Quit your fashion addiction, simplify your wardrobe and stop buying dirty clothes

Insane /in’sein/ adjective 1 mad. 2 very foolish. 3 buying rubbish-quality, unethically & unsustainably produced clothes we don’t need and discarding almost-new clothing to landfill, just to keep up with random new trends we don’t even care that much for.

The fashion industry is responsible for SIGNIFICANT harm to both people and planet. And this is amplified today thanks to the dominance of fast fashion. Fast fashion is about high output of cheap clothing that manipulates consumers into thinking they need to buy new clothes every week in order to keep up with current trends. Is it just me, or does anyone else out there believe that business models based on consumption for consumption’s sake, to guarantee ongoing growth in company profits by keeping consumers in an endless state of dissatisfaction, are just plain WRONG?

While fast fashion might come with a low price tag (reflecting the often poor quality), it comes with a HUGE social and environmental cost. As brands are not paying the real labour or environmental costs of production they can pass those savings onto us, and we’re lapping it up and begging for more. So it’s not just more clothing we’re choosing, it’s more slave labour, more animal cruelty and more IRREVERSIBLE environmental damage.

And the thing is, constantly buying new clothes doesn’t make us happier. In fact, it actually makes us more miserable. The path to fulfillment requires us to let go of the excess in our lives so we can appreciate the things we truly love. And we’ll feel much better about ourselves knowing we are buying quality clothing that hasn’t caused any harm to people, animals or our planet.

The fashion industry accounts for 10% of global carbon emissions and is the 2nd largest polluter (after the oil industry). As well as unethical treatment of people and animals the industry is responsible for excessive resource consumption and waste, which is causing irreversible environmental destruction. And since fast fashion emerged it is even worse: our environment simply CANNOT support the rate and volume of consumption and waste creation that is occurring.

The devastating truth about cotton

Once the world’s fourth largest lake and a thriving ecosystem supporting 40,000 fishermen, the Aral Sea in Central Asia is now a dust bowl. One of the worst environmental catastrophes, this happened over just 40 years, following river diversion for crop irrigation. And the crop? Cotton. Almost 1.5 million hectares of it.

Cotton irrigation has shrunk the Aral Sea in central Asia to 1/10 of its original size (video: NASA)

It can take almost 3,000 litres of water to make one t-shirt. That’s enough drinking water for one person for more than 3 years! As well as HUGE amounts of water, cotton requires huge amounts of pesticides, which cause hundreds of thousands of farmer deaths a year.

Dead fishing boats on the dead Aral Sea (© Arian Zwegers, reproduced under license)

As much of the cotton from this region ends up in Bangladesh and China its source is very difficult to trace so we could all unknowingly be contributing to this destruction.

Aside from cotton, other natural fabrics like rayon and viscose have an environmental disaster story of their own. Much of the cellulose fibre used in production of these fabrics comes from the logging of endangered forests in Indonesia and North America.


Both within the fashion industry and amongst consumers waste is out of control.

Many fashion brands, particularly in the luxury sector, have been known to destroy surplus stock. High-end British label Burberry burned £28 MILLION worth of products in 2017, it seems because markdowns and sale racks are not a good look for a luxury brand. And apparently this is common practice throughout the industry.

According to War on Waste, more than half of all clothing produced globally ends up in landfill or incinerators within ONE YEAR of being made. The excessive consumer waste we see today is largely due to the cheap quality clothing and short-lived trends fast fashion is giving us. But it is also a result of social media and the huge pressure of what others think. Because of this, clothing has even become a SINGLE-USE commodity for some people.

Microplastic pollution

Much of our clothing is a source of plastic pollution in both our oceans and our air. Today nearly 2/3 of clothing contains synthetic fibres. Synthetic fabrics, such as polyester, acrylic and nylon, shed plastic microfibres when we wear them and particularly when we wash them. According to Plastic Soup Foundation, every single wash can release MILLIONS of plastic fibres, which end up in our oceans. Synthetic fibres contribute to the HUGE load of microplastics and nanoplastics polluting our air and water, getting into our lungs and our food chain.

Unethical labour

Exploitation of labour is still widespread in the fashion industry. Research by the Global Slavery Index reveals a risk of modern slavery in the manufacture of garments from Argentina, Brazil, China, India, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam. Children are exploited for their labour at all levels of the supply chain, particularly in cotton production, including harvesting, yarn-spinning and manufacturing.

A young child harvesting cotton (image: The Guardian)

Animal cruelty

Many of the materials used to make our clothing come from animals, and unfortunately due to large-scale and often unregulated production of these materials many animals endure considerable pain and suffering. These are some of the animal products used in our clothing:

  • Wool — perhaps the main animal welfare issue in wool production is the practice of mulesing sheep, which involves cutting some of the skin off their buttocks to prevent blowfly infestation. This is usually done without anaesthetic causing a lot of pain for the animal.
  • Angora — Angora rabbits farmed for their fur are generally kept in cages and the fur is plucked from the live animal causing it a lot of pain and distress. Nearly all angora farms are in China where animal welfare has largely been ignored.
  • Fur — mink and fox supply most fur used in the fashion industry and animals are kept in small cages under very poor conditions.
  • Down — down used in clothing (and home furnishings) is produced with extreme cruelty to ducks and geese, like live-plucking, force-feeding, confinement in cages and deprivation of access to water (you might have noticed they have webbed feet — this means they like swimming on ponds).
  • Leather —as well as the HUGE environmental impacts of global warming, deforestation and high water and chemical use, every year the global leather industry slaughters more than 1 BILLION animals. While inhumane treatment of cows occurs even in developed countries, leather is sourced from many other animals including kangaroos, seals, deer and horses. China, the world’s largest exporter of leather, kills millions of cats and dogs each year for their skin, and due to lack of labelling we have no way of knowing which animal or country the leather in a product has come from. Oh and the animals are not just slaughtered, some are bludgeoned to death or skinned alive. And not only adults are killed, newborns are too and even unborn foetuses (because apparently their dead skin feels REALLY soft against ours). I can’t wait for the day the animals have their revenge on the sick fucks who do this kind of thing. Although maybe we should watch our backs, as we’re the sick fucks who buy the products that use it. Maybe they’ll show us some mercy due to our ignorance (for the most part). But ultimately the animals will decide…

Too much stuff!

I moved to Sydney in 2006, with a wardrobe I could fit in a large suitcase and one pair of high heels. Not long after, I met my life partner who just happened to be an Italian with expensive taste in clothes, so it wasn’t long before I became a designer outlet / sample sale junkie. It soon got to the point where I was buying new clothes at least once a month and while I’d go through my wardrobe each year and dig out a few things to take to charity, I was accumulating way more than I was getting rid of. Yes, I had a problem.

Finally, after more than ten years of ‘collecting’ clothes I quit my job, so I didn’t have a choice but to quit my shopping habit too. Also, around the same time I kind of lost interest, partly as I realised I was never going to have a chance to wear all the clothes I have, partly as there was no more space in my wardrobe and partly as I was learning more about the HUGE impacts the fashion industry has on our planet.

So now I only buy new clothes maybe twice a year. But I still knew I had to face the issue of all the clutter I’d already created. So, motivated by the New Year, I took an inventory of my wardrobe. And I was shocked and sickened by what I discovered. It turned out I had OVER 500 items of clothing (excluding underwear)!

This is probably more than anyone would need in a lifetime, let alone at once! AND it included 170 items I’ve NEVER WORN, some still with tags on! And that’s not all……on top of all the clothing I had over 60 pairs of shoes, 22 belts, 14 bags and almost 100 pieces of jewellery!

But even with ALL this I wasn’t satisfied. I often found myself having ‘not a thing to wear’ AND I had a wishlist with ANOTHER 30 items of clothing and 10 pairs of shoes I wanted!

Yet I worked out I was only wearing about 10% of my clothes on a regular basis. I had 21 pairs of jeans, and in the last two years I’ve worn only three of them. And of my 68 dresses I wore maybe up to five (in a good year).

I wondered if my runaway shopping habits were like some sort of addiction or eating disorder, trying to fill a gap that could never be filled by anything material. I didn’t feel happy or content and I finally realised this path would never lead me there. All I felt was smothered, overwhelmed, guilty and regretful — that I’d wasted SOOOOO much money and valuable time from my life, time I’ll never get back.

Minimalism trailer (you can watch the full documentary on Netflix)

If you’re sick of rummaging through clutter and feel overwhelmed by all the stuff in your wardrobe, as well as wanting to get off the fast fashion treadmill and give our planet a break, then creating a sustainable and minimalist wardrobe could be the answer. The benefits of doing this are HUGE! Aside from saving time and money, you’ll have a wardrobe that works better for you — that is better quality, easier to manage and you’ll love and wear everything in it.

The decluttering phase

The best place to start is working out the clothes you need season by season — which items, how many of each and for what occasions (e.g. casual, work, formal, etc.). For me, I felt I needed to get some of the excess out of the way first, so I jumped straight into the decluttering process. It took me a few days, but I went through my entire wardrobe fairly ruthlessly and removed over 100 items. While that sounds like a lot it’s not even ¼ of what I had, so I’m seeing this as a work in progress. There are no set rules as to an ideal number of clothes — it depends on your lifestyle and how you spend your time. Project 333 has a good approach to simplifying your wardrobe, with a challenge to wear only 33 items for 3 months.

When it comes to minimalism and letting go of our stuff, this is a huge challenge psychologically. It can be like quitting an addiction, so we need to be ready for it mentally and emotionally. I know I’m still attached to a lot of my clothes, particularly the more expensive/designer labels. Not so much because of how much I paid for them but because I don’t want anyone else to have them. Yes even though I don’t LOVE them or wear them, I’d still rather keep them stashed away in MY wardrobe than give (or sell) them to someone who WOULD love and wear them (hmmm, I think SOMEONE needs to see a therapist…).

To get the most out of a minimal wardrobe, you’ll need to make sure you have a few versatile basics in neutral colours that can be worn in different ways, on different occasions from casual to cocktail, e.g. a little black dress. Also, focus on medium-weight fabrics you can wear year-round.

Once you’ve worked out what you need for each season, take stock of what you have and cull any excess by asking yourself the following questions for each item of clothing:

  • Do I wear it regularly?
  • Do I love it?
  • Does it look good on me?

If you can’t answer yes to all three questions then it needs to go (or change).

For the clothes I didn’t wear I found there were three reasons for this:

  1. I no longer liked them or they didn’t look good on me — I discovered a few items I could love again with some simple alterations and let go of the rest.
  2. They didn’t fit me (yet) — that magic word ‘yet’! That means it will one day, right? Maybe, but we need to be realistic. If you’ve had things in this category more than a few years perhaps it’s time to let them go.
  3. They were duplicates — I also found I had many similar items, but none of which exactly what I was after. I struggled with this category so this is one area I’ll need to revisit.

For the stuff you’re willing to part with, decide whether to donate it to charity or sell it. Selling options include consignment stores (usually for higher-end labels) or online marketplaces like eBay and Facebook. For clothing with holes, tears, stains, etc. it’s likely charities won’t be able to sell it, but maybe your household could use some new rags. You could also make use of H&M’s recycling program, which accepts clothing of any brand and condition. As for mine, I’ve put some aside to give to charity (the more worn or cheaper brands) and the rest I figure I can sell (I plan to book a stall at my local markets).

The discovery phase

Now that you hopefully have more space (and space filled only with items you truly LOVE) you’ll be able to see things more clearly. It will be easier to discover or create new outfits. After getting all the clutter out of the way I discovered outfits I never knew I had! Apps like Stylebook are fantastic to help you organise and manage your wardrobe virtually and get the most from your clothes.

With the Stylebook app you can manage your wardrobe on your phone (image: Stylebook)

Quit fast fashion and shop smarter

1. Stop being a fashion victim and discover your own style.

While I have a LOT of clothes, I am happy to say not too many are from fast fashion brands and I’ve never been a fashion victim in the sense of mindlessly following the latest trends — I only buy stuff I like.

Instead of just following new trends, learn which styles, colours, designs, etc. you really love. Discover your personal style and choose clothes that align with it. Having a strong sense of your own unique style will make you less susceptible to the constantly changing trends delivered by fast fashion brands. And wearing outfits that bring out the best in YOU will turn more heads than just wearing the latest trend — the same one that person across from you is also wearing (BOR-ING!). It feels SOOOOO much better to be a leader than a follower!

2. Plan (and limit) your shopping. Designate a limited number of shopping trips each year (including online shopping), ideally two or less, but set an upper limit of one per season. Don’t use trips to ‘the mall’ as a social or leisure activity. This will mean you’ll probably end up buying new stuff just for the sake of it.

3. Know exactly what you want and choose carefully. Make a list of exactly what you’re after and be specific about the colour, fabric, style, features, etc. (it’s like the SMART method of goal-setting — we are more likely to achieve goals when we define them very specifically). If you don’t find the right thing on your first attempt, wait. Only buy clothing you LOVE and know you’ll wear.

4. Buy quality. Buying less stuff means you can pay more for the stuff you do buy and therefore choose better quality (and more sustainable & ethical) clothing. You can also save money buying new clothes at the end of the season when they’re on sale.

5. Explore second-hand options. This doesn’t have to be limited to charity stores, there are way more opportunities these days for buying (good quality) second-hand clothing, including creatively ‘up-cycled’ clothing. These include online retailers like Etsy, consignment stores and local markets.

6. Keep control over your wardrobe. For every new item you buy make sure you’re willing to part with one.

And once you’ve bought clothes, make them last — only wash them when they need washing, use a gentle cycle for delicate items and avoid using a clothes dryer (line drying is more gentle — on your clothes AND the planet!).

Choose more sustainable fabrics & brands

When buying clothes, get into the habit of reading the label to see what the fabric composition is. Make sure you avoid these fabrics/fibres:

  • Synthetics including acrylic, polyester, nylon, polyamide, faux fur and PVC. Apart from shedding synthetic fibres, faux fur isn’t always fake. PVC is not only toxic to the environment but toxic to our bodies when we’re exposed to it (uh, like when we’re wearing it!).
  • Unethical animal products like fur, angora, down and leather. If you can’t see yourself giving up leather yet then look for brands using more sustainable leather (but there are some great leather alternatives emerging — see below). If buying down look for products with the Responsible Down Standard, which ensures better welfare for birds.
  • Viscose, rayon and modal fabrics sourced from endangered forests. More than 100 brands have committed to stop using fabrics made from pulp that is sourced from endangered forests, including Stella McCartney, H&M, Gap, Levis, Topshop and Zara.

Choose natural and more sustainable fabrics like:

  • Organic cotton
  • Linen/flax
  • Hemp
  • Tencel® (a brand name for natural lyocell or modal fabrics).
  • Bamboo — while bamboo is generally grown sustainably there are concerns about forest and habitat destruction as well as the use of toxic chemicals in production (verdict: proceed with caution).
  • Silk — while not vegan there are different ethical categories of silk that don’t involve killing the worm.
  • Wool (look for products with the Responsible Wool Standard).
  • Leather alternatives —some materials like PVC and polyurethane don’t last and look fake (so what’s the point?) but new, more sustainable materials like Piñatex (made from pineapple leaves) look promising.

Explore more about the ethics, sustainability and other interesting facts about different fabrics at Good On You’s Made From page.

With the free Good On You app you can search over 2,000 brands to see how they rank for sustainability and ethical treatment of humans and animals as well as discover ethical & sustainable brands.

Brands I love (these include some of my favourite brands, as well as some newer sustainable & ethical fashion brands that are breaking into the market):

  • Icebreaker is a New Zealand brand that makes a range of beautiful, practical and comfortable merino clothing that will take you from home to the gym to the office to the great outdoors. Its clothes are made with merino fabric from well-treated, free-to-roam New Zealand sheep, by well-treated workers.
  • Patagonia makes great quality outdoor gear using a high proportion of eco-friendly materials including organic cotton, Tencel and recycled fibres. It has very high standards for animal welfare and ethical labour.
  • G-Star Raw makes high quality (mostly denim) clothing, with sustainability as a top priority and a commitment to continuous improvement. It uses some ethical and eco-friendly materials including recycled ocean plastic and aims to use 100% sustainable cotton and eliminate hazardous chemicals by 2020. It has also taken action to improve labour standards.
  • The Reformation is a US brand making gorgeous women’s clothing and committed to sustainability, from its fabrics to the conditions for its workers.
  • Bhava is a US brand making high quality, modern, elegant, vegan and environmentally-conscious women’s shoes.
  • Nae is a Portuguese vegan footwear brand making stylish and quality men’s and women’s shoes ethically & sustainably, with a focus on natural and recycled materials.
Stop buying dirty clothes…some of the brands making beautiful, quality and CLEANER clothing (Images via brands. Clockwise from top left: Icebreaker, G-Star Raw, Reformation, Nae, G-Star’s Raw for the Oceans collection logo, Bhava).

A simpler wardrobe with more sustainable & ethical contents not only makes life easier & more fulfilling for us, it does a hell of a lot for the well-being of people, animals and the planet too!

Sustainability educator & activist, founder @ Earth Ethic

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