HOW TO… Create Your Sustainable Wardrobe

HOW TO… Create Your Sustainable Wardrobe

Don’t Throw Me circular fashion event at Banyan Workspace, 31 July 2021

As September in Hong Kong begins, the shops are suddenly full of new season arrivals, window mannequins looking decidedly hot in their jumpers and jackets. But before you rush to update your wardrobe in anticipation of the mercury dropping below 20°c, it’s worth considering whether a change in your shopping habits is called for. 

The phrase “Sustainable Fashion” suddenly seems to be on everyone’s lips, from the Paris catwalk to the school gate. Data from ResearchandMarkets estimated the global sustainable fashion market to grow from USD4.6 billion in 2020 to USD5.8 billion in 2021 – that’s an annual growth rate of 25.1%. Make no mistake, this is no passing trend that will go the way of bucket hats and sweatpants – it is a new normal, a shift in societal conscience as a direct result of the rapidly-devolving environmental crisis we are seeing all around us. 

Fresh young brands with exciting environmental credentials are booming, as the explosion in online retail means buyers are no longer restricted to their local shopping mall. Small independent labels are increasingly easy to source. Meanwhile, the established retail behemoths are struggling to adapt their business models rapidly enough to meet the demands of their newly eco-conscious customers, leading to inevitable accusations of greenwashing

But creating a sustainable wardrobe isn’t just a matter of buying “green” brands. It demands a lifestyle change, a re-evaluation of both your relationship with your clothes and the way you shop. For many of us who have been buying our clothes in a certain way for our whole adult life, we have to re-learn our purchasing habits if we want to become a responsible, sustainable shopper. So how do we change? Where do we even start?

Like most situations where you are trying to break a habit, it will require a little self-awareness and commitment from you. So to help your motivation to “be the change”, here are some cold hard facts and figures about the fashion industry to steady your resolve the next time you feel yourself slipping into old ways:

* The fashion industry is the second most polluting industry in the world, behind the oil industry.

* It creates 10% of all global greenhouse gases. (That’s more than the aviation and shipping industries combined.)

* It creates 20% of all global production waste.

* One rubbish truck of textile waste / unwanted clothing is dumped into landfill or incinerated every second.

* It takes approximately 2,700 litres of water to make a single cotton t-shirt.

* Less than 1% of clothing is recycled into new clothing, yet 95% of clothing sent to landfill is able to be recycled

* Finally, despite all the above, the fast fashion industry is booming. As a society, we now purchase 400% more clothes than we did just 20 years ago, yet we are spending less money for them than ever before.

Pretty shocking, isn’t it? 

Reading these statistics, I don’t know anyone who wouldn’t want to play their small part in reversing these trends. But when a problem is this huge, it’s often incredibly hard to know where to start or what to do. So to help you on your way, we’ve put together a few helpful tips.

Here are ten steps to kick-start your Sustainable Wardrobe:

1. DON’T PANIC. After reading the statistics above, throwing everything away from your unethical wardrobe might be an understandable gut reaction, but stop right there. You’ve bought it and worn it. The best fashion choice you can make for the planet is wearing what you already have, even if you regret the original purchase. Having said that, there may be valid reasons why you might feel you need to get rid of some items of clothing. Examples might be if you know the fabric to be problematic in day-to-day wearing (for example, if it releases huge amounts of microfibres into the waterways with each wash), or if your fashion choices influence other people’s purchases. If you do decide you want to get rid of clothing, do so responsibly and donate or recycle.

Helping sort donated clothing at Redress

2. CHANGE YOUR MINDSET. Your long term goal is for your wardrobe to be a small but beautifully curated selection of pieces that suit you and bring you joy, rather than a warehouse of things you might or might never wear. Refuse to let yourself use the phrase “retail therapy” – as if purchasing clothes (any clothes) is an end in itself, deeming those pollution statistics above a price worth paying for the purpose of cheering yourself up. Even if you love fashion, buying clothes should never be a hobby. There always needs to be a specific wardrobe-led reason for every purchase you make. 

3. REJECT FAST FASHION. Invest in a selection of good quality, sustainably-produced clothes, rather than buying cheap, mass-produced items that look ragged after one wash. With proper care, good quality clothing and accessories can last years. Compare the benefit you get from buying a fragile summer dress from a fast fashion retailer with the cost involved to the environment, not to mention the harsh working conditions of the workers who make them. It’s the fashion equivalent of using single-use plastic – any convenience gained is just not worth the impact.

4. REJECT FASHION, PERIOD. Choose quality clothes that suit your colouring, figure and budget. Avoid gimmicky trends that you know are going to be out of favour in a few months, and reject clothes or accessories that are blatantly problematic (think sequined tees, plastic sandals, anything with glitter…). Ironically, rejecting fashion trends could actually make you more of a trendsetter, according to Harpers Bazaar, who predict that our post-pandemic, climate-impacted world will snub seasonal must-buys in favour of classic, “timeless” shapes and colours. 

5. KNOW YOUR FABRIC FACTS. Some fabrics and materials are worse than others when it comes to their environmental impact, due to the processes involved in making, washing and recycling / disposing of them. For example, synthetic materials such as nylon and polyester take hundreds of years to decompose because they are made from petroleum, with all the pollution that that industry involves. Cotton is natural and decomposable, yet the amount of water involved in growing cotton plants is vast, not to mention the pesticide use and transportation costs. Knowing your fabric facts helps you make sustainable purchase decisions and spot greenwashing when it occurs. Of course, it’s inevitable that sometimes you will want to buy a problematic fabric (hello denim!) but try to limit the number of these items in your wardrobe and buy the best quality for your budget to make sure they last. Source them from ethically responsible brands, plan carefully before purchasing to avoid errors in style and size, and re-sell or donate them if you decide you no longer need them.
Learn how to prolong the life of your fabrics and limit their environmental impact day to day

6. SHOP SECONDHAND. If wearing what you’ve already worn is the best fashion choice you can make, the second-best option is to buy what has already been worn by someone else. Buying pre-loved (that’s “secondhand” or “vintage” to us pre-Gen-Zers!) directly impacts the supply-and-demand cycle of the fashion industry, meaning that fewer new clothes will be made. Try visiting the Hula, Redress or Green Ladies boutiques to get a feel for the type of things available, or visit a pop-up organised by companies such as Don’t Throw Me. Also, don’t forget to continue the cycle by donating or selling your good quality clothes when you don’t want them any more, it’s always better than recycling them. Try organising a neighbourhood clothes-swap – that LBD that no longer suits you may become a wardrobe staple of your friend!

7. SHOP ETHICALLY. Learn more about the story of your clothes, and the communities which make them. It’s not as simple as “Bangladesh = child labour”. There are many ethical brands working in tandem to support rural communities and maintain a sustainable circular economy. Look for accreditations and certifications on the company’s websites, or use one of the many apps and websites that investigate the ethics of fashion brands such as Good On You. By knowing where a brand’s clothes come from, you can make an informed decision as to whether you want to support the company or not.

8. BUY LOCAL. Not only are local independent clothes retailers more likely to offer unique designs that you won’t see on your friends on your next night out, but they are also often more sustainable. Local designers often use local materials, meaning that their carbon footprint from transportation is dramatically reduced. So support your local community and its economy by exploring the back streets for small boutiques. Chat to the owner about their clothes and where they source from – you could discover a hidden gem.

Browsing around preloved designer warehouses such as Hula (above) is a fashion maven’s dream!

9. BUY MADE-TO-ORDER. Consider doing this for big budget items that you know you will reuse again and again, such as a suit, evening dress or winter coat. Made-to-order clothing means that they are not over-produced, which results in “deadstock” – new clothing that hasn’t been sold by the end of the season. Retailers are understandably secretive about what happens to their deadstock, as there are very few good options – landfill and incineration are the most common ones. Your made-to-order clothes might cost a little more, but they will be exactly what you want, will fit you perfectly, and will help you create the perfectly-curated wardrobe you are aiming for.

10. CONSIDER RENTING. Wedding season coming up and can’t bear to wear the same thing twice? Renting clothes is becoming big business in Hong Kong and globally, allowing you to wear stunning designer outfits for a fraction of the price and without the same impact on the environment. (High-end designers are some of the worst culprits when it comes to incinerating their deadstock because discount sales are seen as “cheapening the brand”.) There is some current debate about the benefits of purchasing vs renting due to the impact of dry-cleaning chemicals and transportation costs. However, for that special party piece, I would definitely consider it. 

So there you have it, ten simple steps to keep in mind as you create your sustainable wardrobe. As the world wakes up to the impact that the fashion industry wreaks on the planet, at least you can feel confident that you are shopping in a responsible, ethical manner. Do your own research and find out the facts for yourself, or read helpful and informed articles like this one from Mario Pineda. Share your fashion philosophy with your friends. Teach your children how to avoid the pitfalls of fast fashion. Demand action from your government on holding retailers accountable for the impact of their product. 

And finally, gather together some friends and go and see the new feature-length documentary “reFashioned” by Joanne Bowers (who previously directed the critically-acclaimed “The Helper” back in 2017), premiering in Cityplaza on 18th September. It follows the journey of three passionate Hongkongers who are playing vital roles in our city’s relationship with fashion, and promises to be one of 2021’s most impactful locally-made films. 

Because it is only by joining together and demanding transparency from the fashion and textile industry, by letting our preferences be known through our actions and our purchase decisions, that we can make big changes happen. 

“Clothes aren’t going to change the world; the women who wear them will”


– Anne Klein

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