How to Build a Sustainable Wardrobe

Sounds like a lot of work, doesn’t it?  To create an entire wardrobe out of ethical, organic, sustainable and locally-sourced materials?

Well, that’s only part of it.  There are other aspects to creating a sustainable wardrobe, including but not limited to mending worn out clothing, repurposing old clothes into new looks, recycling fabric, buying second-hand, buying quality pieces, and wearing what you already have.  These are some of the things I’m going to be exploring in this post.

First of all, why is this important to me?  Why can’t I just go shopping at Walmart or the mall like everyone else?  Well, to start with, I’ve always been interested in making my own clothes or repurposing old clothes for one very simple reason.  Mainstream stores don’t make clothing to fit bodies like mine.  And the ones that do fit my body, usually aren’t my style.  I know I’m not alone in this.

But also, I just can’t get some facts I know about the clothing industry out of my head.

Such as:

  • according to UNICEF, about 168 million children are employed in sweatshops making the clothing we wear.
  • Rana Plaza, the largest fashion-industry disaster in history.  If you don’t know it, google it.  1 134 people died so we could wear cheaper clothing.
  • The fashion industry produces new clothing every week and whatever doesn’t sell from the week before is shredded and thrown into landfill.
  • Pesticides used in the growing of cotton are harmful to the farmers who grow it and handle it.
  • Farmers are also expected to keep up in production with the ever-increasing demand for cotton.  If a farmer cannot grow enough, they go into debt, and then into despair.  More than 270 000 Indian cotton farmers committed suicide between the years of 1995 – 2014.
  • Increased demand begets increased speed and decreased cost which turns into cheap fabric and thread and clothing that practically falls apart.
  • The majority of people who work for clothing companies aren’t even aware of the human rights abuses that they are enabling.

Now that I know all of this, I just can’t buy something off the rack and not go through a world of doubt and questioning before buying it.  Perhaps I have my anxiety to thank for that but it’s true.  Everytime I see Walmart’s slogan “Save Money, Live Better” on their doors, I think of all the families who work in those factories who are torn apart for corporate greed and wonder if they are really living better.  I’ve made a promise to always bring more light than darkness into this world and if I can avoid contributing to someone else’s pain – even thousands of miles around the world – than I will do my best to do so.

I sound like a saint, don’t I?  I do my best to be green but in the spirit of full disclosure, I should probably tell you that I drive a Jeep and eat meat. But we’ve all gotta start somewhere.

And of course my closet includes many pieces that I bought from companies that I know aren’t the most ethical.  I only started building my sustainable wardrobe a year ago and something this intentional takes a loooooong time.  And while with other objects, the Buyerarchy of Needs can be a helpful way of cutting down your consumption, it’s really not the easiest or fastest way to build a joyful and sustainable closet.

So here are five ways to making your closet more sustainable today.  It goes from the easiest and fastest to the most time-consuming with the smallest footprint.

Step 1: Wear What You Have

Do I need to go into further detail on this one?  Just stop shopping.  I’m pretty sure that you actually have more clothes than you need.

Step 2: Buy Quality Pieces from Ethical Companies

This step is pretty easy too.  If you must buy pieces, buy pieces made of good quality in classic styles that you will be able to wear for years.  In fact, some of those pieces I own that weren’t created with sustainability in mind have been in my closet for years.  These items are pieces that fit my body type (provided I don’t overindulge over the Christmas holidays), are good colours for my skin tone (I’m a redhead), and are made with good enough quality to stand the test of time (and working in an elementary school).  I also partake of the old-world practice of taking off my “good clothes” when I get home and putting on my “house clothes”.

My closet also contains quite a few workout and hiking items.  I cannot guarantee that this was made sustainably but companies like Patagonia, MEC and Adidas try to ensure that their factories overseas ensure safe working conditions and a fair wage for the employees who make the clothing and that the production of their clothing isn’t degrading the environment.

Because I can’t exactly make my own outdoor gear and buying older, donated outdoor gear makes me wonder about its quality, I generally buy new garments from companies I trust.  If I’m not sure whether a company is ethical or not, I have downloaded an app called Good On You which rates many companies on how they treat their people, the planet, and our animals.  So when I was trying to find a compressible puffy for winter hiking, I found some options and then looked them up.  Here’s what Icebreaker’s rating looks like:  

Of the three I was deciding between, this company was by far the most ethical.

The other thing to consider is buying clothing that was made by one other human. You know, bespoke clothing or interesting artisan clothing.  I have two examples of this type of clothing.  The first is a piece that was bought at Courage My Love in Kensington market, made from recycled silk.  The second an Icelandic sweater knit by the woman who raised the sheep from which she got the wool.  I can’t think of anything more organic than that.

So that’s how to start – wear what you own and buy quality items from ethical companies when you need to.

3. Wear Second-Hand Clothing

Ok, I’m going to admit that I have a hard time going to second-hand stores.  The noise and colours overwhelm me.  Even in the small consignment shops I have a hard time because I just really hate shopping.  I really dislike having to hunt for things that I might like.

But I will always say yes to second-hand clothes given to me by friends and family.  And man, have I scored some sweet, almost new, quality items!  Like these gems:

I have several other pieces that have been donated second-hand to me as well but I don’t have too many photos of them.

Google consignment shops in your area and you will most likely find tonnes of options for buying beautiful second-hand clothing.  In Ottawa, we have Rikochet Resale, PreLoved Ottawa, The Frock Exchange as well as the standard Salvation Army shops and Value Village.

4. Share/Borrow Clothing

I haven’t done this yet but I recently heard about it.  Unfortunately, I can’t remember where I read about it/heard about it but the basic premise is sharing those pieces that aren’t worn very often.  The ballgowns and the suits.  I am a firm believer that everyone should have ONE classic, beautiful black dress or suit in their closet at all times for those unexpected times (ex. funerals), that will always work.

But maybe you have five weddings to go to and don’t want to buy five new dresses or wear the same one over and over again.  If you have friends who are the same size and style, then swap them out.

Maybe there are a group of you who all have children at varying ages.  Why not just keep swapping out kids’ clothes and save some money while you’re at it? (Maybe this is already happening somewhere. I don’t have kids so I have never thought to ask.)

Same goes for jewellery and fancy shoes.

5. Make and Mend Your Own Clothing

Now onto the fun part!  Making! (My creative soul just did a little leap!)

This is obviously a huge leap from the first four steps.  But it so incredibly satisfying and therapeutic, I will be your biggest cheerleader if you decide to delve into the old arts of making clothing.

Over the years, I have dabbled in lots of art and craft forms – music, painting, coloured pencil rendering, home decor, knitting, quilting, and sewing, just to name a few.  I love the process of bringing an idea to fruition.  It rarely turns out the way I had envisioned it but I love that process of learning and I have often treasured the imperfect pieces that I have created.  When making things with one’s own hands, via one’s own time and energy, there is a connection to the piece that doesn’t come when you just pop into a store and buy something off the rack. I like my pieces to have stories.

So in the past year or so, I’ve started to make a concerted effort to create a sustainable closet with handmade items, either upcycled by someone else or made from sustainable and locally-sourced materials.

In March 2017, while recovering from a bout of food poisoning which kept me in bed for four days over March Break, I decided to try something easy that didn’t involve a lot of moving around.  So I sewed these wrap pants from this tutorial and wrote a post about why I decided to start sewing my own clothing.

Wrap Pants
The wrap pants in action. Absolutely amazing to wear when the weather is hot and sticky.  This black top has been in my closet for about eight years. It’s only now starting to show signs of wear so I will have to figure out how to recreate it because I love it so much!

A few months later, I was given a huge amount of fabric from a friend who had been tidying up her house for renos and I made this piece.

This piece was the most complicated thing I had sewn to date and I had to do some significant alterations for it to fit me properly.  There were times I became daunted but I persevered and in the end, not only do I love it, I am proud to wear it because this top was a bit of a milestone for me.  This experience gave me the confidence to consider creating more clothing; it made me consider that perhaps I was actually getting better at this sewing gig!

Since then, I’ve also made these pieces from natural fibre fabrics or from second-hand fabric.  Every piece I make has a new skill in it and I’m starting to get really confident in my sewing skills.  I haven’t braved trying to make fitted bottoms yet but I’ll update the blog if I ever do. 

I also knit.  I’ve been knitting for over ten years but I’ve never been very successful with clothing so I usually do things like hats, mitts, blankets for gifts, slippers, and just small things to help pass the cold months of winter.  But now I had a mission.  So I started looking for a pattern of something I would like to wear.  One that didn’t have sleeves because that seems to be the issue with my skills (or lack thereof).  I found this pattern on Craftsy and a mentor to help with the lace and voila!

The Victoria Vest pattern by Joleen Kraft. The lace was a huge learning curve. Again, the challenges are what push me forward.

I got a little braver and since then, I’ve added these pieces to my collection using ecologically friendly yarn. 

One thing I’ve learned while making these pieces is that one of the biggest reasons why my previous handmade clothing didn’t work out so well is because I cheaped out on the materials.  Big mistake.  HUGE.

When you spend the money on good quality materials and you consider how many hours of work you’ve put into making your piece, you’ll soon realize that it is ABSOLUTELY IMPOSSIBLE to make a piece of clothing for the $4 that Old Navy sells it for.  Now just think about how that pittance is divided between all the people who are responsible for creating and selling that piece.  I can guarantee you that the woman sitting behind the sewing machine locked in a factory in a city far away from her children is not getting much of that $4.  Okay, I’ll step off my soapbox now…

Then the stars collided and my life changed when I discovered Natalie Chanin and her clothing line Alabama Chanin. <swoon!>

A woman whose every step in her clothing-making process spoke directly to my heart. From the organic materials to the happy thoughts infused in the thread while straightening it (in her instructions, she calls it “loving your thread”), to both the meditative and the community aspects of hand-sewing.  Not to mention, her exposed seams spoke to the rebel in me and the unfinished hems spoke to the bohemian in me and the reverse applique designs spoke to the artist in me.

I won’t go into too much detail because I could quite literally go on for pages and pages so I’ll just say her entire philosophy spoke to me.  I bought one of her books and started exploring.

It turns out that hand-sewing doesn’t take that long and is really not that difficult.  The clothes are hardier than I thought they would be and her patterns are simple yet beautiful.  In Ottawa, we have several fabric shops that sell fabrics that are environmentally friendly and made from organic cotton – Fabrications and Mimi’s Fabrics are my go-to’s.

Cotton, in fact, takes a huge toll on the environment in regards to its production.  It’s labour intensive, many cotton producers use toxic pesticides and the demand put on small, family-run farms in cheap less-developed countries like India from fast fashion companies is deadly.  Indian cotton farmers who work for these companies have the highest rate of suicide in the world (as cited from the Netflix documentary The True Cost.  Sorry, I don’t have any more specific info than that but I wouldn’t doubt it.)  I don’t mind using the cotton fabrics that I use because I’m not buying throwaway clothing.  I’m buying fabric and am expecting to wear these same pieces for years.

But when those pieces do wear out, try mending them with beautiful techniques like Sashiko mending or visible mending.  I have not yet needed to mend any of my clothing (since I buy quality clothing in natural fibres) but I look forward to wearing my jeans out and mending them.  If anyone wants to buy me Katrina Rodabaugh’s book Mending Matters, I would gladly accept it.

After two years of mindful consumption and choosing sustainable options, I would say that I have been successful in creating a sustainable and ethical wardrobe.  Two unexpected things happened when I started down this path of mindful consumption and slow fashion. One, I started to LOVE my clothing.  And two, I had a much better understanding of my style and what I needed to create a highly efficient, fairly minimalist wardrobe.  (Once you know how to make your own clothing, I can see how a sewist or knitter could go a little crazy and unintentionally create a massive closet.)

I still occasionally buy items that might not be very ethical (like undergarments and tech gear) but I think I do a really good job at having a wardrobe that speaks to me and doesn’t hurt the environment in the process.  It took a long time.  It took a lot of patience.  It took A LOT of work.  But I’m proud of what I built.


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