Let’s be real: New clothes can make us feel more confident, more attractive, and at the top of our game.
Yet the pressure to don new outfits and keep up with ever-evolving trends has increased exponentially in recent years — and, for many people, it doesn’t feel so good. Expectations created on social media and the ease of online buying have helped normalize near-continuous shopping. “Click and buy” buttons on runway photos zapped directly to our feeds by fashion bloggers allow trends to materialize in an instant. And the advent of what’s now known as “fast fashion” — those wildly cheap clothes produced on a hyperaccelerated trend cycle — is both cause and effect of these changes.
“We used to have a traditional fashion calendar with two to four seasons a year,” explains Elizabeth Cline, author of Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion. “Now we have new trends coming out every week — it’s a constant rotation of new styles.”
Americans today purchase five times more clothes than we did in 1980, and we throw a lot of them into the trash. The average person discards about 80 pounds of textiles each year, almost double the amount just 20 years ago. And while there have been advances in recycling old clothes into new fabric by companies such as Patagonia, less than 1 percent of castoffs are currently converted.
Fast fashion has dramatically lowered prices for some clothing, but it has come at a steep cost to garment workers in developing countries. As brands compete on price, manufacturers search for ever-cheaper labor — most often found in factories where working conditions are harsh. The collapse of the Rana factory in Bangladesh in 2013, which killed more than 1,100 people, is just one example of how precarious conditions can be.
Clothing production even outpaces consumption for some brands. The Swedish retail giant H&M, for instance, generates so much surplus inventory that its home government now burns the clothing for fuel.
Some see fast fashion as the textile equivalent of fast food, which “made unhealthy food cheap and ubiquitous,” Cline points out: Fast-fashion garments that are produced in the most toxic conditions are now the most widely available.
The two industries share other similarities, including how they crush competition. “It’s sometimes hard to find modestly priced, well-made clothing,” she admits. “You either have very cheap clothes or extremely expensive clothes. Fast food did that, too.” To find something better often requires extensive research and a willingness and ability to pay a premium.
Still, many consumers have begun to seek better choices. “They don’t want to just consume garbage all the time,” Cline says.
Even the term “consumer” deserves to be reconsidered, says Joshua Katcher, owner of the eco-friendly menswear line Brave GentleMan and author of Fashion Animals. “I think people should see themselves as citizen investors rather than consumers,” he suggests. “If we carefully use our money . . . and support the brands we believe in, that are doing good work, that’s an investment in the values that most of us already share.”
Enter the “slow fashion” movement. Like the Slow Food movement, it emphasizes quality over quantity. It promotes conscious consumption and supports companies that protect the environment and respect their workers.
These six strategies offer easy ways to avoid the fast-fashion craze and start building a healthier wardrobe.
1. Establish Your Priorities
When Greta Eagan interned at a luxury clothing brand, she was shocked at the degree of waste involved in its production, distribution, and sale. In her book, Wear No Evil, she shares the story of her trip into the dark side of the fashion industry, as well as her early efforts to develop a personal clothing philosophy.
Initially, Eagan drafted a list of sustainability standards and vowed to adhere to them completely. She would buy only garments that were made from organic materials and produced locally with low-impact dyes; profits had to support a social cause. But satisfying all those requirements in one piece of clothing proved nearly impossible. “My style really suffered, and so did my self-expression,” she recalls. “I love fashion — there’s a reason I went into this industry.”
So rather than discarding her ambitions altogether, Eagan made a list of what mattered most to her and then vowed to do the best she could. She recommends anyone aiming to shift to healthier clothing consumption do the same.
Identify which issues you feel most strongly about and focus on those, she suggests. “Pick the one or two or three that really mean something to you,” she says, “and then try to satisfy at least one of those each time you make a purchase.” If you’re passionate about the environment, choose clothing made with organic or recycled fibers. If you care deeply about fair-labor practices, search for locally made items or fair-trade certification.
2. Know Your Brands
There are far more companies producing clothing ethically and sustainably today than when Eagan first made her pledge. Finding them is also easier: The internet makes it simple to locate brands that have ethical business practices and a style that suits you; there’s even an app — Good on You — that provides sustainability ratings.
Know that manufacturers who use organic cotton and recycled fibers are making more than just a trendy choice. Traditional textiles contain many worrisome additives, and it’s worthwhile to spend a little more, if you can, to avoid them. For example, nonylphenol ethoxylates, or NPEs, a class of cleaning, dyeing, and rinsing agents, are known hormone disruptors. They were banned by the European Union in 2015 because of their health risks, but they’re a common clothing ingredient in the rest of the world. Likewise, some chemical dyes are carcinogenic, and fixatives used to bond color to fabric have their own set of problems.
Apparel companies aren’t required to list the chemicals in their fabrics, so one way to know whether a garment has been naturally dyed is to look for the Bluesign seal. A third-party supply-chain assessor, Switzerland-based Bluesign examines textile-production processes — specifically, dyeing — and holds manufacturers accountable to high standards of consumer safety, air and water emissions, and worker health and safety. (Several popular brands, including Patagonia and prAna, carry garments with the Bluesign seal.)
3. Rock Your Unique Style
A strong sense of your personal style can make you less vulnerable to the insta-trends sold at fast-fashion shops. It also makes it a lot easier to keep your closet organized.
Sociologist and style consultant Anna Akbari, PhD, encourages her clients to create a “go-to uniform.” This is a look that combines practicality and authenticity: Everything works together and still feels consistent and true to who you are.
It might sound as if you’ll end up wearing the same thing every day, but Akbari says that’s unlikely. We all have many facets, she explains, and we’re not expressing all of them all the time. You’ll have different uniforms for different occasions, and all of them can feel like you.
“There needs to be space for us to wear our comfy pants and flip-flops, as well as something that feels like a power outfit,” she says. “Both can fit into this concept of a cohesive uniform. There can still be an overarching look even within those two extremes.”
Creating a capsule wardrobe is another good way to develop your own personal style and streamline your purchases. This strategy involves selecting a limited number of garments, specifically ones you wear most often (T-shirts, jeans, a good blazer), while minimizing the amount of other clothing.
Most stylists recommend aiming for a set number of items, usually around 40 per season, and then cleaning out your closet. Once you’ve sorted through your existing options and decided which items you really want to keep, you can fill in any gaps by purchasing higher-quality items that will last.
Check out Be More With Less’s Project 333 for more tips. You can also use apps such as Cladwell and Stylebook to “shop your closet” and help you discover more uses for the garments you have.
4. Create a Rescue Plan
Having a few repair strategies up your sleeve can keep old favorites on your hangers and out of the landfill for a whole lot longer. Meghan Kinney dedicates the month of March to recycling, swapping, and revamping old clothes at Meg, her New York City shop.
While many of Kinney’s customers hang on to her well-made garments for a lifetime, “sometimes a person is done with something, at least as is,” she explains. In those cases, she says, a piece can be tweaked, “whether that means we need to cut off a sleeve, or turn a dress into a top, or turn a sweater into a jacket. We don’t need to be wasteful. We just need to be creative.”
It pays to consult with a tailor who can help you rescue or transform items from your own closet: the jacket that doesn’t fit like it used to, the pants with the wide legs that you wish were narrower.
Meanwhile, don’t give up on clothes with holes or broken zippers. Specialty repair shops abound, including online service Denim Therapy. Tailors there will patch holes and worn spots in jeans, or even reweave the denim.
5. Recycle, Reuse — and Rent
One way to avoid the question of how and where your clothes were produced is to opt out of buying new clothes altogether, which isn’t as hard as it sounds.
Consignment shops are great places to find good secondhand clothing — including mint-condition luxury brands — at a discount. Any garment for sale on consignment has met at least a minimum quality standard, so it’s probably more durable than most fast-fashion items.
You can also shop for secondhand clothes online, a good option if you have trouble finding used clothing that fits. Check out www.thredup.com and, for higher-end fashion, www.therealreal.com (both sites require memberships). Search eBay for more designer bargains.
Renting, meanwhile, isn’t just for tuxedos anymore. There are now several services, including Rent the Runway, that lease elegant dresses and other outfits. This can be ideal for events such as weddings or award ceremonies, since you’re likely to wear these outfits only once. Some services, like The Mr. & Ms. Collection, rent a variety of casual and dress clothes for men and women. Others, like Le Tote, offer maternity clothes. (Both services require memberships.)
If you’re a seasoned treasure hunter, head for your local secondhand stores and start digging. The same goes for yard and garage sales.
Finally, you don’t have to go shopping to enjoy finding new clothes with your friends. Gather a handful of your people and host a clothing swap, following a few simple tips:
- Organize your space ahead of time. Have a rack with plenty of hangers or places to lay out clothing.
- Limit the number of items any one person can bring to encourage participants to do a little curating.
- Decide together what you’ll swap; you may want to include shoes and accessories, or just clothes.
- Deliver the leftovers to a local nonprofit or thrift store.
6. Take It Easy On Your Clothes
Cleaning a single pair of jeans throughout its lifespan can use more than 300 gallons of water. One simple way to reduce that impact — and help your clothes last longer — is to wash your clothes less often.
Jeans rarely get dirty from a single wear. Even shirts can be worn a few times without washing; just hang them to air out. And consider line drying when you do wash. You’ll save energy as well as wear and tear on the clothes.
With clothing, as with so many things, less really is more. Quality beats quantity. And slow and steady wins the race every time.
This originally appeared as “Clean Your Closet” in the October 2018 print issue of Experience Life.