After watching The True Cost, my first instinct was to purge my wardrobe of all fast fashion labels. Ridding myself of past purchases felt akin to cutting ties with my wasteful fashion habits. I wanted to start afresh and embark on my sustainable fashion journey with a clean conscience and closet. Remaining old clothes would only linger like a bad smell, nauseatingly reminding me of buyer’s regret, of shamefully buying into a system that pollutes and exploits.
Or so I thought. In reality, throwing away all of my clothes would only add to the problem which saw 11.2 million tons of clothing dumped in American landfill in 2017 alone.
See, trying to shop more ethically is a process. Sometimes it will feel more like a rollercoaster as you wade through the greenwashed depths of fashion marketing and resist the tempting lure of your local mall.
From my own experience, I wanted to share 7 common mistakes to avoid when transitioning to a more sustainable wardrobe.
1) Purging your wardrobe of fast fashion
You’ve just had a lightbulb moment. Maybe you read a book, watched a documentary or listened to a podcast which shone a light on the devastating impacts the fashion industry is having on our people and the planet. You rush to your wardrobe only to be confronted with fast fashion labels. Zara, ASOS and Primark all lurk on the rails. Your initial impulse is to burn the lot or, better yet, throw it away.
We’ve all been there but, trust me, it’s a mistake! As the cliché goes, the most sustainable garment is the one already hanging up in your wardrobe. Yep, even those garments from fast fashion brands. Binning your fast fashion purchases won’t eliminate the problem. It merely creates another one: excessive clothing waste.
Sustainability in a nutshell is cherishing what you already own. Wearing your clothes as much as possible reduces the garment’s environmental footprint and pays homage to the people who made them. So, while you might steer clear of fast fashion brands in the future, it’s always better to get the most wear out of the clothing you have already bought.
2) Donating all of your unloved clothes
After a thorough closet inspection, you’ll likely find clothes that you’d still rather part ways with. The obvious destination is your local thrift shop but that might not always be the best option.
Only 10-30% of charity donations are actually sold on the shop floor, while an estimated two thirds of second-hand clothes are cast off overseas. In recipient countries, second-hand garments can sell for as little as 5-10% of the cost of a new garment. This puts local designers out of pocket and stifles the development of a domestic textile trade. The United States is the largest exporter of second-hand clothes.
So, what are your other options? Currently, only around 15% of textiles produced each year are recycled but there are various clothes banks and recycling schemes out there which responsibly dispose of or upcycle ripped, stained and damaged textiles.
For clothes in perfect condition, I recommend renting, swapping, selling or gifting them to a friend. That way, you know your chosen beneficiary will be happy to receive your old clothes which you're saving from a miserable life spent in landfill.
That’s not to say that you shouldn’t donate unwanted clothes to charity though, if you frequently do, it’s good to buy back into the resale cycle and help more pre-loved clothes find a new home.
3) Buying a whole new wardrobe
If you’ve just ditched fast fashion, you’re likely eager to find new brands and designers to support. The good news is that there’s loads out there but you shouldn’t be in a rush to build a new sustainable wardrobe.
It’s easy to get carried away with your purchases, buying every organic cotton shirt or hemp pants in sight. A good mantra to live by is “if something is ethical and sustainable, it doesn’t necessarily mean that I need to buy it”. And emphasis on the need here. It’s always good to ask yourself if you really need or want something new.
My best advice is to buy slowly and with intent, to guarantee that every purchase will last a lifetime and be worn regularly. Buying slowly is just as important as buying sustainably because reducing global consumption is ultimately the end goal.
4) Falling victim to greenwash
Some things are just too good to be true. The sustainable label is thrown around very generously nowadays, making it feel almost impossible to decipher whether a brand is genuine or not. It’s easier than ever to fall victim to greenwashed fashion marketing.
Greenwashing describes the business practice of making misleading marketing claims about the environmental benefits of a product or service. Take fast fashion brand, H&M, for example. With their “Conscious Collection”, it's easy to be fooled into thinking that they’re leading the change towards a more sustainable fashion industry. While the collection is made from eco-friendly materials, the range forms a minuscule part of H&M’s business model. That is churning out hundreds of thousands of temporarily trendy clothes which are made by garment workers on poverty wages. No amount of pineapple leather will sadly change that.
If a brand overemphasises its eco-friendly impression, trust your gut instinct and do some digging. Things to look out for include overusing sustainable buzzwords and the use of vague, ambiguous language or overtechnical jargon. Genuine brands have the reports, records and data to back up their claims.
Check out the brand’s website and social media to see how they sell their products: are they pressuring you to buy more, are they posting 100+ new listings daily and do they have year-round sales? If the answer’s yes, yes and yes, it’s likely greenwashing!
It’s also worth checking for any trusted certifications, including Fair Wear Foundation, the Global Organic Textiles Standard the Soil Association and Fair Trade. (FYI, certifications can be expensive to apply for, so this is not a fool proof indication because smaller sustainable brands may lack the means to apply for them.)
If you’re still unsure, there are some useful resources out there that do the work for you. Rank A Brand and the Environmental Working Group both grade companies based on their social responsibility and environmental output. For something a bit more travel-friendly, Good On You is a mobile app which filters brands based on their impact on the planet, people and animals.
The most sustainable brands are super transparent about their work, faults and all, which is something more suspect companies shy away from. If in doubt, contact the brand directly!
5) Following trends
Admittedly, this one might sound easier said than done. If you’re anything like me, you love fashion, the prints, the fabrics, the textures – you just don’t like the environmental and socioeconomic impacts that plague the industry.
We find style inspiration everywhere – from our friends, in magazines, on our social media feeds – so it can be quite challenging to hop off the hamster wheel of trends. But it is so, so, so rewarding when you do!
Developing your own sense of style doesn’t mean ditching trends altogether but it does mean curating a timeless wardrobe which reflects your stylistic and functional needs. It means curating a wardrobe that will live beyond the trends. Getting dressed in the morning has never seemed so easy.
There’s often a misconception that sustainable fashion is anything but trendy (think: beige smock dresses that look more like a potato sack or baggy haram pants). While that might have been true a decade ago, sustainable fashion is innovative, creative and stylish.
7) Not looking after your clothes
In this age of disposable fashion, it can seem second nature to discard of a garment the second it becomes slightly misshapen or torn. But a broken zipper or a red wine stain shouldn’t be a death sentence. If you love the clothes you wear, it makes sense to spend time and money maintaining them.
So, take the time to read the washing instructions and store your clothes correctly. Have a thread and needle at hand and learn how to sew. Embrace visible repairs and darned socks. If all else fails, make friends with your local tailor.
A wardrobe worth wearing is a wardrobe worth preserving – plus, it’s environmentally beneficial too. Win, win!