In Your Closet

4 Ways to Bring Sustainable Fashion to Your Closet

Learn the true environmental cost of fashion and which clothing-related habits can help you reduce your carbon footprint and protect the planet.

by Planet A Team

Is your daily commute populated with an increasing number of velvet hair scrunchies?  Can you, too, wear one if you’re over 25? Or maybe you bought a leather backpack last year, (was it two years ago?), and you’re wondering if it’s those outer pockets that make it look a bit dated. Animal print, hopefully it’s a passable trend for one more season. Patagonia fleece? Yes, depending on who, exactly, is coming glamping next weekend. And finally, that black lace choker—please spare us. The blogs are unanimous, you must toss it immediately and buy yourself a crushed velvet scrunchie, or better, a bundle of 3 to save 15%!

Maintaining your fashion-forward reputation can be a full-time job, and for a bunch of fashion editors and bloggers, it actually is. Since big retailers started introducing new ‘micro-seasonal’ trends every week, keeping up is getting increasingly difficult. It’s also more and more profitable for them. Which means it’s more and more expensive for you—the hapless sailor upon an ever-shifting sea of style.

And in case you thought staying fashion forward was your biggest concern, it doesn’t end there. Spoiler alert: The sea of style is not the only ocean involved here. 

Climate change talk is everywhere and your wardrobe, more specifically, how quickly you change your wardrobe and how you maintain it, has everything to do with that. Polyester and acrylic fabrics, plus other microplastics, are making their way from our clothes (think dryer lint, sewage from washing machines) into our oceans and soil. Marine life is affected, but so is human life. In fact, we may be ingesting lots of this stuff every day. Yikes!

Every year a half a million tons of plastic microfibers are dumped into the ocean, the equivalent of 50 billion plastic bottles.

Feeling seasick? Don’t fret, we come bearing good news! There are a number of simple things you can do to minimize your impact.

Four ways to change the way you approach your wardrobe:

1. Change the way you shop for clothes

Shopping for clothes is fun (not to mention therapeutic), but those feelings can fade fast once you find out the clothes you want to spend your hard-earned money on are damaging the planet in a big way. From how it’s made, to what it’s made of, to how it gets to us, many people are quick to point the finger at fast fashion retailers. It seems like those retailers make a lot of compromises in the production process just to get an item onto their every-revolving racks. But let’s remember: someone’s buying it, and that’s why it’s profitable. Changing the way you shop means altering your decision-making criteria when it comes to how and what you buy.

Buy Less - It’s helpful to take an inventory of what you currently own to decide if you really need those extra pairs of boots when you already own three nearly-identical pairs. If you decide that you do need them, you should consider investing in a high-quality pair that will last you longer. Environmental journalist Lucy Siegle has a great little metric you can apply before you buy, suggesting you ask yourself: “Will I wear this 30 times?”. Asking this before buying a prospective item is a reminder to shop thoughtfully and buy things you’ll actually wear. Let’s be honest: if the answer is ‘no,’ you can live without it.

Buy Vintage & Locally-Made - Chances are there are local stores specializing in vintage and sustainable clothing you’ll love. Next time you’re in the market for a new shirt or dress, search online for stores in your area to explore first. Shopping vintage is a great way to support extending the life cycle of pre-loved items. The rise of vintage wear has created more space for us consumers to buy and love pre-worn items that bring to life a new sense of creative flair and style.

Buy from Climate-Conscious Brands - Another helpful tip is to search for the brands that are taking the right steps toward reducing their footprint. This can mean using renewable energy, or selecting sustainable and organic materials for garments and accessories. More and more brands are going this route, so it’s getting easier to find styles you like in eco-friendly options. Good On You is a good resource for finding which brands rate well for the environment.

Buy Eco-Friendly & Recycled Materials -
Sadly, and perhaps unsurprisingly, there aren’t many clothing materials that bode well for the planet. Synthetic fabrics, like polyester, depend on fossil fuel extraction for production, and give off thousands of tiny plastic microfibers when they’re washed, which end up in our water sources and ultimately in the bodies of humans and animals. Even worse, once in the landfill, they can take up to 200 years to decompose (so that reflective tank top you bought for last year’s Halloween costume may very well outlive your grandchildren). Cotton, though biodegradable, is one of the world’s most environmentally demanding crops, responsible for 25% of the world’s insecticides and 10% of its pesticides. Even organic cotton uses an appalling amount of water in production, and bamboo (which garnered a good rep in past years) requires large amounts of harmful chemicals in production. Feeling hopeless? As a general rule, hemp and linen require less water than other materials, and are both durable and biodegradable. Recycled materials, too, can be a great way to support the use of fewer resources and production of less waste.

2. Change the way you wear your clothes

Wear What You Have – Have you been so busy sailing the style seas you’ve ignored those old faithful pieces in the back of your wardrobe? Maybe you’ve been so distracted in your online search for white wide-leg overalls, you forgot about the pair you already own (that you’ve held onto since last time they were cool). Time for a closet excavation? Doing a dig to revive what’s currently in your closet will stop you from buying stuff you already own, or will never wear. If you come across items that still have the tags on them (it happens to the best of us), you may consider selling them to a consignment store or an online platform like ThredUp.

Consider a Capsule Wardrobe – Beyond changing how you get new stuff, you can change what you do with the things you already have. The capsule wardrobe movement is a great example. The main principle is to have a closet populated with quality essential items that don't go out of fashion, augmenting your outfits with rotating seasonal pieces and accessories. It’s a method for purging what you don’t wear, keeping the stuff you love, buying very little, and investing in timeless, quality and versatile pieces you’ll wear again and again.

Clothing Swap As they say, “one man’s trash...” And, in case you’ve forgotten, trash is what we’re really trying to avoid here, so let’s start applying the age-old ‘reuse’ command to our closets. Why not host a clothing swap with your friends or family? The concept is simple (and perhaps self-explanatory): everyone comes to the event with clothes they no longer want or need with the intent to swap those items with new-to-them articles of clothing from the other attendees. Your red leather cowboy boots (what were you thinking?) for your aunt’s lavender velvet scrunchie. Your lumpy sweater for your best friend’s white jean jacket (it’s a better lewk on you). There are items ready to be donned (by you), sitting unworn in the depths of your cousin Chloe’s closet. Thanks Chloe!

Rent (or borrow) – For special occasions and things you’ll only wear once (going to a formal fundraising gala or a NYE wedding any time soon?), consider borrowing from a friend or finding a place to rent from. These options are better for the environment, and your bank account!

3. Change the way you care for your clothes

Paying attention to the labels on your clothing is another small way you can begin reducing your contribution to clothing-related emissions. Sometimes it’s as simple as learning where you can save energy on a wash cycle. In other cases, it helps you understand the content of your item and how you might be able to get away with washing it less than usual. After you read the label (we don’t want any doll-sized sweaters or super-pilled yoga pants), think about applying doing the following:

Use the Cold Cycle - You may be surprised to learn that most articles of clothing will do just fine on the cold cycle in your washing machine. Using cold water requires less energy and can help your clothes last longer. If you can spot a machine that has an ‘Eco’ setting — that’s even better! Setting your washing machine on eco mode will deliver the lowest energy consumption possible because you will be using cooler water, which means less electricity!

Air Dry - Skip the dryer entirely by allowing your clothes to air dry instead. Invest in a drying rack (which is much cheaper than investing in a dryer, anyway), or hang clothing items over your furniture or shower rod to dry indoors. If you have an outdoor space and the weather permits, you can use a rope to build a DIY clothesline.

Skip a Wash (or two) - It sounds gross — but hear us out! Not every item of clothing needs to land in the laundry basket after one wear. Read the labels first, like we said above – just like friends, some pieces of clothing are more sensitive than others. Sometimes a simple spot clean can work wonders and avoid a toss in the machine. Get this: that includes your jeans. In fact, most people avoid washing their denim jeans for months at a time, and some people NEVER wash them.

4. Change the way you discard your clothes

Upcycle – When you see an old shirt, we see makeup remover wipes. When you see used slacks, we see food wraps you can use again. Favorite pattern in an outdated cut? Sew a cushion cover. Stretched Ts? Headbands! Give your tired threads new life by applying a little ingenuity. And if you’re not feeling creative, use the suggestions in this article.

Donate – Getting rid of clothes means finding a new home for them and that home should be anywhere but the landfill. Donating your clothes is a great way to give them a second life, and a quick search online will help you determine where the best drop off location is in your area. Remember though, this is not a get-out-of-climate-change-free card. Donating is a huge problem globally—so make sure you do your research. And more importantly, don’t buy clothes you don’t need in the first place!

The future of the planet depends on us 

At Planet A, we’re working to develop a scoring model that helps you understand your carbon footprint at an individual level. One way you can start to measure is to make changes to how you buy and wear your clothes.

This article offers general information only and is not intended as legal, financial or other professional advice. A professional advisor should be consulted regarding your specific situation. While the information presented is believed to be factual and current, its accuracy is not guaranteed and it should not be regarded as a complete analysis of the subjects discussed. All expressions of opinion reflect the judgment of the author(s) as of the date of publication and are subject to change. No endorsement of any third parties or their advice, opinions, information, products or services is expressly given or implied by Royal Bank of Canada or its affiliates.
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