How to have the perfect zero waste wardrobe

It seems like most zero waste bloggers have great style or belong to some minimalist wardrobe club I’m not allowed to sign up for. Just like living a life with less waste, having a wardrobe with less waste looks different for everyone.

On the bright side, almost everyone is already in a position to begin having a more zero waste wardrobe, since most of us have no need to buy new clothes. I'm talking actual need, not wanting a dress for a wedding or the new sneakers that just came out. Taking care of the clothes you already have (duh) is the easiest way to prevent further waste and misuse of resources that go into fast fashion.

It  doesn't take a ton to maintain clothes in good condition, but some of these skills aren't used anymore. If you already know how to do the following things, repair your clothes instead of replacing them! If you don't have the following skills, consider them zero waster super powers to master. 


Hand sewing

Knowing how to use a needle and thread is a pretty basic skill for anybody who owns clothes. A seam rips? Quick fix. Learning basic sewing is all you need to shorten a hem or take something in (make it smaller). If you learn any sewing skills, learn the simplest of simply stitching two pieces of fabric together.

Sewing a button

Have you ever noticed most sweaters and blouses come with a plastic bag with an extra button or have an extra button sewn into the tags? Have you ever actually used this button when another one fell off? In all honesty, I haven’t either, but those buttons are there because clothes weren’t always viewed as disposable like they are these days. Next time you pop a button, sew it back on or use the extra button that came with the garment! Believe it or not, there is a proper way to sew a button. This infographic from the (hilarious) website The Art of Manliness is actually pretty good.

 

Darning

This skill is a bit harder than a button or sewing a simple line, but it’s not impossible. Most people wouldn’t darn a hole except on clothes they really love t because it’s a bit more labor intensive. Instead of simply joining two edges together, darning is filling in the hole. Distressed clothes are in fashion at the moment so you can probably get away with more holes today than ten years ago, but if that brand new pair of jeans now has a hole on the knee after tripping and falling on rocks (me, circa September 2017), take the leap and darn the hole for an almost seamless repair (no pun intended).

The truth is, most of us don’t value our clothes enough to repair them. Or they were so inexpensive it doesn’t feel worth it. Or they’re not made of materials that are worth saving. If we value quality over quantity it can be within our grasp to own better quality clothes worth repairing.

 

Washing correctly

If you want to take care of your clothes, you need to know what they’re made of. This is even more important when purchasing new clothes, be they new from a manufacturer or new to you (secondhand). Is that sweater cashmere or acrylic? Wool or polyester? Some fabrics can’t go in the washing machine and some shrink if dried. Take out the guesswork and learn how to best wash your clothes. Most clothes have recommendations on the inside, but as a general rule, hot water is more likely to do you wrong than cold because hot water can encourage certain materials to shrink and colors to bleed.

While you’re at it, wash when you need it, not whenever you wear. Certain materials, like, wool, actually have antimicrobial properties.

Hand washing clothes

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You had to see it coming. Roll up your sleeves and fill the sink, because taking care of those clothes of yours might require some hand washing. At this point, I have enough cashmere and silk that hand washing is a pretty regular thing (if you’re wondering how a recent college grad affords cashmere, the answer is here).

Hand washing isn’t that much of a chore when you get the pleasure and utility of well-made clothes, plus the savings of not going to the dry cleaners

BORROWING

I know, we’re not 14 anymore (or maybe you are, I don’t know). If adults can borrow a cup of sugar from a neighbor that they’re clearly not going to return, we can turn to our friends and family to ask to borrow clothes for those “what if” situations. I went to prom in a borrowed dress, and the sky didn’t fall. Get this: people might not be accustomed to asking to borrow, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't. Most of us would happily lend an item to a friend.

You may not have many options for borrowing clothes if you’re far from friends and family or wear drastically different sizes from the people in your life. Consider secondhand (always) and online services that even allow you to rent clothes and return them after use.

Reducing your wardrobe

I didn’t want to have to say it, but I will. Think of it this way: you need a raincoat and you go to the secondhand store. At the secondhand store there’s nothing, so you buy something new made by exploited persons because that’s what you can afford. In the homes of 14 of your neighbors are 16 raincoats in your size, unworn for 2 years.

The first time I heard that keeping things you don’t need is like keeping resources from other people, I was skeptical, but mull it over a bit. Of course the things you've purchased belong to you, but zero waste and working for a more sustainable system of consumption is a community effort, not you-against-the-world. I heard on The Minimalists podcast about the 20/20 rule: if something can be replaced in a 20 minute drive to the store for under $20, it isn’t worth keeping around “just in case.” In the spirit of zero waste, I suggest you unload some of those resources you’re not using to consignment stores and donations so that they might be used.

The last reason to reduce is a bit of motivation, if you will. If you have only a few blouses, and they’re all lovely and fit you well, when one of those blouses loses a button or tears, you’re much more likely to repair it. In other words, having less gives you the opportunity to value what you have and take care of it better.

Shopping right

This skill is one for the store; it's the last recommendation because it's the last resort. I'm not here to encourage you to go out and buy more, even if most of your clothes are synthetic materials or mixed with synthetics, because that’s perfectly normal. There’s no need to replace your entire wardrobe with natural fibers and waste the resources that already went into the clothes you have. Eventually, you will need different clothes, whether your clothes wear out, you change sizes, or change climates, and buying well is one of the best things you can do for the longevity of your clothes.

If the need arises for an item of clothing, the most eco-friendly way to shop is secondhand, looking to the resources that already exist instead of supporting the demand for more new items. There are a million things to look at when purchasing clothes, such as fit, material, style, brand, where it was made and by whom.

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Fit

I shouldn’t have to say this, but pick clothes that fit you really well. Try and move past the “it was such a good deal!” thing and stick to clothes that fit you well so they don’t sit around as unused, wasted resources.

Material

Go for something durable or natural fibers. Every time we wash synthetic fibers, microplastics are released into the water. So if you’re looking for a new addition to your closet, it doesn’t hurt to opt for a natural material. Be realistic, too, about if the material will suit your lifestyle and needs. If you’re all about comfort, buy the pants with a little bit of spandex (the ones you’ll actually wear) rather than the 100% cotton pair you can’t move around in.

Style

Are you going to like this in a year? Having a more zero waste take on fashion doesn’t mean having no style, but it does mean unsubscribing from fast fashion. Wear what you like, but if the shoes won’t be wearable next season, they’re probably not a great use of resources to create and buy. As always, something you’ll wear a long time, love, and likely repair is the more zero waste choice when you need something new.

Brand

I’m not talking about having “Tommy Hilfiger” emblazoned on your chest (sorry). Shopping secondhand means you can have access to brands, material, and quality you might not be able to afford new. If you see fast fashion secondhand, buy it knowing the quality is probably low. If you see a durable brand secondhand, you can usually trust that even used, the item still has a lot of use left in it.

Where it was made and who made it

If you’re buying new, please try and buy as ethically as possible. Child labor, prohibitions on unionizing,, and unregulated dumping of dyes and other textile waste products are not ethical. I know not everyone has access (financially, geographically) to ethically produced goods, but if buying new is your only option, be conscious and pick companies that are transparent about manufacturing and where they source their materials. If they won’t tell you, they might not want you to know.


 A zero waste wardrobe is more about maintenance than accumulation. Start with what you have, and don’t be tempted to pick up every ethical or eco brand you come across; using our resources well means taking advantage of the resources we already have. And as always, the most sustainable option is the one that already exists.

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