It’s an age old adage – everything in fashion comes around again. No sooner have you purged your 1980s shell suit than you’re passed on the street by a teenager wearing the latest high street iteration. But real circularity might be just what the fashion industry needs right now.
In February, a cross party environmental audit committee called on the UK government to introduce a 1p producer responsibility charge on every item of clothing, with the proceeds used to pay for better clothing collection and recycling. Commenting on the proposal, committee chair and Labour MP Mary Creagh said: “Fashion shouldn’t cost the Earth.
Our insatiable appetite for clothes comes with a huge social and environmental price tag: carbon emissions, water use, chemical and plastic pollution are all destroying our environment.”
The figures are staggering. More than 300,000 tonnes of used clothes are sent to landfill in the UK each year, while less than 1% of clothing materials globally are recycled for new clothes. Producing one pair of jeans takes around 10,000 litres of water; a single cotton t-shirt 3,000 litres – about as much as the average person drinks in three years. Our clothes will likely shed 22 million tonnes of microfibers into the ocean by 2050.
“A one penny charge is a good measure – but it’s certainly not going to transform the sustainability of the textile industry,” says Libby Peake, senior policy adviser at think tank Green Alliance. “It’s the perennial problem of looking at the ‘end of pipe’ solution, when we need to focus on changing how clothing is made and used so that fewer clothes need to be produced.” So, what steps can you take to make your wardrobe sustainable?
Sustainability continued to be a hot topic across the catwalks during 2019’s Autumn-Winter fashion weeks in February. In Paris, Stella McCartney showcased dresses created using sustainable viscose from certified forests; elsewhere there were swimsuits made from rescued ocean waste, and nails bejeweled with recycled metal.
But if (like most of us) haute couture is not in your price range, there are a number of innovative off-the-peg options to satisfy. Patagonia uses organic cotton and recycled materials and over a third of its product line is Fair Trade certified.
The cyclist’s favourite FREITAG offers one-of-a-kind bags made from truck tarpaulins. Even high street staple H&M, often labelled a paragon of “fast fashion”, has embraced sustainable options. Its Conscious Exclusive collection uses 100% regenerated nylon fibre and recycled silver. Eleven-time World Surf League Champion Kelly Slater founded clothing company Outerknown with designer John Moore to make clothing that respects the world around us.
Slater says: “We created Outerknown to smash the formula. To lift the lid on the traditional supply chain and prove you can actually produce great looking menswear in a sustainable way.”
Then there are the celebrity favourites: Reformation creates modern silhouettes from repurposed vintage clothing; French fashion brand Veja’s shoes focus on sustainable farming practices; Re/Done turns outdated jeans into flattering new designs. Some of the most popular eco-conscious clothes can tend to be expensive to produce as well as buy – Veja’s trainers cost between five and seven times as much to make as an average pair of running shoes. But while they might cost a lot, they won’t cost the Earth.
It’s not just about where you buy your clothes from – it’s also about how you use them. “One of the most important things a person can do in terms of their personal carbon impact is to extend the lives of the clothes they wear,” says Peake.
“The average item of clothing is used for 3.3 years in the UK, but if you could extend that by even a year you could make a big impact on your personal footprint.” One method Peake recommends to increase the life cycle of your clothes is through clothes swapping with friends – or “swishing”.
If you have a group of mates whose wardrobes you admire, spending an afternoon “shopping” each other’s cast-offs can be a guilt-free – and spendfree – way to refresh your wardrobe. Renting clothes for special occasions is another way to satisfy the urge for something new.
From high street suit hire to red carpet-worthy dress rental services (Girl Meets Dress, Frontrow), having the option to borrow means you don’t have to buy a cheap alternative you will almost certainly scrap once wedding season is over.
“Probably the biggest thing that I encourage people to do is shop vintage and second-hand,” says Elle magazine contributing editor and columnist Pandora Sykes. “It’s often cheaper, less trend-focused and means that you are taking something out rather than putting something in to the retail cycle.”
Checking out charity shops in affluent areas can result in some real finds; supermodel Kate Moss, for example, revealed she donates her cast-offs to the branches of Oxfam and Sue Ryder in Highgate, north London. Beyond your local charity shop, eBay, Etsy and Depop are great online sources for second-hand fashion.
“If you need a bit more curation, then Beyond Retro, Peekaboo Vintage and my newest discovery, Imparfait Paris, all have great, selective vintage,” Sykes points out. With over 270,000 Instagram followers to her name, Sykes and other “influencers” could be seen as part of the problem. This is where platforms such as The Resolution Store come in, which look to increase the circularity of clothes by offering consumers the chance to shop the actual cast-offs of favourite influencers – a win-win.
Quality Not Quantity
In the face of landfills piled high with fast fashion, making the decision to invest in high quality clothes that will stand the test of time can make a big difference. “The fact that we can buy clothing so cheaply means that we naturally don’t attach the same value to these items,” says Peake. “We don’t treasure them – and this is fuelling our throwaway culture.”
“Charity shops are also suffering,” she adds. “If you have good quality items that will be sought after then that’s great, but if you are offloading low quality clothing that shops will struggle to sell on, then this is a burden to them.” The cheapness of fast fashion is also often a fallacy.
By choosing to spend £100 on a high quality pair of shoes that will last several years, rather than £20 on cheaply made equivalents that you will have to replace within a few months – and will likely end up in landfill – you can reduce your overall expenditure as well as your waste.
Getting more wear out of your clothes can take a little bit of imagination. Style challenges have become popular fodder on fashion blogs, with concepts such as the capsule wardrobe – a compact closet with a minimal number of pieces designed to be mixed and matched seasonally – encouraging us to think more creatively and selectively about our style. Altering clothes you’re not quite happy with is another way to encourage more wear.
“Almost nobody is the set shape that clothes are made for,” says personal style consultant Rachel Brier. “Simple alterations like moving a hem up or adjusting the length of a sleeve can make such a difference to a piece of clothing. Most dry cleaners will do varying levels of alterations, and it can be as little as a few pounds for them to take up a hem.”
It’s worth checking in store for alteration services also, with M&S and Uniqlo offering free tailoring on certain items. If you’re seduced by the ease of an Instagram post-to-PayPal purchase, or you’re a sucker for a well-timed sales email, then it may be worth setting yourself limits for online shopping. “With internet shopping, it is an abstraction; it feels like fantasy shopping,” says Sykes. “With the bricks-and-mortar variety, there is a moment of ‘do I need this’ reflection at the till as you physically hand over the money.”
Curb Your Enthusiasm
Challenging yourself to only buy from physical shops can help curb your clothing consumption, as can limiting the number of items you’re allowed to buy per month. Sykes adds: “My main MO is that while I am allowed to buy unlimited vintage I am only allowed to buy one ‘new’ thing a week. It might not be expensive, it could be merely a pair of socks – but it’s about the accumulation side.”
Try taking the time to properly assess your clothing needs. “Rather than impulse-buying random pieces that catch your eye, consider which pieces will actually fit with your lifestyle and work needs,” says Brier. You might be lusting after the latest trend-led piece – but when will you wear it? And does it actually suit you? Making your wardrobe more sustainable doesn’t have to mean a radical change in your shopping practices – but making small changes can have meaningful consequences.