Shop your closet

A Little Harmless Shopping.

As a personal stylist, I’m often asked, “How can I shop more sustainably?” Unfortunately, the only sustainable outfit is your birthday suit. Cute, but a little cold. And even in these COVID-19 work-from-home times, you at least need a top for your Zoom meetings. So, I’ve created a “harmless shopping” scale from the most to the least sustainable shopping options, to help curate your look in a more sustainable way.

Most sustainable: shop your own closet.
Shopping your own closet is the most sustainable way to shop. The natural and human resources needed to produce these garments have already been consumed, and your time and money needed to purchase them have already been invested. We typically only wear 20% of our wardrobe, which means there are many clothes within our closets waiting to be rediscovered.

I sometimes catch myself wearing the same pieces over and over. In an effort to avoid a full-on style rut, I make a habit of going through my wardrobe once a season to remember what I have. I recently dusted off a black leather Acne skirt I found hiding in the back of my closet. I love the piece, it suits me well, and it fits great, but I hadn’t worn it in months. So, I brought it back into rotation with a refreshed outfit pairing. This helped me remember why I loved the skirt in the first place. After months of non-stop sweatsuits, it’s a great time to rediscover what’s hiding in your closet and shop your existing wardrobe.

Moderately sustainable: shop secondhand.
Call it what you like: secondhand, consignment, thrift, vintage, pre-loved or just plain used, shopping secondhand is the next most sustainable option. The resources needed to produce these garments have already been consumed, and by purchasing them again, you’re stopping them from going to waste in the landfill. We’ve already manufactured enough items globally to clothe every person on our planet many times over. We need to utilize these existing resources by wearing them to their full extent.

The challenge is, shopping secondhand requires more time and effort. It’s less convenient because the stock is unpredictable. To be an effective secondhand shopper you need to know what you’re looking for and be decisive. This will help you avoid buying items that don’t work with the rest of your wardrobe.

I view shopping secondhand as an opportunity to work on my patience. I frequently leave emptyhanded, but when I discover a great piece my efforts instantly feel worthwhile. One of my favourite secondhand finds is a slate grey, boyfriend-inspired, Stella McCartney blazer. I couldn’t believe my luck. One of my favourite brands, in my size, and I didn’t even need to alter the sleeves! Walking away with a garment that’s sustainable, cost a fraction of the retail price, and has a story to tell, is a fulfilling way to shop.

Ideally, every manufacturer would produce garments ethically, with no negative impact on the environment.

Mildly sustainable: shop sustainable brands.
The next most sustainable option is to buy new items from sustainable brands. Although these garments will be consuming new resources, the resources have been cultivated and processed in a way that is less harmful to the planet and more ethical for the garment workers. There are many ways for a brand to define its garment as sustainable: organic, recycled, fair trade, zero waste, water-wise, etc. This complex terminology can be confusing and makes it difficult to determine if a brand is really sustainable or simply greenwashing. I have started a new blog series to help define the attributes of sustainable fashion.

Ideally, every manufacturer would produce garments ethically, with no negative impact on the environment. Unfortunately, this is not happening yet. So, when shopping from sustainable brands, I find it helpful to focus on a few sustainable fashion attributes which matter the most to me, then shop from brands doing well in those attributes.

For example, I love denim. There are so many slight variations in colour, cut, and distressing which make each pair of jeans vastly different from the next. These differences can completely change the look of an outfit. I often catch myself trying to justify purchasing another pair. I am not alone. The average North American woman owns seven pairs of jeans. But our obsession with denim is taking a very big toll on the environment. Each pair of jeans takes approximately 6,800 litres of water to produce, which is close to six years’ worth of drinking water for one person! Knowing this, I’m focusing on a brand’s water use for the next pair of jeans I buy.

One of the ways I learn about new sustainable brands is with the app “Good On You.”  I appreciate how they research and rank a brand’s sustainability efforts in a clear and consistent way. Through this app, I’ve found great sustainable denim brands which use recycled water in their processes to limit their use of fresh water; invest in new laser distressing technology instead of water-intensive stone washing; and thoroughly treat the water before releasing it back into the environment. The extra effort expended to discovering new sustainable brands is worthwhile, and the deeper insight you get into the origins of the clothing makes wearing them more satisfying.

Least sustainable, but it’s something: shop quality over quantity.
The next best option is to buy new garments from a non-sustainable brand in the best quality you can afford. These quality items have the craftsmanship to be worn more frequently and have a longer life within your closet. Even if your attachment to them ends, these items have retained their value and can be consigned to have a second life.

I’ve purchased many quality garments from non-sustainable brands that I still love and wear. It’s uniquely satisfying to receive compliments on an outfit when it’s something you purchased over a decade ago. I also like that with each re-wear, I get an opportunity to reminisce about a previous event or occasion I wore them at. I recently slipped on an Alexander Wang cut-out dress that I last wore three years ago, before I was pregnant. It was fun to remember how different my life was during those carefree, pre-baby days, then marvel at all I’ve experienced since. Shopping with a focus on choosing quality has allowed me to build a wardrobe of substance with a history that’s unique to me.

There’s a common thread weaving its way through all four stages of my “harmless shopping” scale: shopping well takes effort. To create a more sustainable wardrobe we need to actively engage in our shopping experiences and become more invested in each purchase. Let’s start to fall in love with our clothes again. Like the love we share with our family and friends, having a meaningful relationship with our clothing will take effort. We must give the relationship attention, by rediscovering what we already own; put in energy, by taking the time to shop secondhand; be open, to seek out new sustainable brands; and invest, by choosing to buy the best quality we can afford.

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