7 Tips for a More Sustainable Closet

A clothing rack full of canary yellow and white tops in a range of materials: lace, chiffon, knit, representing how shopping can be excessive.

Thank you so much for checking out Pochoir.NYC! My hope is that with these seven tips for a more sustainable closet we can spread the word about how to be a responsible fashion consumer. Sustainability, according to most definitions, means paying attention to the well-being of our people and our planet, and for the fashion industry that means creating and producing products in a way that is safe for the environment and for the workers in the developing countries where fabric mills and clothing factories tend to be located.

Thinking about all that is necessary to save our planet can be exhausting and leave so many feeling hopeless. Where to even begin? The truth is, a mere 100 companies are responsible for 71% of global emissions since 1988 (link opens in new tab). No one single person can possibly make a dent in that number with their own efforts to stop polluting. No amount of household recycling, composting, or alternative energy use can bring our planet’s temperature back down to save levels as long as companies can find people who either don’t want to think too hard about how the product is made or can’t afford to buy more ethical (and expensive) alternatives for themselves.

I once had a fashion professor tell my class, “Our industry chases poverty.” We can trace the American garment industry from a point (link opens in new tab) in the 1960s where up to 95% of clothes sold in America were made in this country to now, when only 2% are made in America. Economic and social changes made it possible for American companies to avoid the unions and government regulations that characterized the American garment industry, opting instead to place factories and mills in developing nations so desperate for investment that their governments were willing to overlook environmental catastrophes and labor rights violations. Even now the industry is looking for more and more desperate countries: China is becoming too “expensive,” leading to a rush of manufacturing in Vietnam, Cambodia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Ethiopia, and Bangladesh. Wages are low while the wealth the apparel industry brings increases the cost of living, thus keeping garment workers in a never ending cycle of poverty and debt, living in polluted slums, but only as long as customers around the world keep demanding more cheap clothing for lower prices. We can change that.

Be a responsible, active consumer: we don’t want to boycott businesses completely because we don’t want to take money out of the pockets of minimum wage workers. Instead we can vote with our dollars. When possible, buy products that will force companies to change their behavior. If a company you like releases a sustainable capsule collection, try to buy something from it and ask if they are planning to design more products this way. Good sales helps companies realize that a market exists and that they will be rewarded for good behavior. Alternatively, buy similar products from local companies or from companies that are committed to manufacturing in a sustainable manner. Large companies will inevitably have to react to changing consumer behavior and the below tips are ways we can all make small changes from the bottom up.

Tip 1: Reduce This might be the least fun tip but it’s the most important one. According to Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, the average American in the 1960s had fewer than 25 pieces of clothing. Clothes were so special and so expensive that going shopping was a special treat for most families. Today the average American owns about 70 pieces of clothing and shoes—and they buy new clothes at least once a week. But reduction doesn’t just mean shopping less, it’s also about conserving resources. For instance, do you really need to order something online when you can pick it up in a store? Reducing packaging is an easy way to reduce fossil fuel emissions and save the resources that would have gone into boxes and bags. We can also reduce resource consumption by not washing our clothes as often, which has the added benefit of reducing the amount of microfibers shed by our clothes once washed into local waterways and oceans.

Tip 2: Reuse Trying to find new uses for old things makes them last longer and reduces your individual consumption of new fabric. Do you really need another cotton shirt when you have a perfectly good one right in your drawer? Maybe that old top has a big old hole—can you wear it under something or cut it up into cleaning rags? Use it to make a quilt or scarf?

Tip 3: Repair This is a hard one for me because I’m very picky about my clothes and my appearance, but there are so many fun, visible ways to mend your garments and prolong their useful lives. Sewing on patches, learning traditional mending techniques like sashiko—the sky’s the limit for how you can make your mass produced garment 100% haute couture.

Tip 4: Repurpose Consider who could really use that old, gently used sweater you never wear anymore. A friend or relative? Someone living in a shelter or participating in a worker re-entry program? Try to give your clothes to a local program that you know for sure will use your clothes. Many national organizations actually end up selling donated clothes to secondhand markets in other countries, flooding cities and villages with cheap, ready made goods, and destroying the livelihoods of local artisans and seamstresses. Some countries, including Rwanda (link opens in new tab), have banned the importation of secondhand clothing to protect their textile industry.

Tip 5: Recycle By some estimates (link opens in new tab) 85% of used clothes and textiles end up in landfills, releasing toxic gases into the air and leeching dangerous chemicals into groundwater. Recycling most goods comes with issues: recycled paper has to be bleached before it’s turned back into paper. Plastic can only be recycled once before it has to be incinerated. Textiles, on the other hand, can get turned into more fabric several times. Check and see if your town or state allows for textile recycling and see if you can advocate for it if not.

I also don’t expect anyone to switch their wardrobe to all-natural textiles right away: it’s expensive and impractical. What you can do in the meantime is shop with recyclability in mind. Right now, the technology does not exist to separate different kinds of fabric fibers from each other as the garment is shredded. If you’re choosing between that 100% rayon top or that 95% rayon/ 5% spandex top, that 100% rayon top is your best bet.

Tip 6: Resell Get paid to clear your closet? It’s a dream come true and your garments will hopefully find someone else who loved them just as much as you did. Many sites and stores like Depop or Poshmark and thrift stores like Buffalo Exchange will pay you for your cute stuff— and someone else’s old fave can become your new one.

Tip 7: Rent If you’re really determined to de-clutter your wardrobe, keep only what you really love, what really has sentimental value, or what you wear most often, and recycle, repurpose, or resell the rest. Do we really need multiple party dresses, suits, and slacks? Sometimes it’s just easier to rent. You can create the infinite closet of your dreams without wasting any space.

I admit, I haven’t integrated all of these tips into my life yet. I hope that you will join me in creating a safer, healthier planet for everyone, one garment, one textile, one stitch at a time. What are some tips and tricks you use?

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