Sustainable Wardrobe Guide: 5 Questions to Ask when Shopping

A sustainable wardrobe is a must in your journey to a sustainable lifestyle. The slow fashion movement and sustainable clothes in general gain momentum daily.  Which is great.  It is often estimated that the textile industry is the 2nd leading producer of waste.  The US alone creates 13 million tons of textile waste a year from just this one sector.

But there are solutions.  More and more eco friendly, ethically produced clothing brands pop up all the time.  Still, knowing which items and brands are best is a bit confusing.

Use these five questions to decide whether or not to buy.  And you can find a list here of companies that rise above the rest.

local fiber production map

1. Where is it made?

Check to tag to find out where an item is made.  The distance an item travels to get to you is the largest contributing factors to its carbon footprint.  The further the place of origin, the higher the footprint.

And the tag only tells you where that item was last put together.  It doesn’t reveal where the raw materials are from, where they were spun into thread, where that thread was made into cloth.  It’s like if you read only the last chapter of a book you get the ending, but none of the details leading up to the climax.

So if you can buy domestic, whatever country you are in, do so.  While it isn’t a guarantee that that item hasn’t had a long journey to your area, the chances improve.

The more local you can buy, the better.  Look for companies using words like “transparency,” “domestic,” “locally sourced.”  The tighter together geographically the production chain the lower the carbon footprint.

Example of a low carbon-footprint production chain: Wool grows on sheep at Lani’s Lana in Cedarville, CA.  The wool is washed, carded, and spun at the Valley Oaks Wool & Fiber Mill in Woodland, CA.  The yarn goes to the Houston Textile Mill in Rancho Cordova and becomes cloth.  From there it takes a little trip to Oakland, CA where Kali Made Garments makes clothes.  At that point the clothes are sold locally.  Total distanced traveled? 442 miles. 

Even without going into the details: Cotton grown in the South of the US, shipped to China for production, and shipped back to the US to be sold…the shortest distance as the crow flies…16,000 miles.  36x the distance of the locally made item.


2. What is it made of?

Next, look at what material is used.  This is either at the top or bottom of the tag. 

Not all materials are are equally good for the planet. Plain and simple.

Avoid: acrylic, polyester, nylon, spandex.  FYI: these are kinds of PLASTICS.  They come from petroleum. From oil.  In a truly sustainable, earth conscious world, we are not putting anything made from fossil fuels on our skin. 

What if it’s recycled?

Well, that’s one of those moral gray areas.  There are a lot of brands offering items made with recycled synthetic fibers.  It’s definitely more Responsible than buying “virgin polyester.”  But it still isn’t exactly earth-friendly.

Every time you wash your clothes, little tiny pieces of the fibers break off, go down the drain with the water, and end up in our waterways.  Treatment facilities are unable to remove these microfiber plastics.

So stick to natural fibers.  With natural fibers you can ensure that they are green at every stage of their lifecycle.

Look for wool, cotton, linen, merino, hemp, silk, alpaca. (find more info here.). You can take my course on engineering natural textiles to learn more about why natural fibers are the best option. These materials put us in a good position to answer the next question.


3. Is it compostable?

This is one of the most important aspects of sustainable material goods, and also the most glossed over. 

The whole reason we have so much garbage, so much junk, so much waste, is because it doesn’t have anywhere to go.  It’s a linear system.  A plastic bottle doesn’t biodegrade, any more than a polyester shirt does( because it’s also plastic.).

If you look at nature, everything is soil-to-soil (or water-to-water if we’re talking about the ocean).  A paper wasp’s nest provides shelter, and then deteriorates.  A snail’s shell keeps it safe, and when it dies, the calcium and other minerals go back to the soil. A tree can reach colossal proportions.  Yet at the end of it’s life, it is eaten by fungi, insects, and microbes, and returns to the earth.

Clothing should be the same way.

Making sure that it is made of natural fibers is the start of this.  Then look at the trimmings.  Are the buttons plastic, metal or wood?  Plastic buttons – nope, not compostable.  Metal buttons – well, they will eventually be absorbed back into the soil, but still not really compost friendly.  Wooden buttons – yep!  Will compost pretty quickly.

Zippers can pose a huge problem.  Metal and plastic zippers are just not compost friendly.  Neither are sequins, plastic beads, puffy paint, most glues…

If the whole item can safely compost without intervention, great.  If most of it can biodegrade as long as you make sure to remove the plastic and metal, that’s still pretty good. Just make sure to do so!

For instance. I bought a pair of Allbirds wool loungers in 2017.  I bought them because the main ingredient is wool.  They are still going strong (incredibly low cost per wear), but once they are done I will have to first remove the sole because the company wasn’t using compostable rubber yet. 

Now I am happy to say that their new shoes are made with soles tat are much more earth-friendly, and the company strives to be as environmentally forward as possible.

wear clothes may times

4. How often will I wear it?

Part of the equation in having a sustainable wardrobe is wearing each item the maximum amount of times until it wears out. To get the most out of its existence. Because if you wear an item until it actually wears out, then you won’t be “using up” as many material resources as if you buy new clothes and throw them away before they are worn out.  It takes water, energy, fiber, etc. to produce anything.  The more that is produced, the more demand is placed on the planet.

If you don’t see yourself wearing that shirt, or those shoes on a regular, weekly basis, you’re not really sticking to a sustainable wardrobe credo.

Which flows into our last question.

need vs want

5. Do I need it?

I don’t know, only you can answer that.

Do you still have 3 other pairs of jeans that don’t show signs of wearing out any time soon?

Clothes, furniture, dinnerware, computers…non of it exists without demand.  Demand is created by you, and me, and all of us, buying things.

When you buy things that aren’t being used that you don’t really need, the demand is artificial.  This artificial demand creates a fake need for materials and resources to be used up, which more often than not is bad for the planet. (Yes, basically the foundation of a capitalist economic system is bad for the environment.) 

Living sustainably is just as much about self growth and understanding as it is about driving less, planting more trees, and growing your own food

Getting real with our inner, higher self guides us to answer these tough questions.  There truly is a difference between Want and Need.  And we can have a lot of very complicated emotions about both of them.  And that’s okay.  This is a journey we are all experiencing together.

As you grow in your understanding of what you truly Need, versus what you Want, in order to be happy, the choices you make in your material life change.  Your decisions become wiser, more beneficial over the long term and less temporarily satisfying. 

Baby Steps, You'll get there.

You are completely capable of answering these questions.  If thinking about all 5 is too much, just start with one.  Over time, you will develop sound judgement in purchasing your sustainable wardrobe.

What guiding principles do you use when buying new clothes? Do you have any items that you are proud of how sustainable they are? Share in the comments below.

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