businesses! Truly sustainable companies will also use non-toxic dyes to protect workers’ and customers’ health and will often work with renewable energies in the production process, ensuring minimal carbon emissions and the conservation of waterways. When you shop from an ethical brand, make sure they are forthcoming about their practices in terms of 
treating workers fairly and protecting the environment: responsible fashion can’t exist without transparency and traceability. 

While sustainable, slow fashion can sometimes be a bit pricier than fast fashion items, in the long run, well-designed, good quality pieces last you much longer, thus saving you money in terms of cost per wear.
Another good tip is to choose timeless designs that surpass trends. By unshackling yourself from trends, you gain the freedom to wear clothes that genuinely express who you are! You’ll then be able to wear your favourite clothes for much longer and don’t have to constantly buy new clothes just to be on trend.


4 Repair and upcycle what you already have

Arguably, the most sustainable piece of clothing is the one that’s already in your closet. Wearing what you already have is best for the planet and for your wallet. The longer you can wear an item, the better. Thus, it is a great skill to be able to mend or alter clothes that have small faults or don’t fit properly anymore. Even if you just sew on a button or fix a hem that can mean you’ve given a piece of clothing the chance to be worn for a while longer. Research by circular economy experts WRAP has shown that extending the average life of clothes by just three months of active use per item would lead to a 5-10% reduction in each of the carbon, water, and waste footprints. Wearing clothes for longer thus helps reduce the impact the garment has on the environment. You can also prolong the life of your old clothes by repurposing them, such as making tote bags or quilts. There are plenty of great ideas on Pinterest! 

If you’re not dextrous enough to make or fix your own clothes, try and support brands that use recycled fabrics or other upcycling techniques. That way, you’ll protect the planet and incentivise more brands to make circularity a priority. 

[Source: Unsplash/Priscilla du Preez]

[Source: Unsplash/Priscilla du Preez]

Sustainable fashion is the future!


No matter which of the tips above resonates most with you, the first and most important step to dressing sustainably is to consciously change the way you think about the things you wear. Next time you’re about to purchase a piece of clothing, try asking yourself if you can and will wear this item 30 times. This not only judges the quality of the fabric (how it will fare with time and wash) but also if the style will suit you for years to come.

It is not realistic to think that everyone enjoys having a capsule closet or likes dressing in timeless designs all the time: but that’s where second hand shopping, choosing natural fibres, clothes swapping, and renting come in. By making the conscious decision not to participate in the mass consumption that is fast fashion, you are effectively voting with your wallet for a more considerate fashion system. Remember: the more we demand sustainable options, the more they will become the norm! 

Even small steps can make a huge difference: if everyone in the UK didn’t buy new clothes for one day, the emissions saved would be equivalent to driving a car around the world 8,640 times! Finally, a reminder to not beat yourself up if you fall off the wagon now and again: dressing sustainably is not about perfection, it’s about taking little steps to be better than yesterday.