How to dress sustainably

It can feel such a complicated, expensive thing, this idea of dressing sustainably. Researching this Fibreshed project has revealed many areas I don’t know enough about. It’s also clarified my priorities.

On this year anniversary of my blog, I’d like to offer you this listicle. Its content is imperfect, and there are others that have written on this topic before. I haven’t seen it discussed quite like I do, so I hope my take adds to your understanding of the issue. The list is organised according to environmental impact, with consideration to budget. Dressing sustainably means more time pre and post purchase, but saves time shopping and repurchasing items. It is possible to reduce your impact as well as your clothing budget.

1. Wash less

You are in control of the greatest environmental impact a garment makes over the course of its life. A lot of clothing’s environmental impact comes from washing clothes after wear. The less you wash, the less water and energy are used, and the longer your clothes will last. Each time you wash, microfibres shed from your clothes and end up in the water system. If those fibres are synthetic, they won’t biodegrade. This could be the biggest source of plastic in our oceans.

The point here is to wash less, I’m not suggesting you walk around always stinky! I’ve been surprised how a day or two’s airing will restore a smelly top. I’m also learning to spot clean instead of doing a full wash when I can.

2. Shop at home

Luckily for us, the next place to start is also a lazy option: stay at home. Those clothes in your wardrobe have used resources and energy in their creation. Look after what you have and reduce the need for new things. Wearing each garment 50 times may reduce its carbon impact by 400%. Identify your core pieces (those that go with everything) and your favourite pieces. The Colour me beautiful book and Colleterie’s Wardrobe architect helped me build a useful wardrobe.

Combine your clothes in different ways to create your own outfits. Photograph them for when you’re out of inspiration and suffering from ‘nothing to wear’. I recently experimented for 100 days and this was the result: #circularwardrobe

3. Mend what you have

This is the quickest cheap way to expand your wardrobe and gain back those clothes you love. If you’re not sure how to darn or patch, there are so many tutorials online. Pick the one that suits you best. A friend recently introduced me to needle felting as an alternative to darning. Tom of Holland’s visible mending program has inspired me to be more adventurous.

If you’re not feeling confident, start with mending a piece of clothing you’re not as attached to. Practice definitely improves technique. Where I live mending groups meet at community centres; perhaps there’s something similar near you.

4. Buy second hand

If you want inject something fresh into your wardrobe, try for preloved first. Clothing swaps, op shops, second hand shops, second hand markets and online are all great sources. Clothing swaps are particularly fun, because of the social element. Second hand can be cheap, encouraging me to experiment with styles I wouldn’t otherwise wear.

If you’re into making your own clothes, second hand fabric can also be found at op shops and online.

Second hand fabrics and haberdashery

Keep an eye out at thrift stores (particularly country ones) for second hand material and haberdashery supplies. Vona’s corner at the Northern Community Church of Christ op shop is a treasure trove in Melbourne.

5. Make alterations

This goes for clothes already in your wardrobe, as well as new pieces you bring in. If you like a garment but it’s not quite right, alterations are often easier than you think. Learn to change things yourself, or partner with a tailor or seamstress to help you out.

Google clothing alterations for basic and traditional techniques. Search ‘upcycling clothes’ for some really different ideas, particularly on Pinterest. In my city there are alteration classes available, you may find there are some near you too.

learning to replace a zip during the altering and mending a garment class at Melbourne's Thread Den.

Even the simplest repairs can be daunting without help. Here, I’m learning how to replace a zip during the altering and mending a garment class at Melbourne’s Thread Den.

6. Buy ethically

If you’re buying new, not all clothes have the same environmental impact. Sustainable clothing may cost extra so don’t feel you have to buy everything all at once. I’d suggest a gradual transition, buying small, frequently used items first, like underwear. Consider buying natural fibres to reduce microfibre pollution. Definitely look for quality materials and construction.

Buying new items that are sustainably made is easier these days. Information on fabric production could still be better though. You can get some insights and brand suggestions by following blogs like Good on you, Stylewise and OEcotextiles.

A side note on disposal

Your clothes are unlikely to outlive you. The choices you make about disposal can also be sustainable. If the garment is still wearable, pass it on to a friend, take it to a clothing swap, sell it or donate it to a thrift store. Be mindful that thrift stores receive more donations than they can use.

If it’s not wearable, upcycle it into something else for yourself or a gift. A stained top could help patch another top, be cut up into rags for cleaning, become stuffing for a toy or made into fabric twine. If the garment is made of natural fibres, you can cut it into pieces and compost it.

Upcycled baby burp cloths

I made these baby ‘burp’ cloths using fabric from an old sheet and embroidered them with small spools of thread I’ve had lying about for ages. They’ve proved popular and useful gifts to my friends as they become parents.

I’m interested to see what your thoughts are on this list. Have I missed anything? Do you prioritise things differently? Leave a comment to let me know 🙂

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3 Responses to How to dress sustainably

  1. Lex says:

    I like your list! I think mine is a bit like this: buy to last (secondhand, swapped or ethical new purchases), buy only natural fibres, take care of what I have (wash carefully, air dry, mend as needed). The last one is what I’ve been working on – new acquisitions must fit with the rest of the wardrobe. I find this the hardest when buying second hand. I’d love to read your thought process when considering something to add to your wardrobe?

    • cheliamoose says:

      Thanks for the feedback, it’s good to see how you approach the same task. I agree, weighing up whether to add a particular item or not is a challenge! I try to have an idea of my wardrobe ‘holes’ when I shop, so mostly my acquisitions fit those…but then I’ll often take something to try it out for a few months as well. So a little of column A, and a bit of column B?!

  2. Make rag rugs. Or give me your worn out clothes and I’ll make a rag rug for you. I have a bath mat made mostly out of my beloved’s old blue business shirts plus a little colour from a worn out yellow tunic top I wore until it developed holes. It gives me pleasure to see that mat every time I step into the bathroom.

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