Can Care Help Cure the Climate? How (and Why) to Make Your Ethical Clothes Last

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Much of the fashion industry is rooted in planned obsolescence and a hamster wheel of trends — habits that result in the unnecessary disposal of millions of tons of textiles per year. Instead of attempting to shop our way to sustainability, longevity, including five tricks for extending a garment's lifespan, is key to reducing our closets' environmental impact.

“Eat [good] food. Not too much. Mostly plants” goes the mantra of Michael Pollen’s rules to eating (and, I would argue, living) well. In the realm of sustainable fashion, this drumbeat underpinning wholesome sustenance translates to: “Invest in quality clothes. Not too many. Mostly made of plants.” To that, I would add the final note that to purchase quality, ethically- and sustainably-made clothing isn’t enough; we have to take good care of the things we own to truly maximize our environmental efforts while minimizing negative impacts. 

The Case for Longevity

In its promotion of throw away culture, fast fashion would have the concept of clothing care and maintenance lost to time. After all, isn’t it easier and more trendy to pitch a garment rather than take the time to make it last? The new or re-emerging wave of fashion — whether you call it ‘slow,’ ‘sustainable,’ ‘mindful,’ ‘ethical,’ or otherwise — challenges this notion by asserting that the sustainability mindset is rooted in seeing our actions and ecologies as interconnected. Our beginnings inform our ends. So why wouldn’t this also apply to our clothes? 

When fast-fashion asks, “Who cares what happens to your clothing?” environmental advocates of all stripes must respond, “We do.”

The case for longevity partially revolves around what most clothing is made of. While the rise in synthetics like polyester has “democratized” fashion, it has also led to downstream environmental consequences. Compared to plant-based textiles, polyester can take between 20 and 200 years to fully decompose. When it does, the petroleum-based fibers and chemicals used to dye them can lead to further detrimental harms.

Even countries that practice incineration are not free from the dangers of air pollution resulting from burning oil-derived products — a reality that disproportionately impacts marginalized communities where incineration facilities are more likely to be located. The same can be said for clothes made of recycled polyester and nylon which, despite their benefits, have end-of-life impacts that must be thoughtfully considered given their inherent composition. 

While donating clothing is often touted as the end-all-be-all for mitigating garment waste, it is not a sure-fire solution for keeping clothing out of landfills. As the Ellen MacArthur Foundation has found, even brand take-back programs have their flaws: Less than one percent of clothing received by studied programs were recycled, with the bulk of donations instead exported abroad. Numerous analyses have dissected the dangers of this secondhand economy, or, as writer Andrew Brooks calls it in his book, Clothing Poverty: The Hidden World of Fast Fashion and Second-Hand Clothes, the “underbelly of the global fashion industry.” 

Even though it is impossible to keep and use every item that we have ever purchased, extending the length of each garment, regardless of its composition, is an essential piece of the sustainability puzzle. In a UK-based study, Wrap estimated that keeping half of our clothes for nine additional months would reduce carbon emissions by eight percent, and water waste by ten percent per ton. Considering that Americans alone tossed 13 million tons of textiles in 2016, the potential impact of garment lifecycle extension is tremendous. While there are numerous benefits to picking sustainably-made items, an ethical garment in the trash is still an unnecessary contribution to the waste stream. Additionally, pitching the fast fashion pieces one already owns in a quick effort to build a more sustainable closet similarly misses the point of what it means to live sustainably. We cannot buy or throw our way out of the climate crisis, but we can fundamentally change the ways that we treat what we already own. 

For all of these reasons, caring for our clothes is not just an act of prudent forethought. It is also one of conscientious social rebellion.

In addition to the environmental benefits, holding onto attire for longer periods of time has other personal positive outcomes that cannot be understated. For example, maintaining clothing can be incorporated into mindfulness practices, which have been linked to positive health outcomes. Doing so may also encourage reduced spending, in turn providing a cushion to grow savings and practice responsible financial management. When evaluating clothing usage from the perspective of cost-per-wear, keeping clothing for extended periods of time is important for stretching one’s dollar, and reducing the long-term economic costs of each piece. Finally, choosing clothes that will last a lifetime allows you to opt-out of the hamster wheel of fast fashion trends, thus allowing the space for you to hone your own unique style and fashion voice. 

How to Make Clothes Last in 5 Steps 

1. Change the way you clean

Gentle maintenance is key to elongating the useful life of your garments. First, reconsider the number of times clothes are washed. Wearing a pair of jeans ten times before washing cuts down on water usage by an estimated 77% — a substantial reduction considering that approximately 23% of a garment’s water consumption comes from laundering. Reducing the amount of time that clothes end up in the wash can also increase garment longevity by preventing fading or general wear and tear.

When it is time to throw clothes in the wash, opt for cold water and hang drying. In addition to reducing shrinkage and minimizing energy and water consumption, cold water also makes it easier to wash different colors together, thus minimizing total laundry loads. Placing delicates into a dedicated washing bag is one way to keep them safe when thrown into a cycle with larger items.

Finally, dry cleaning has substantial environmental impacts that can be easily mitigated with at-home solutions. Wash dry clean-only products by hand or use products from companies like The Laundress to minimize the use of harsh chemicals and save on your drying cleaning bill. 

Other low waste cleaning essentials include: 

2. Repair

Over time, clothes will inevitably wear down or stain. Instead of throwing damaged items away, make repairs at home or with the help of a seasoned seamstress or cobbler. Though finding someone in your local area is best, online cobbling services can connect you to trained professionals regardless of your location. Embroidery is another creative solution to cover stains, repair holes, or give a garment a new look while investing in your own skill-building. 

3. Store with care (and flair)

Careful storage is another way to ensure that clothes stay looking their finest, but it can also go a long way in making sure that you make the most use of what you already own. When clothes are tucked away out of sight, it is easy to forget past purchases and run the risk of making duplicative shopping decisions. Take time to plan out your storage in a way that makes clothes easy to see and reach and keeps garments away from the elements. Prevent moth damage by storing clothes with lavender satchels or placing wool and cashmere in the freezer once a year (more suggestions on this here). 

Luckily, Made Trade has ethically-made storage options that will make you excited about shopping your current closet. 

4. Repurpose

Whether a garment has become worn out or outgrown, most clothes will reach a point where they are no longer useful to us. If a garment is simply no longer relevant for your lifestyle or does not fit properly, consider swapping rather than donating. Doing so gives the piece another life while minimizing the risk of the garment ending up in a landfill or disrupting an emerging economy. Clothes in severe disrepair can be recycled through a program such as the one offered by For Days or Retold or turned into a different household item, such as a reusable rag or napkin set. 

5. Fewer, better

One of the easiest ways to make clothing last is to invest in fewer, quality products from the outset. Planned obsolescence — the process of intentionally designing a product to break down quickly in order to encourage frequent buying — is a core pillar of many fast fashion models that is both environmentally and financially exploitative. Even if they are more expensive, sustainable products that pass the 30 wears rule to cut down on waste and ultimately have a lower cost-per-wear than their fast-fashion peers. Treating clothing purchases as investments is a mindset that can also help you see the clothing that you own as more valuable and, thus, increase your motivation to treat your closet with care. 

Whether you are applying these principles to garments, shoes, or other ethical products, “Invest in quality. Not too many. Mostly plants” is a strong North Star to guide your sustainable actions and attitudes. Even before then, the case for longevity challenges all sustainability advocates to recognize that, while we cannot shop our way out of the climate crisis, there is hope that we can care our way to a better and more sustainable future. 

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