Sustainable Fashion Principles for Your Wardrobe Revamp
Elastic waistbands and “house crocs” have reigned supreme since the start of 2020. But life is picking back up lately - sort of, for some of us, for now? - and we’ve got to get dressed for it.
If you’re tempted to revamp your wardrobe before you step back out, you’re not alone. Global clothing and apparel sales have skyrocketed this summer. But there are ways to spice up your style while keeping sustainable fashion top-of-mind.
The Problem: How Fashion Fuels the Climate Crisis
The global fashion industry is worth over $1.5 trillion, pumping out between 80 and 150 billion garments every year. And this perpetual production model comes with a hidden price tag.
According to the UN Environment Programme, the fashion industry is responsible for 8-10% of global carbon emissions. It’s also the second-largest consumer of water after agriculture.
The UN estimates a single pair of jeans takes about a kilogram (2.2 pounds) of cotton to produce. And since cotton is usually grown in dry environments, that kilogram requires 10,000 liters (2600 gallons) to grow. BBC estimates that’s about ten years worth of drinking water for one person.
Synthetic materials aren’t any better; they release hundreds of thousands of plastic microfibers with every wear. These tiny filaments account for 34.8% of micro-plastic pollution in our environment.
The fashion industry produces 92 million tons of textile waste annually. And since most clothing is made of multiple components, it’s tough to recycle. Unwanted garments are often shipped to developing countries, leaving local industries to compete with the influx of cheap clothing.
Most fast fashion brands outsource production to supply firms in developing countries. In theory, this creates jobs while keeping consumer prices low. In practice, it creates exploitative conditions that disproportionately affect women of color.
Third-party factories usually aren’t affiliated with the companies for whom they produce, meaning retailers have no legal obligation to ensure decent working conditions overseas. As a result, garment workers in countries with fewer labor laws are subject to unreasonable production targets, unsafe work environments, forced overtime, and constant threat of termination.
What’s the Solution?
The global fashion industry is dirty from every angle. To right the system, we need to rebuild it in favor of people and the planet. And if you wear clothes, you have a role to play!
The Fix: How to Practice Sustainable Fashion
Start by building your sustainable fashion intuition. Understand these key principles to make informed choices at home and at checkout.
Key Principles of a Sustainable Closet
- Embrace a Capsule Closet
We buy 60% more clothing than we did 15 years ago, but keep items only half as long. Embrace minimalism to break the cycle and bring intention to your wardrobe.
Focus on building a set of basic, versatile, high-quality pieces you can intermingle for daily wear. A good rule of thumb: only buy items you think you’ll wear 50 times or more. Then, select a few special items each for less frequent occasions, like weddings, interviews, and camping trips.
Stripping back the unnecessary creates space - in your life and closet - for things that bring you joy. Plus, buying less leaves more room to budget for higher-priced, ethical pieces you’ll love for a lifetime. Get started with this decluttering mini-course by The Minimalist wardrobe.
- Repair, Repurpose, Donate
Worldwide, we send a garbage truck’s worth of unwanted apparel to the landfill every second. But with basic sewing skills, you can revive dated or damaged clothing. Upcycle old pieces into new favorites (try these fun ideas) and mend rips and tears yourself. If you can’t sew, iron-on repair kits can extend the lifespan of well-worn favorites.
Be conscious of what you do with unwanted garments, too. While it’s better to donate than toss gently-used clothes, they’re often shipped to developing countries, which can complicate local economies (and many of these items still wind up in landfills).
Instead, check if anyone you know - or any local nonprofits, homeless shelters, or mutual aid groups - are interested in the items you’re looking to rehome.
If you do donate, weigh your options: it’s great to support local charities and resale shops! But since they have fewer resources, it’s likely a larger percentage of their donations end up in the landfill than places like Goodwill and the Salvation Army.
- Shop Secondhand
When you buy a secondhand item, you extend its life and avoid new consumption. Build a low-footprint wardrobe by exploring local thrift stores, estate sales, and community buy/sell groups. Or, hunt from home with resale apps like Depop, The RealReal, ThredUp, and PoshMark. (You can clean out your closet and earn a few bucks, too!)
- Get Wise About Sustainability Myths
Understand the hidden costs of sustainable fashion trends.
First up: Is renting really better than buying? Renting clothing might seem like a great way to keep your wardrobe fresh without buying new. But all that transportation adds up. And one recent analysis found renting can be even worse for the climate than buying new and tossing. Of course, it’s complicated: our blog on sustainable fashion trends takes a closer look.
Second: Does buying clothes locally matter? While supporting local, independent artisans can be a more sustainable option, labels like “Made in the USA” don’t always mean “ethically made.” The US garment industry is increasingly under fire for exploiting undocumented workers. Fashion Nova, for example, was recently exposed for subjecting factory crews to grueling twelve hour days for pay as little as $5/hour.
- Shop Sustainable Fashion
Eventually, you’ll have to add something new to your closet. And that’s fine! Look for environmentally friendly materials, like recycled cotton, organic hemp and line, and Tencel. And when you buy new, do your best to support brands working to reshape the industry. In the next section, we’ll uncover what to look for before you buy.
Key Principles of a Sustainable Fashion Brand
When you’re considering a new brand, head to their website and dig up the facts. What exactly are they doing, and what statistics do they have to back it up?
- Sustainable Production
Conventional production wastes resources and pollutes local ecosystems. Look for brands that recycle and treat wastewater, repurpose production waste, process with non-toxic agents, and avoid the use of pesticides and insecticides.
- Sustainable Transportation and Distribution
Your clothes can travel thousands of miles before they reach your closet. Look for brands that produce in their homebase country and offer a small product line - which usually translates to a smaller supply chain. Prioritize companies that use 100% recycled or compostable packaging, and bonus points for those that offset their transportation emissions. (Like Etsy’s model!)
- Sustainable Materials
Synthetic materials like polyester and nylon are cheap to produce, but shed microplastics through their lifecycle. Organic materials like cotton, cashmere, wool, bamboo, and linen are better. But some crops are water-intensive to produce, so recycled organic materials are best.
- Circular Practices
Circular brands work to extend the lifespan of all materials they use. Circular fashion practices include: utilizing fast fashion scraps; turning byproducts into building materials; free mending and repair; and buyback programs that recycle old apparel.
- Environmental Justice
We need the fashion industry to slash its carbon footprint. But exploitive business models aren’t sustainable, either. Look for brands that are committed to fair and ethical treatment throughout their entire supply chain, champion diversity in their marketing materials and hiring practices, and reinvest in and advocate for local communities everywhere they operate.
Shop Smart: Our Favorite Resources and Recommendations
It’s important to build an intuitive understanding of sustainable fashion. But it’s a lot of work to investigate each individual brand! Tap these resources and recommendations to shop with confidence.
Third-Party Tools and Certifications
Peek In Our Closet
We wear clothes at Joro, too! Here are a few of our favorite ethical, inclusive, and sustainable fashion brands for every budget. (Disclaimer: these are our team’s personal recommendations, not Joro’s – we haven’t done in-depth analysis of these brands.)
Fair Practices, Fair Prices
Offset Your Fashion Footprint
Joro’s Net Zero Membership automatically offsets your monthly impact through a portfolio of high quality carbon removal projects. Explore our featured projects and go Net Zero today!