By Dustin Rhodes
I have a confession to make: I am obsessed with clothes. At my worst—fresh out of college, living alone in a studio apartment, with crippling student loan debt—I had so many clothes I had to store them in kitchen cabinets because the closet was bursting at the seams.
I spent all my “extra” income on every fancy fashion trend that I viewed as wearable art, whether it actually looked good on me or not, whether it was made in a sweatshop or had a huge carbon footprint. Forget the fact that I was an entry-level social worker for the mentally ill, who often threw food, juice and other detritus in my direction daily.
My clothing “masterpieces” quickly became garbage that got unceremoniously tossed in a landfill.
But clothing is not only filling up landfills—the industry is a dangerous hot mess responsible for a whopping 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions. “Fast fashion”—a business model that mass produces trendy garments using cheap materials and labor—is arguably the worst of all.
Because new in-fashion clothes are introduced into the market so rapidly, people end up disposing of more and more clothes, adding to textile waste. Americans purchase more clothes than any country on earth—averaging one new item of clothing per week per person.
And fast fashion companies typically use toxic chemicals, dangerous dyes and synthetic fabrics that seep into water supplies in countries where the clothing is made. The same clothes also end up polluting your water supply at home as you do your laundry.
So if you want to dress to kill, but not the earth, you just need to change some bad habits.
There is no perfect brand whose practices are aligned with the health of the planet. But greenwashing— when a company spends time and money advertising and marketing that their goods or services are environmentally friendly when, in fact, they are not—would have us believe otherwise. Don’t fall for it.
But do figure out what you like to wear; buy fewer, higher quality items of clothing in fabrics that are more earth-friendly; take meticulous care of your clothes so they will last longer; and stop buying into every trend.
Here are some tips that will help you achieve those goals and a sustainable wardrobe that you enjoy and that still feels like an extension of yourself.
Does it spark joy and feel good?
Yes, I am blatantly stealing from Marie Kondo here, and her sage advice to figure out what you like to wear. This can be transformative because it has the potential to completely change what you purchase. For myself, I feel best in tailored, simple shirts and pants—no patterns!—in darker shades of blue. I was probably 40 before I figured this out. I also prefer my clothing to be made from organic cotton, linen or hemp, because I like the soft, breathable feel, which brings us to the next very important tip:
Choose natural, organic fabrics as often as possible
Synthetic fabrics like polyester, nylon, microfiber, rayon, etc.—while they have their merits and are unavoidable for certain clothing items, like winter coats—are not sustainable or earth-friendly. They don’t biodegrade, they release micro-plastics into the environment, which poisons waterways and aquatic life, and they are petrochemical-based, which relies on environmentally destructive extraction methods to be manufactured. Up to 35% of the plastics in the world’s oceans are related to clothing and textile manufacturing. Unfortunately, that means our stretchy jeans, athletic and yoga wear, and our beloved fleece jackets are not the best choices.
Some examples of earth-friendly fibers used to make clothing are organic cotton, linen and hemp. Cotton is by far the most versatile. But the difference between conventional cotton—which relies heavily on pesticides—and organically grown varieties, is extremely important. Conventional cotton is terrible for the environment, while organic cotton is probably the most versatile, planet-friendly, affordable textile we have. You can now buy denim, t-shirts, suits, dresses and skirts in organic cotton at affordable-to-most price points, even at mainstream retailers. Organic fabrics have less pesticide residues and are more skin-friendly, too, so it’s especially important to look for baby and kid’s clothing made from organic cotton.
This is an obvious point. However, there are ways to buy less that might be less obvious. First, you might consider a capsule wardrobe, which is a limited selection of interchangeable clothing pieces that complement one other. These are often classic pieces that do not go out of style and are primarily composed of neutral colors. A capsule wardrobe allows you to create a variety of different outfits with a small selection of clothes. While beyond the scope of this article, I encourage you to visit the web and YouTube for some advanced ideas around this topic, as it’s an interesting approach to clothing that I personally find to be liberating, time-saving and fun, too.
Related, and this is something I have explored and continue to explore: consider a “uniform” approach to clothing. About 90% of my wardrobe is blue, in various shades, with the intention that every single piece of clothing that I own goes with everything else. I learned this approach from the internet about a decade ago, and it’s been nothing short of liberation. I can create endless outfit combinations using not many items of clothing—and I don’t think anyone has ever noticed.
Take care of what you have
When something gets a hole in it, have it repaired. Replace buttons. Have things tailored or altered. Make them last. Use detergents that are plant- not petrochemical based. Wash your synthetics in a wash bag that prevents micro plastics from being leeched into waterways. Wash your clothes in cold water when possible.
Avoid trends like the plague
During the pandemic, I got caught up in comfortable-clothing-hysteria, and purchased several roomy, ugly items of clothing that promptly ended up at Goodwill. I already know what I like—and it’s NOT UNFLATTERING SWEATPANTS—so it’s important to stick with your own rules, and only buy styles that are beyond trends, which come and go at break-neck speed.
We are all human, so it’s all about progress not perfection. But our current climate crisis demands that we at least try to make better lifestyle choices that don’t harm the environment. And the clothing in our closets is an easy place to start. Trust me. These tips work. My kitchen cabinets now contain pots and pans, not fancy sweaters and selvedge denim.