Minimize the environmental impact of your wardrobe — and look good doing it
Have fewer, high-quality clothes from ethical sources, says this environmental engineer and seamstress
This story was originally published on Jan. 2, 2020.
Fashion doesn't need to compromise the environment.
I have been sewing for decades, first learning as a child and growing to draw patterns, sew my own clothes and teach sewing. Although sewing captured my imagination early, I became an environmental engineer to prevent pollution.
I've concluded that to reduce the impact of our wardrobes on the environment, we must have fewer clothes, keep clothes longer, and source clothes ethically.
How to have fewer clothes … and still have something to wear
Focus on favourites
Have a small collection of favourites that you wear frequently. If you enjoy wearing an item, you will wear it more often, keep it longer and be more likely to mend it.
Building a closet of favourites takes planning and thoughtful shopping. Only choose items that you like at least as much as your existing favourites. If the new item doesn't measure up, you will continue to choose your existing favourites over the new item.
Mix and match
Build your wardrobe from a collection of compatible items that mix and match to make multiple outfits. This is called a "capsule wardrobe," where a limited selection of items (approximately 33) is worn for a season (approximately three months), excluding undergarments, outerwear and exercise clothes.
Consider the colour and style of items in your wardrobe, to help you maximize mixing and matching:
Choose a maximum of three neutral colours for bottoms (pants, skirts and shorts). I've chosen black, grey and navy.
Choose no more than five colours for your shirts and sweaters, ensuring that each top matches with all bottoms. These colours can be found in solids or patterns. I've chosen a couple of shades of blue, yellow, white and grey.
Ensure tops and bottoms can be worn both tucked and untucked for maximum versatility.
Add a third outer layer to your capsule wardrobe to multiply the number of unique outfits you can make. I added a blazer and a cardigan that can be worn with all the top and bottom options.
Choose an accent colour for accessories (ties, purses, scarves). Mine's yellow.
Choose neutrals for your shoes, belts, jackets and outer layers. I use black and brown for shoes and belts.
Create a capsule wardrobe from what you already have, by only adding items that fill the gaps and increase the number of unique outfits you can create.
Dress for your lifestyle, with versatile items
Consider how you spend your time within a typical week. Match your wardrobe to how you spend your time. If you spend 40 per cent of your waking hours working, 40 per cent of your wardrobe should be made up of clothes you can wear to work.
To get even more value out of your wardrobe, choose versatile items that can be worn for more than one season or more than one weekly occasion. Pants that you can wear to work, dress up to wear out and lounge in on the weekend will get more use than pants that are only suitable for the workplace.
How to keep clothes longer
Choose well-fitting clothes
Fit is everything and well-fitting clothes that are comfortable and flattering tend to get worn the most frequently.
To make a garment fit perfectly, I recommend visiting a tailor, seamstress or an alternations shop (or doing it yourself, if you have the sewing skills). If you intend to alter a garment, set yourself up for success by ensuring your proposed alterations will make the garment smaller or shorter. If you are between sizes, I recommend getting the larger one and altering it to fit.
If an item doesn't fit well and can't be altered to fit well, leave it for someone else because it won't become one of your wardrobe staples. I once asked a wise friend, "Do you think this dress is too short?" She replied, "If you have to ask, it's already too short." At that moment I realized the way I think something fits matters more than the fit itself.
Of course, you can avoid all of this with clothes that are custom made to measure. It might be more expensive, but the fit will be worth it.
Choose timeless basics
Timeless basics are immune to fast fashion: they are classic and could be from any fashion era. They are the unsung heroes, creating the foundation for every outfit — never really noticed, but would be dearly be missed if they were gone. They're the plain dark jeans, black pants, solid coloured T-shirts, collared shirts and neutral blazers.
Choose well-made clothes
Well-made clothes are made of quality materials and are constructed with care. Look for these telltale signs of quality:
High-density fibres: Clothes should conceal the shadows and lines of undergarments. Hold the garment up to the light or slide a hand behind the fabric to check the density of the fibres. Fabric that is unintentionally see-through will be unflattering and will easily wear through.
It holds its shape: Check that the fabric doesn't distort when you put it on. Do a tug test by firmly gripping a section of fabric and pulling it in a couple different directions. It should either resist stretching out or quickly spring back to its original shape.
The edges are finished neatly: The edges and finish on the hem, waistband, neckline and/or shoulder seams inside the garment should lie flat and smooth. Stay away from uneven stitches, bunched fabric or unfinished edges.
Stiff waistbands, collars and cuffs: These areas of the garment see a lot of movement and should be reinforced to ensure they stay crisp over time.
Print is lined up at the seams: Stripes, flowers or geometric designs will be lined up to continuously cross seams, pockets and flaps.
Quality closures: Be sure that zippers smoothly zip, buttons easily button, and the buttonholes are finished with closely spaced stitches.
How to source clothes ethically
Mend and alter
Give your clothes a second chance by repairing them whenever needed. You can do this yourself if you have the sewing skills, or there are plenty of tailors, seamstresses and alteration shops that would be happy to help.
Clothes you don't wear can be upcycled into a favourite. Flare-leg pants can be narrowed into straight or skinny legs; pants can be turned into shorts; oversized shirts can be taken in; and sleeves can be shortened.
Buy second hand
Browse your local thrift stores, consignment shops or a friend's closet. This reduces the environmental impact, because it will eliminate the need for new items to be created, and keep clothes out of the landfill. As a bonus, you already know how a second hand item will hold up after multiple wash and wear cycles.
Check the tag
If you are shopping for something new, read the tags to find out where it was made. Items made in countries with strong environmental legislation will have a limited impact on the local environment and the workers who made the item. It's impractical to learn about the environmental regulations of every country, so start checking the tag, and learning about the practices of a few countries from which clothes are frequently sourced. Places like China, Bangladesh, and Vietnam are large clothing manufacturers.
Remember: protecting the environment is always in fashion.