In the past year I’ve noticed a strong trend for more sustainable shopping practices, from brands expanding recycling schemes to major corporates backing Loop: a TerraCycle solution to close the loop on hard to recycle materials. I also find it interesting that at the same time, decluttering guru Marie Kondo has been rising to fame – most notably with her binge-worthy Netflix series. I can only gather that the majority of us buy, give, and receive much more stuff than we truly need.
So how do we break the cycle? I’ve tried for years with varying levels of success, but the more I learn more about sustainability in the fashion supply chain, the more purchasing cheap clothes makes me feel sick.
Last summer Stacey Dooley’s “Fashion’s Dirty Secrets” aired on BBC, exposing the sustainability issues in the fashion supply chain, with a focus on cotton and the impacts on water near the factories, to primetime viewers.
And while I really appreciate this issue coming into the mainstream so we can have a proper dialogue, moving this topic out of the “niche” label it’s worn for ages, I can’t hep but feel dismayed about how many fashion issues weren’t presented during that episode or follow ups. Such as what really happens to clothes when they are donated (video version is available on YouTube) and how fast fashion contributes to the world’s waste problem.
In this post I want to share with you some guidance I’ve been following myself while I start out on this ethical shopping journey.
Caveat: some of these practices are significantly more expensive than the high street, cheaply made, counterparts. No judgement if any of this is beyond an individual’s financial means.
1. Buy better, buy less
The fashion supply chain requires heaps of carbon emissions to function, from collecting and processing raw materials to production, shipping these items around the world and then to warehouses before moving to retailer distribution centers – all before these items end up in store (or more increasingly, our front door), it just can’t be ignored. With globalisation we’re going to see this in a lot of industries (food, beauty, electronics…) but with fast fashion it’s so easy to buy too many clothes for the sake of having options (especially when it’s only £5! £10! £20!). For me, this resulted in more clothes than my wardrobe could hold and monthly visits to the donation centre – before checking out the latest styles in shop.
Having learned what I’ve learned, I can no longer justify this approach to purchasing any longer. Over the past 6 months I’ve been practicing adjusting my clothing habits to buy for need, not want, and through this alone I’ve managed to not buy any clothes as ‘new’ since September, save for new underwear and socks which needed replacing, and a couple of thrifted items that I’ve been wearing weekly.
Whilst many of the pieces I’ve bookmarked for another day are well above the price points I’ve previously shopped at, by not buying new clothes for 6 months I’m hopeful that the spend will balance itself out.
2. Buy single fibre material (ideally natural, biodegradable, sustainable)
Did you know that, with the technology available to us right now, we aren’t able to recycle dual fibre materials, and that anything dual fibre can’t be ripped up and turned into new threads to create new materials? This means that anything we don’t want and is dual fibre is basically a dish rag, then rubbish, at the end of it’s clothing lifecycle.
For that reason, since the start of last summer I’ve tried to be really strict about not buying blended fabrics – currently my only exceptions have been bras, underwear, and socks, from independent brands. Natural fibres such as organic cottons, linen, wool and silk have been my go-to choices because, even though each presents its own ethical / sustainable issues, at least if something does end up un-recyclable or un-pass-on-able, then at least it can break down and return to the earth. Tencel is another fabric which is quickly becoming my favourite because of how it wears, washes, feels, and looks.
It’s not lost on me that cotton production, when done incorrectly – which seems to be the norm at the moment – damages rivers, ecosystems, and lives around the world (as highlighted by Stacey Dooley in the documentary). But organic and sustainable cottons exist and I think are great materials that wash and wear well.
I appreciate that these materials are often associated with higher price points – but I can promise you that they are all available at a range of prices if one only takes the time to look. And though the lower price points is often where the more dubious production practices are present, we can’t always be martyrs for every cause all of the time. Financial barriers are real, and we can only do the best we can with what we have.
3. No new polyester, and no second hand polyester without a microfilter washing bag
Microbeads in beauty products caused an out roar when mainstream news began to report on the damage they were doing to our oceans, but did you know that every time we wash polyester materials that tiny microfibres detach and make their ways into our waters? The good news is that microfilter washing bags, like GUPPYFRIEND, exist to catch these microfibres before they reach water. (Just don’t wash it out to remove the fibres – scrape those into the bin!)
4. Use and repair, then recycle
Many of the clothes we donate don’t actually get to people in need. This may have been once upon a time, but these days we buy so much that there’s a surplus of unwanted garments. Unfortunately, these tend to be offloaded to poorer countries, where those communities become stuck with our rubbish.
I don’t have a sewing machine and I’m not interested in learning how to fix a tear or other basic mending outside of sewing buttons, but my local dry cleaner offers a tailoring service, and it’s significantly cheaper to mend items vs replace. Now when I find holes in my pockets or a seam that’s come loose, I stop by and take advantage of this local business. Win-win.
Of course, if you have a sewing machine or the skill set to do this yourself you can reduce these repair costs even further!
5. Do I already own something similar?
The key questions that has curbed the majority of my purchases is always: do I already own something like this?
Because I don’t even want to tell you how many times I bought what was essentially the same dress, top, shoes, etc. without realising it.
For example, this fluffy bomber jacket: at least 10 times since I bought it I held a similar item in my hands and thought: “I will wear this all the time! I must have it!” But then I remember: I already had a similar item in my wardrobe that I do wear all the time, and that item doesn’t need competition.
Now I put my effort into shopping my closet and re-wearing my favourite outfits over and over again. Like this Zara top and HM Conscious skirt, both bought in 2016 which I love in summer and on holidays.
Benefit to my wallet? The money stays in, simple as.
6. Before buying, check second hand shops
Last but not least: can I find it pre-loved?
Before working full time, I would spend my afternoons and evenings browsing second hand stores for whatever treasures I could find. As I become more time-poor I swapped these vintage hunts for online convenience: a new blouse for a big presentation, a new dress for an evening out…
In a bid to be more sustainable, I’ve returned to this hobby and have found some amazing items, including the 100% wool Burberry jumper and 100% cotton vintage Levi’s jeans pictured above. Granted, second hand shopping is better suited when you don’t have something specific in mind, but if you have the time to look you can find just about anything pre-loved.
And while vintage pieces for big brands can be pricey (though at a lower cost vs buying those brands as new), there are many second hand options that don’t include big brand names where you can find jeans or a great jumper for less than a fiver.
Importantly, since following this guidance over the past 6 months I’ve significantly curbed my fast fashion shopping habits, reduced the volume of unnecessary clothing items coming into my home, saved the money I would have spent on new clothes, and I’ve fallen in love with items that were already in my wardrobe that I’d been able to forget about. I’ll call these wins for myself and the planet, and a great start to my sustainable shopping journey.
Do you have any sustainable shopping suggestions to add? What are your favourite tips to follow?
Much love, Katie xo