In this background story, FashionUnited gives you tips on how to create a more sustainable wardrobe - or if you’re a retailer, how to advise consumers about more sustainable fashion.
- How to build a more sustainable wardrobe
- Still want something new? Consider renting clothes, or buying second-hand
- Would you rather buy brand new clothes? How to shop more responsibly, in terms of people and the environment
1. How to build a more sustainable wardrobe
The simplest answer to a more sustainable wardrobe is to buy less clothes and wear what you have longer.
“Where can I buy sustainable fashion? That is a question I regularly get from family and friends,” Belgian sustainability expert Jasmien Wynants told FashionUnited. “It’s quite a tricky one, because people then hope for a list [of sustainable clothing brands] and then a philosophical discussion takes its place,” she says. “The essence of the story is 'buy less, choose well, and make it last' as the late Vivienne Westwood used to say, because whether a piece of clothing is more sustainable or not, when you buy a new item, we are creating new things for which we exploit the earth. Things that we then discard (too) quickly.”
The fashion industry is widely considered one of the most polluting industries in the world. It is so polluting because fashion companies produce an enormous amount of clothes, and we, as consumers, buy huge quantities of garments, oftentimes wearing them rarely before throwing them away.
Around 100 billion new garments are produced globally each year, according to McKinsey and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. And a huge amount of garments that are bought are also thrown away. According to a 2017 report by the Ellen McArthur Foundation, the equivalent of one garbage truck full of clothes is burnt or buried every second.
Clothing waste in the UK
A survey last year by British Wool found that nearly two-thirds of Brits said they threw away clothes rather than recycling them or sending them to charity stores. According to the survey, while the average Brit owns just 76 items of clothing, they throw away 70 pieces each year. Another study, published in 2020 by Amsterdam-based menswear brand Labfresh, claimed that the UK was the 4th biggest textile waste polluter in Europe, behind Italy, Portugal, Austria.
Of the share of clothing that is collected for reuse, less than 1 percent is actually recycled to make new clothing, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s 2017 report. This is partly because recycling clothing is difficult, particularly the separation of different fibers, making it costly and time-consuming, hence why brands often consider it easier to simply create new pieces.
**About second-hand fashion:
The second-hand markets abroad are also less rosy than you might think. For example, the Ghanaian capital Accra is home to one of the largest second-hand markets in the world: Kantamanto Market. Every week, 15 million garments enter the market. Local retailers - 30,000 people work on the market - pay for the bales of clothing, and try to make some money by reselling the garments. According to The OR Foundation, only about 40 percent of what comes into the market is sold. Some of it ends up in landfills or is incinerated, while some ends up in local rivers and eventually enters the sea. At high tide, the clothing floats to the surface on the Ghanaian beaches, causing more ecological damage..
Fashion Revolution, an organization that advocates for more transparency and fair working conditions in the fashion industry, published a striking visual on Instagram in January 2022, accompanied by the text: “Contrary to popular belief, making your wardrobe more sustainable is as easy (and cheap!) as...wearing the clothes you already own.
Below, FashionUnited provides tips and tricks on how to extend the life of your garments in your wardrobes.
1.1 Maintenance: Tips for washing clothes
Look at the care label in your garment, it says how the item should be washed, ironed and dried. Matching the washing method to the material of your clothes is important to make them last longer.
Wash your clothes at a lower temperature and, above all, less often. By washing less, your clothes will stay in good condition longer. An additional advantage of less washing is that you save water and energy, and the environmental benefit: you limit CO2 emissions, and fewer microplastics end up in the water. You can also alternatively use care products such as sprays that refresh your clothes without a wash.
Other tips for making clothes last longer:
- Sort the laundry by color
- Wash clothes inside out
- Use a wool detergent for wool or a delicate detergent for silk and use organic 'fresheners'
- Put your delicate garments, such as underwear, in laundry bags
- Dry your clothes in the air, your clothes wear out faster in the dryer.
- Let your woolen and other knitted garments dry lying down on a rack (rather than hanging)
- Iron less regularly
1.2 Taking care of clothes
VIt is important to take good care of the clothes you have. Some tips include:
Hang and fold your clothes neatly in a wardrobe with doors that can be closed, this way you keep out moths and dust and daylight that can discolour your clothing. Put soap and/or mothballs between your clothes. Store your winter clothes clean and dry in the summer so that you can take them out again months later. Protect the clothing when storing, for example in special bags or closed storage bins and also consider soap or cedar wood blocks to keep moths away.
There are also special care products for clothing, such as stain and cashmere brushes and (wool) removers where you can remove the fluff that has arisen on knitted sweaters or cardigans through the friction of the fabric.
Treat a stain as soon as possible. There are many tips on how to treat specific stains in clothes. Alternatively, you can take your clothing to the dry cleaners for cleaning as soon as possible.
1.3 Restoring Clothes
Repairing clothes yourself can make them last longer, and many parts are very easy to replace.
You can patch up torn clothes yourself at home behind the sewing machine, or at a repair café or sewing workshop. You can also check out the website Fixing Fashion for handy videos with sewing techniques for beginners to advanced levels. The aim of the website, which was founded in 2021, is to bring fashion repair back into the mainstream and ultimately create a more sustainable industry.
You can also take your clothes to the tailor. Additionally, repair options are increasingly being offered by clothing brands these days - often also free of charge. Nudie Jeans, for example, repairs thousands of jeans every year and about seventy a week in the Netherlands. Other examples of fashion brands with a repair service include Patagonia, Levi’s, Scotch & Soda, Asket, and G-star.
This article continues after the photos
1.4 Throw away less
We should try to throw away as little clothing as possible to prevent it from ending up in landfills. If you no longer want a garment, consider reselling them, give them to friends or family, or donate them to thrift stores or charity stores such as The Salvation Army. You can also consider donating them to the increasing number of brands that now accept old garments that they upcycle or recycle.
2. Rent, borrow, or buy second-hand
Do you still need a new piece of clothing? Then consider renting, borrowing or buying second-hand garments.
You can now rent all kinds of clothing - from an evening dress to jeans - from a growing number of companies. While there are dedicated platforms like Rent the Runway, Hurr or By Rotation, a growing number of brands have launched their own rental offering in recent years, including Ralph Lauren, LK Bennett, and H&M.
While rental fashion is considered by many as part of the circular fashion economy, it’s also worth noting that it is not completely harmless, as the heightened need for transporting products back and forth to customers is linked with higher carbon emissions.
2.2 Buying second-hand fashion
Consumers are increasingly buying and selling second-hand clothing. According to a report this year by ThredUp, the global resale market is expected to nearly double by 2027, reaching 350 billion dollars. While you can shop at thrift, vintage or second-hand stores in your area, an increasing number of platforms and brands, like The RealReal, Depop, H&M, and Vestiaire Collective, are making it easier than ever to buy preloved pieces online.
But similar to ith rental, second-hand fashion is also not completely guilt-free, as it is also associated with carbon emissions linked to delivery and returns.
This article continues after the photos
3. Would you still rather buy brand new clothes? How to shop more responsibly, in terms of people and the environment
If you’d still prefer to buy new garments, rather than rent or buy second-hand, perhaps consider the below tips on how to do so in a more conscious way.
1.Think before you buy something new. Ask yourself if you really need it.
2. Consider how often you will wear it. Eco-Age founder Livia Firth has a 30 wears rule: don’t buy a piece unless you’ll wear it at least 30 times. Similarly there's the 10 combinations rule: don’t buy something unless you can make 10 different combinations with the garment and existing ones from your wardrobe.
3. Invest in good quality clothing. If something is of better quality, it will last longer. While a sustainable piece might be more expensive, it could still be more cost effective over time if it lasts longer than several cheaper pieces.
4. Buy less trend-sensitive garments. You could even consider building a capsule wardrobe - one consisting of about 30 high-quality garments that you can combine endlessly (and can therefore wear for a long time). Reading tip from: The Curated Closet by Anuschka Rees.
5. If possible, buy clothing from more sustainable fashion brands (more in sections 3.1 and 3.2). “The more we as consumers ask for [sustainable fashion, ed.], the fairer and more sustainable the clothing industry will become,” said fashion journalist Dana Thomas in an interview with Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant.
3.1 What is more sustainable fashion?
When a consumer buys a vegan food, he can assume that it is 100 percent vegan, but if the consumer buys a ‘sustainable’ t-shirt, it remains to be seen whether the t-shirt is indeed good for humans, animals and the environment. While mounting regulation and legislation is trying to fix the problem, the fashion industry, there is no universal list of points that a product must meet in order to be labelled as 'sustainable'. As a result, fashion companies are reasonably free to label a product as sustainable or green as they see fit. For example, a brand can present a garment as ‘sustainable’ if it is made from more sustainable raw materials, but that does not necessarily mean that it has been produced in a sustainable way or that a living wage is paid to textile workers.
The consequence? Terms such as ‘eco’ and ‘green’ are flying around consumers with a lack of definition as to what they really mean. According to a report by the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), nearly 60 percent of sustainable claims by UK fashion brands are greenwashing.
What is sustainable fashion? [the definition]
Sustainable fashion - though still a vague term - is clothing made with conservation and attention to the planet, animals and people. This means, among other things, good working conditions, a fair wage for textile workers, and a reduction in textiles and processes that harm the environment - from the cultivation of the raw materials to dyeing and printing.
It is important to note that ‘100 percent sustainable’ does not yet exist when it comes to creating fashion garments, as the process of manufacturing something new is necessarily linked to the use of energy and therefore carbon emissions. Perhaps then - some have noted - it is better to say ‘more sustainable’ rather than simply ‘sustainable’. In Belgium, the use of the term ‘duurzame mode’ - meaning 'sustainable fashion' - is no longer allowed, as determined by the country’s FPS Economy.
3.2 How to shop with more care for people and the environment
It can be tricky to determine whether clothing is really more sustainable. However, here are a few tips and tricks to help you decide:
1. Assess a brand as a whole on sustainability, don't just look at an eco line Do your homework. Read more about brands' sustainability policies on their websites. "A company that is doing well not only tells what it is already doing, but also where it still falls short and how it wants to achieve its goals," Dutch sustainability expert Marieke Eyskoot previously told newspaper Het Parool.
2. Look at more sustainable shopping platforms, such as Project Cece, Good on You, and True Cost Label. You can use some of the above websites to search a curated list of more sustainable fashion brands, and get a more detailed overview of the actions they are taking to make their products as harmless as possible for the environment, animals, and people.
3. View the certified clothing labels
There are hundreds of sustainability labels in the fashion and textiles industry, but here is a list) of some of the most recognised ones. It is important to note, however, that obtaining such certification can be costly, especially for smaller brands with smaller budgets, so the lack of such labels does not necessarily mean a brand is not sustainable.
4. Check the label to see what materials the garment is made of Try to avoid synthetic or artificially made materials such as polyester. The same applies to garments made of mixed materials, because as you now know, they cannot be easily recycled (see box 1). And speaking of recycled: If it says that the garment contains ‘recycled plastic’ it is usually not made from discarded and recycled clothes, but often from old PET (read: plastic) bottles.
5. What does the garment’s tag say about sustainability?
The price tag doesn't say much about durability. In general, you can assume that very cheap clothing, for example a T-shirt for five euros or jeans for twenty to thirty euros, are not sustainable. Dutch sustainability expert Willa Stoutenbeek stated in Dutch newspaper Het Parool: “When people ask whether sustainable fashion can also be cheap, I always turn it around: can cheap also be sustainable or fair? And then the answer is no. If everyone in the chain is paid fairly, then you pay a true price and we are no longer used to that.” But a higher price tag does not immediately mean a fair price for textile workers, or that the clothing brand is more sustainable on another front. Because with more expensive fashion brands you also pay for the brand name.
6. Ask questions
Ask the fashion brand or staff on the shop floor about sustainability. “The store staff should be able to give you basic information and direct you to the right people or resources where all information about brand sustainability can be found,” Wynants believes. Another benefit of asking questions is that it shines a spotlight on important issues and puts more pressure on brands to improve their work processes and transparency. (This is also the message Fashion Revolution's famous #Whomademyclothes campaign tries to amplify).
7. Opt for slow fashion or made to order
Slow fashion, created as a reaction to the outbreak of fast fashion and 'disposable fashion', is characterized by seasonless collections in which craftsmanship and quality are central. And consider made to order clothing, which is therefore not pre-produced, but only made when you have placed your order, similar to a tailor.
The consumer's dilemma
Should we blame ourselves every time we buy cheap clothes? Probably not. After all, if no one bought new clothes anymore, those who would suffer the most would be the textile workers.
Should we look for the best deals and use price as the only purchasing criterion? Probably not. Buying clothes has become complicated, a balance has to be found.
What we can do is make informed decisions; research the brands we like and don't like. We can buy the brands we want to support and let them know we appreciate their efforts. Let them know that we, as consumers, want more transparency and that we want to know who made our clothes and how they live on their salary.
We close with some good news: People care when they know
Do you remember the 2 euro T-shirt social experiment from 2015 by Fashion Revolution?
- The True Cost
Created by Los Angeles-based filmmaker Andrew Morgan and produced by activists Livia Firth and Lucy Siegle, ‘True Cost’ is a documentary that explores the environmental, social, and ethical issues surrounding the fashion industry, as well as its effect on contemporary society. The documentary unravels the true costs of fast fashion and aims to open consumers' eyes to the impact of their fashion purchases and teach them where their clothes actually come from.
Sources:- FashionUnited Interview with Jasmien Wynants, a freelance Expert Sustainable Fashion (a.o. as Sustainability Manager at Belgium fashion brand Xandres), January 2 2023
- The article ‘Dana Thomas hopes that in twenty years, good fashion will be as common as organic food’ by Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant, Lisa Koetsenruijter, October 2, 2019
- The article ‘Old-fashioned repair should make five-euro shirts obsolete’ by Dutch newspaper Het Financieele Dagblad, June 29, 2022
- Instagram Post 'What people think sustainable fashion is, What sustainable fashion actually is' by Fashion Revolution, January 17, 2022
- Report 'A New Textiles Economy: Redesigning Fashion's future' by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, November 28, 2017
- Report ‘Pulse of the Fashion Industry’ by the Global Fashion Agenda and The Boston Consulting Group, 2017
- Fashion Industry special from Dutch newspaper NRC, and specifically the articles ‘Old textiles rarely become new clothes’ by Liza van Lonkhuyzen, ‘A repaired jacket prevents a lot of CO2' by Juliët Boogaard and 'The most sustainable piece of clothing? That's already in your closet' by Joost Pijpker and Juliët Boogaard, January 7 and 8, 2023 - Article ‘There is no excuse for using the world as a dumping ground’ by Sarah Vandoorne, June 30, 2022
- Origin Africa, The OR Foundation, by Origin Team, May 16, 2021
- Weblog ‘Fossil-free fashion’ by Paulien Harmsen, senior researcher sustainable textiles, Wageningen University & Research (WUR), from October 15, 2021, updated February 2, 2022
- Article ‘Designer dress and jeans are newest members of the sharing economy’ by NOS Nieuws, Susan Sjouwerman, December 22, 2019
- Article ‘Environmentally conscious young people increasingly buy their clothes second hand’ by Dutch newspaper Trouw, Barbara Vollebregt, October 16, 2020
- Blog ‘This is how to recognize quality’ by Dutch website Milieu Centraal, Emy Demkes.
- Article ‘Brainwashed by fashion brands: 'Sustainable clothing should be the norm instead of a rack in the store' by Dutch newspaper Het Parool, Esther Muller, June 9, 2022
- Article ‘How sustainable is our clothing (not so much)’, by Dutch online newspaper Nu.nl, Gea Bruinsma, October 15, 2018
- Practical guide 'Good practices on environmental claims’ by the Belgium FPS Economy, June 14, 2022
- Articles from the FashionUnited archive by Sarah Vandoorne, Nora Veerman, Marthe Stroom, Simone Preuss, Caitlyn Terra, Natasja Admiraal and guest author Köster Advocaten, among others & the Global Fashion Industry Statistics.