CultureFashion 7 Tips On How To Build A Sustainable Wardrobe

7 Tips On How To Build A Sustainable Wardrobe

If you want to curate a sustainable wardrobe, the key is to not set yourself up to unrealistic standards. Here are seven tips and resources to help get you started.

It’s almost 2019, and the time has arrived to make resolutions. This year has been…something. There have been highs, like the collective uprising of women against sexual harassment and patriarchy, galvanizing change in the form of the #MeToo movement. And there have been lows. To me, the most sobering news came in October, when the UN’s Climate Change report basically gave us twelve years to limit global warming to a maximum of 1.5C. Beyond this, the report warns that a rise of even half a degree will significantly worsen risks of poverty, drought, floods, and extreme heat for millions of people. It’s almost too late.

Climate change will spare no one–especially the poor–but the truth is that women – as historically oppressed and discriminated against – will be disproportionately affected. UN studies have shown that 80% of people displaced due to climate change are women, that their roles as primary caregivers and providers of food make them more vulnerable when droughts and flooding occurs. Globally, women are poorer than men, making it difficult for them to recover from disasters.

A subgenre of feminism – ‘ecofeminism’ – explores the underlying connection between the exploitation of the environment and the oppression of women in society. The term is said to be coined by Françoise d’Eaubonne, in her book Le Féminisme ou la Mort (1974). She relates the oppression/domination of subordinate groups (women, people of colour, the poor) to the oppression/domination of nature (animals, resources).

UN studies have shown that 80% of people displaced due to climate change are women

Delhi-based feminist Vandana Shiva argues that “the marginalization of women and the destruction of biodiversity go hand in hand.” She posits that women have a special connection to the environment through their daily interactions, allowing them to generate wealth in partnership with nature. The (masculine, Western) capitalist reductionist paradigm ignores how nature, women’s lives, work, and knowledge are tied to the creation of wealth. Ecofeminism examines environmental exploitation through the eyes of the most marginalized, and recognizes the catastrophic ways in which environmental degradation will disproportionately affect women.

As feminists, then, sustainability should be at the center of our existence. There are several areas in our own lives where we can begin to make small changes. Our wardrobes are a good place to start. With brands such as Forever 21 and H&M popping up in every mall across the country, it is worth reminding ourselves of the “dark side of fashion” and its connection to feminism. 80% of garment workers are women, often working in inhumane conditions. Recall the Rana Plaza Factory collapse in Bangladesh, where over a thousand died making T-shirts that often languish at the back of closets of the privileged.

Fashion is the second-largest polluting industry after oil. Let that sink in for a moment. One key reason is the industry’s use of synthetic fibers. Because they are the cheapest to manufacture, they are found in 60% of garments in stores – 21.3 million tons of polyester. Synthetic fibers are non-biodegradable, meaning that clothes made of this plastic stay in landfills forever. Natural fibers such as cotton – though degradable – also contribute to agricultural pollution. Cotton is the ‘dirtiest crop’ in the world, using about 16% of the world’s pesticides, carcinogens that can affect the health of field workers and the ecosystem.

Delhi-based feminist Vandana Shiva argues that the marginalization of women and the destruction of biodiversity go hand in hand

If you want to curate a sustainable wardrobe, the key is to not set yourself up to unrealistic standards. Being aware of the environmental impacts of your consumerist choices is a good place to start. Make small, incremental changes to your closet. Have a wardrobe plan for the future – this is so much fun, and also makes the things you do buy so much more valuable and worth cherishing. Here are seven tips and resources to help get you started.

1. The 30-time-wear-rule

Sustainable fashion doesn’t have to be an elitist idea. The cardinal rule of sustainable fashion is the question ‘Will I wear this at least 30 times?’ The next time you reach for something in a shop, ask yourself this. This is especially crucial if you are shopping a sale, or somewhere with low prices, and you feel bad about leaving a potential ‘steal’ on the shelf. Trust me – no one cares if you repeat outfits. They really don’t. If you have friends giving you a hard time for doing so, ditch them.

2. Clean out your wardrobe

All the T-shirts, tops and short kurtas I am left with after the big clean. I divided between neutral/black and white on one side, and the more colorful, printed stuff on the other.

You don’t have to throw out and replace everything you own, including all the fast fashion stuff. That’s not sustainable. A sustainable wardrobe is a curation of pieces you love and wear often. Here’s what I did. I divided each item of clothing (T-shirts, pants, dresses, kurtas) into three piles: one with the things I wear often/all the time, the second with the pieces I wear sometimes/occasionally, and the third with stuff I rarely (if ever) wear. I was shocked at how much bigger this third pile was than I thought it would be.

Most of the cotton used in the fashion industry is grown in the USA, China, and India. The average white cotton T-shirt takes about 2700 liters of water to make. Growing demand for water for agriculture has contributed to the depletion of India’s groundwater reserves, leaving about half the country without access to clean drinking water. There were about 12 T-shirts in my hardly-been-worn pile, meaning that over 30,000 liters of water had been used to feed my impulse purchases – in vain. I felt like a criminal. Watch this TED video to get a deeper understanding into the lifespan of a t-shirt.

3. Donate/Sell

Here’s where the hard stuff happens – parting with your clothes. If you love them as much as I do, you’ll find yourself struggling emotionally with that third pile. But if you haven’t worn something in a year, chances are you’ll fall short of the 30-times rule. So, help your clothes find a willing wearer. Often, when stores accept returns, the article ends up in landfills anyway, so look for places that will accept gently worn or secondhand clothing.

Left-most pile, things I rarely wear. This has been donated, and some stuff saved for a clothes swap that I am organizing. Middle pile: things I wear often. Right: things I wear all the time. Middle and right pile retained. The stack on the right is 100% hand-me-downs.

Here’s a list of places where you can sell secondhand clothes online. Red Empress is a great brand bringing affordable, gorgeous vintage shopping culture to India. If you live in New Delhi, you can buy from and donate your clothes to Sisters of the People – a completely women-run thrift store. You can feel even better about your decision knowing that the revenue they generate is used for running schools and senior citizens’ homes. Shared Wardrobe is a great fashion blog and consignment store that will accept your preloved clothes.

4. Recycle/Upcycle

My mom’s old sari, that she upcycled into a dress. We used our tailor in Delhi. I love wearing things like this for special events because they are truly unique and full of stories and heritage. Plus the traditional South Indian checkered print reminds me of the saris my grandmother wears!

Give your old and worn T-shirts a new life by reusing them as night clothes, or gym wear. I practice yoga almost daily, and cute gym clothes are my biggest vice. Lycra – used extensively in sports clothing – can take up to 200 years to decompose in a landfill, so I just cannot justify my Nike shopping habit anymore. Happily, I haven’t purchased a single workout T-shirt in my life, and have been using old ganjis for the longest time. When these T-shirts get too old for the gym, I recycle them into night clothes. Nothing is more comfortable than an old, soft shirt. 100% of my night clothes are either hand-me-downs of soft cotton pants, my own old salwars, and tees, or my husband’s massive T-shirts and boxers. I remember wearing my favourite night shirt for my 12th standard Pol Sci board exam, which makes it almost 13-years-old.

Upcycling is using a product intended for one purpose as something else. Saris are perfect for upcycling. They make beautiful and one of a kind curtains, bedspreads, or cushion covers. They also make gorgeous blouses, dresses, and skirts. Other old clothes can be reused as cleaning rags.

5. Shop Consciously

Shop secondhand. Buy versatile pieces in neutral shades. Nothing says style like a crisp white shirt, and I bet this will be true ten years hence. I continue to wear many of my white shirts from law school, several of which are about 8-10 years old. These closet staples are beautiful canvases you layer clothing on. By adding scarves, jackets, statement jewelry, or make up, you can create a look that’s quintessentially you. If you’re buying cotton, try to buy organic, which don’t use pesticides. Seek out brands that are ecofriendly, and sweatshop free. Here’s a list of ecofriendly Indian fashion labels to get you started. Shop locally.

India is the land of glorious textiles and exquisite craftsmanship, so unique clothing is accessible. If you see a dress or a skirt you like in a fashion mag or a catalogue, buy your own fabric and ask your local tailor to make it for you. Not only will you have bespoke clothes, but this is cost-effective, and enables small businesses and artisans to thrive. When you travel abroad, make a beeline for thrift stores instead of the usual department stores. The thrill in finding an authentic Moschino vest for about 1000 rupees is unmatched. Take hand-me-downs from your family and friends. Vintage is lovely, and your clothes will be rich with stories and memories.

6. Look after your clothes

Wear the things you have without buying anything new, until they are old. Then go out, and shop with intent. Treat your clothes with love and care. Wash them according to the label instructions, make best friends with your iron. Use moth balls in your cupboards. Remove the pilling (the small, annoying balls of fluff) from your sweaters with a pair of scissors to keep them looking fresh and brand new.

7. Beyond your closet

Remember that even tampons and sanitary napkins are things you “wear” and use. Your menstrual waste will outlive you. Consider switching to a reusable menstrual cup and investing in period panties or reusable cloth pads. Explore jute bags and when buying cosmetics, look for brands that are ecofriendly, cruelty free, and natural and organic. Good luck in 2019; may it be your most sustainable year yet!

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