What to think about when creating your low-impact wardrobe in the new year
Anna Fitzpatrick, a PhD researcher exploring the politics of sustainable fashion, says: “The great thing about fashion is the openness to experimentation and possibility to change. What is certain is that there is going to have to be a change as the model we have is completely unsustainable in every way.”
It is not a secret that the fashion industry as a whole is not good for the environment, but do we actually know how it affects the environment? Gas emissions, overproduction, pollution and waste are some of the biggest things affecting our planet today and the fashion industry is the second largest polluter in the world. To put it into perspective, 10,000 litres of water are used to produce a single pair of jeans. Meanwhile, there are 785 million people in the world who do not have access to drinking water.
“Fast fashion is a model of production and consumption developed in the 1990s. There are many problems associated with it not least in terms of speed and volume,” says Fitzpatrick. “It’s important to think about the fashion system as a whole, it is not just fast fashion which is unsustainable but the logic of the whole system.”
Fitzpatrick goes on to say that there is a big misconception about products possessing sustainability. “It’s more complex than that. There is so much to think about when we think about our clothes from how they were made, to how we use them, to why the fibres for the material are grown in the first place and by whom. This means thinking about history, global politics, our values and the dominant ideas within our societies.”
Sustainable fashion is a term used for items that are designed, manufactured, distributed and consumed in a sustainable way, while protecting the environment and the people producing them.
A relatively new part of boosting a sustainable wardrobe is the renting of clothes, bags and shoes. Instead of buying a new item for a specific event, you can now rent it. Renting an item, it goes without saying, is more sustainable than buying it. It ensures you are extending the life of items that otherwise may have only been worn once.
Founded by Eshita Kabra-Davies in 2019, By Rotation was the world’s first social fashion rental app. Based on a peer-to-peer social platform, the app allows you to lend your wardrobe and rent from others. Kabra-Davies felt compelled to change the way we shop after visiting her motherland India, and saw the textile waste created by consumption. “I became aware of the textile waste in my hometown, which left me with a bad taste for the world of fashion and its obsession with ‘newness’.”
In 2022 the By Rotation community claims to have saved over six million pounds that would have been spent on buying clothes, over 50,000 metres of textile waste, one billion glasses of water and the CO2 equivalent of 800,000 lattes.
There are several clothing rental companies out there but what makes By Rotation stand out from others on the market is the peer-to-peer aspect. “The ethos of By Rotation is about trust between the lender and renter. This is where we really differ from any rental offering out there – it’s all about the human connection and emotions involved in rotating,” Kabra-Davies says.
Kabra-Davies’s greatest tip when practicing a responsible wardrobe is to minimize the amount of clothes you buy: “It’s actually more cost-effective to rent a designer dress than to buy a new Zara dress, which you may only wear a couple of times. When I want to wear something that’s not in my closet, I always check out the By Rotation app to see if I can rent it, instead of buying new.”
Shop secondhand and vintage
Secondhand and vintage fashion has had a big growth in the last few years. A few years back, buying secondhand was something you did by looking through racks upon racks of clothes at your local store. It is now more accessible than ever with sites and apps such as Vestiarie Collective, The RealReal, Depop and Vinted. You can even find some great items on Facebook Marketplace.
Expected to reach £116bn in 2023, the secondhand market will be worth £29bn more than the fast fashion market. Buying pre-loved items increases their lifetime, which in turn reduces its environmental footprint. Extending the life of clothing by an extra nine months could reduce carbon, waste and water footprints by around 20–30% each.
Take care of your clothes
It might not be your first thought when thinking about a sustainable wardrobe but taking care of your clothes in the correct way makes a big difference. Know the correct way to wash your wool and cashmere jumpers, air out and spot wash your denims instead of throwing them in the washing machine, and mend items whenever needed.
A company focused on helping you take care of your clothes is The Seam, founded in 2019 by Birmingham native, Layla Sargent. The Seam fills the environmental need to extend the life of your wardrobe, and helps keep clothes, shoes and accessories out of landfills. “It also addresses a social need, to provide meaningful, flexible, and well-paid work to people across the UK with care and repair skills, from seamstresses and knitwear experts to cobblers, leather specialists and sneaker cleaners,” Sargent says.
Growing up, Sargent’s grandmother, a skilled dressmaker, would alter her clothes to fit her perfectly. “During my teen years and early adulthood, I noticed a real difference in attitudes to fashion between myself and friends. I had grown up with a close attachment to the items I bought, after watching my nan put time and care into crafting each piece to fit me perfectly, while my friends’ attitudes to fashion were much more disposable, as they didn’t have this experience of personalised and tailored fit,” Sargent says.
Companies such as The Seam are an important part of sustainable fashion, and in Sargent’s words, provide an alternative option to experience the magic of fashion in a more sustainable way. “Our ethos is about creating a world where the act of taking care of what’s already in our wardrobes is even more fulfilling than the act of consumption.”
Buy less and buy better
Buying less and better is an easy way to make your wardrobe more sustainable in the new year. Before making a purchase, consider if you really need the item and how much you will wear it. You can calculate your cost-per-wear – the price divided by the number of times you expect to wear it – to see if an item is actually worth purchasing. With the average high street purchase only being worn seven times, this would greatly reduce unnecessary purchases. According to the UK Parliament’s Textile Waste Report, around 300,000 tonnes of used clothes are burned or buried in landfill each year in the UK, and in the EU an average of 11kg of textile waste is generated per person per year.
Buying better means supporting brands who are practicing sustainability by using environmentally friendly materials and practices, and ensuring fair wage and safe working conditions. One such brand is London based jewellery brand Yu Stepanel. Its jewellery is handcrafted in small quantities by local talent, and whenever possible, made with recycled sterling silver and gold. It is also recognised as a responsible brand by Good On You, a global leader in certifying sustainable brands.
“I started Yu Stepanel to create heirlooms, pieces that can be enjoyed for a long time because they are made with fine materials and completely by hand, which offers that touch of individuality to each single piece,” says Yuliya Stepanel, founder and designer of the brand. She goes on to explain the brand’s artisan production means it can recycle waste and employ ethical workshop practices. “All pieces are crafted locally and in-house to play our part in reducing the footprint on our planet.”
Greenwashing is a term used when brands use misleading or false claims to suggest they are sustainable. “Greenwashing is a very big problem and learning about what it is and how it happens is really important. We are lucky that the internet gives us access to a lot of information, from academic texts and documentaries to social media accounts exploring how clothes are made and sold to us,” says Fitzpatrick. She goes on to say that sustainability is a wide issue for brands: “It’s about values, mindsets, politics, and understanding the role fashion consumption places in our lives.”
If a company is practising greenwashing, you will most likely not find physical evidence of this because a brand would never expose themselves, which is why being informed is an important part of avoiding greenwashing. Looking into where a brand produces its clothes, what materials it uses and how sustainable the materials are, is an easy first step to uncover possible greenwashing.
Know your materials, know where they come from, how they are produced and how they are recycled. Watch out for harmful chemicals, and avoid microplastic pollution. Ensure your clothes have a second life; sell or donate clothes you don’t want anymore, rent them out, or why not do a clothes swap with friends. Look for brands that openly disclose who is making your clothes and under what conditions.
For people interested in learning more about sustainable fashion the Centre for Sustainable Fashion has a series of free online courses where people can learn about the issues and the solutions.