The world is drowning in clothes. According to research from McKinsey, 100 billion garments are produced every year. That’s more than a dozen for each person on Earth, which is four times as many as just 20 years ago. Much of this glut of clothing does not even last a year and ends up in landfills. In other words, clothing is no longer owned, it is consumed. And that has to change because the clothing industry has become a negative environmental, ethical and economic force in the world.
There is, if not a solution, a path toward a better relationship with our clothing. A path that is better for the environment and garment workers. And a path that will give us more enjoyment and a deeper, more satisfying connection with our wardrobes. The solution is to buy less but buy better. You’ve probably heard that before, and it might even make you roll your eyes. What does “buy less but buy better” even mean? And how do you do it? My hope is to guide you toward actually achieving that ideal. The result is not only a sustainable wardrobe but also a discovery of the true joy of dressing.
It’s easy enough to buy less. Well, it should be. Just stop buying so many clothes. If we did – if the average person in a developed country wore a garment for two years instead of the now-common one year, we could diminish its environmental impact by 20 per cent to 30 per cent, according to a 2017 study by the U.K.’s Sustainable Clothing Action Plan. Buying less is also a way to mitigate certain negative factors in the production of clothing. For instance, even though cotton is a natural fibre, its production requires an enormous amount of freshwater that could be otherwise used for drinking and agriculture. Even worse is leather, which is probably the most environmentally destructive clothing material in the world due to the toxic chemicals used in the tanning process. And then there’s the issue of animal welfare: Some natural materials are a byproduct of the food industry (leather) or harvested from living animals (wool). And so the onus is on us to keep that usage ethical (which can be subjective, I know) and as minimally impactful as possible.
However, if we purchased fewer jackets, fewer cotton shirts, and fewer leather shoes, and if we make them last longer, the overall impact would be lessened. We can offset the environmental impact of production by getting a longer life out of each garment. Fewer would be made, so on the whole, the global effect would be smaller. But even though buying less sounds simple, it isn’t. Not when there are so many options for cheap, fashionable clothes.
Here’s one strategy that might help: Promise to never throw away a piece of wearable clothes again. Don’t even let it be an option. Before you buy something, consider the life of the garment: What else can you do with it when you no longer want it? Is it just bound for a landfill because it won’t last or because it is made of synthetic materials?
To buy less, I also use the “one in/one out” system. For example, I currently have half a dozen sport jackets, and I love them all. The one in/one out system keeps me from buying any more sport jackets because if I did, I’d have to part with one I already own. And since I’m not simply going to throw away an old one if I do decide to bring in something new, the onus and responsibility is on me to figure out what to do with the old jacket. Donating to charity or finding a second-hand store is always an option, but with the glut of used clothing in the world, these are not foolproof plans.
Another strategy for buying less is to spend more money than you are comfortable spending. You can find plenty of shirts for $20, but if you commit to never spending less than $150 on a shirt, then chances are you will do everything you can to ensure that shirt is of good quality, that it suits your wardrobe, that it is something you actually need, and that you take good care of it to make it last as long as possible.
In my opinion, a wardrobe based on quality, made of fabrics that will last, is the key to buying better. And it isn’t necessarily about spending more money; it’s about spending more time. Time spent on researching makers and fabrics, learning how to identify quality, and then searching it out. This means slowing down the process of buying clothes – just one way to take the fast out of “fast fashion.”
Here’s what that actually looks like in day-to-day practice. When you are thinking about buying a garment, you must place suitability above whim. Despite how it looks, does this item actually fit into your life and wardrobe? So, think about your lifestyle: Do you spend most of your time in an office (maybe some day soon), at home, or outdoors? Think about your climate: Is it moderate, extreme, rainy, or dry? And, of course, think about your personal style. This will involve some introspection and self knowledge, but a good start is to look at the rest of your wardrobe. Does the new item actually fill a gap in your wardrobe? Does it harmonize with the rest of your clothes?
Another strategy I use to be more judicious with my shopping is to create a cloud-based wish list of the items I’d like in my wardrobe. That way, when I’m shopping, I can focus on what I’ve already thought through and planned. Then, of course, once I’ve bought them, I need to properly care for those garments.
Most importantly, buying better means considering the impact your purchase is having on the world around you. Is the garment made of a natural, sustainable product? Was it made in a facility or country that is responsible when it comes to environmental and working standards? These are difficult questions to answer, I know. You might already be thinking about these issues when it comes to the food you eat, in other words, what goes in your body: Where was it grown? How was it prepared? Who did that work under what conditions?
But it’s time to start asking those questions about what goes on your body.
Edited excerpt from Ten Garments Every Man Should Own by Pedro Mendes. Copyright © 2021. Published by Dundurn Press. All rights reserved.