Looking for some sustainable style tips to start creating a greener wardrobe? Check out these easy ways to incorporate more sustainable style habits into your everyday closet.
It is estimated that we throw out 11.3m tonnes of textiles each year in the United States (US), which equates to every average American throwing away 70 pairs of trousers (or pants if you’re in the US) annually. Only 13% of clothing is recycled so the rest is incinerated or sent to landfill where it sits forever, leaching chemicals from the dyes into the soil and local water systems.
A World Economic Forum report estimates the number of items produced each year doubled between 2000 and 2021, and the UN Environment Programme states that fashion accounts for 2-8% of global carbon dioxide outputs, more than shipping and international flights combined.
In the United Kingdom, 1 in 3 respondents to a Bloomberg survey considered clothes “old” once they’d been worn just one or two times. And studies show that we throw out clothes after 7-10 wears (on average) even though they can last between 2-10 years!
These are pretty depressing stats. How can we have a planet-friendly wardrobe if the clothes hanging in it can be so damaging to the environment and those that make them?
15+ Easy Sustainable Style Tips for Beginners
There is a way you can be stylish and eco-friendly, and it’s really simple! Let’s break this down into manageable chunks. This list of sustainable style tips for beginners is not an exhaustive, comprehensive guide; there’s just too much to cover in one post. Sustainable style includes many different elements from fabrics and dyes to ethical treatment of makers, waste reduction, quality care for longevity, and more.
Sustainable Style Through Second Hand and Quality Care
Today, we are going to focus primarily on slow fashion and some of the best things you can do to:
- make the most of the clothes you already have
- keep existing clothes in the fashion cycle to reduce the use of new virgin materials
- avoid the high volume churn of fast fashion brands
There are so many high-quality, timeless pieces already in our closets, at thrift shops, at vintage stores, and in friends’ wardrobes that we can build a more sustainable wardrobe and reduce the environmental impact of our clothes without necessarily spending a ton of money on specific sustainable fashion brands.
Sustainable Style Through Production Priorities & Brand Preferences
It’s also incredibly important to understand how to build a sustainable closet comprised of used and new items from ethical brands that focus on things like:
- using sustainable fabrics and natural fibers such as organic cotton, linen, and wool and related global organic textile standards
- avoiding synthetic materials made from fossil fuels, which are a major contributor to climate change
- using less water and fewer harmful chemicals and dyes in the manufacturing and production process
- prioritizing fair labor practices and ethical treatment of garment workers
- reducing the company’s carbon footprint throughout the supply chain
- and investing in other intersectional environmental solutions and policies
But because that is such a deep and broad way to practice more sustainable style habits, we are going to address it in a separate post.
With the sustainable style tips below, we focus on easy ways to take good care of your clothes, extend the life of your favorite piece of clothing, or give a second life to clothing items so you can build a more sustainable wardrobe without breaking the bank.
You don’t have to try on all of these eco-friendly style habits at once. You can simply start by making small changes and choosing whichever sustainable style tip(s) is the best option for you. Let’s dive in and discuss our top tips for better fashion choices by making the most of the abundance of clothing already in circulation.
Wear Your Clothes More Often and More Times
Because the average item of clothing is only worn a handful of times before being tossed, the best way to practice more sustainable style is simply to wear your own clothing more often. So easy, right? According to WRAP, keeping and regularly wearing an item you already own for an extra nine months will reduce your water, carbon, and waste footprint from fashion by 20-30%. No new clothes are needed, just wear what you already have.
Good, eco-friendly laundry habits can help those clothes last longer and not feel old or ding. We’ve shared a bunch of eco-friendly laundry tips in the past, and here are three additional quick tips to take proper care of your clothes and keep them looking fresh so you can wear them for a long time.
Wash Clothes in Colder Water
Washing on a low, cold, or 30-degree wash significantly increases the lifespan of your clothes and saves you money on your energy bills. Hot water wears clothes down faster. And hot requires more energy to heat up.
Most detergents and new washing machines are now designed to work best on lower temperatures, so dig out your machine’s instruction manual, give it a try, and see if you can spot the difference.
Related Reading: What’s The Deal With Clothing Care Symbols?
Repair Small Imperfections
Repair clothing items when you can before discarding an article of clothing for a small imperfection. Sew on that missing button, darn your socks (it doesn’t have to be neat sewing for socks as they’ll be hidden), or mend that tiny hole in your kid’s trousers.
I’m not a neat or great sewer, but a few basic skills go a long way (especially in places where you can’t see your work). Thankfully I’ve found little holes in tops, trousers, and even a coat can be stitched without much hassle. The hardest thing was threading the needle (time to get some glasses!!). If you are totally new to sewing, YouTube has tons of great tutorials about basic sewing skills that you can master in just a few minutes.
When I can’t fix something, I’m lucky enough that we have parents who have mending skills and will help us fix our clothes from time to time. If one of your parents is handy with a needle, ask them if they could help you fix something or show you how to do it.
Related Reading: 5 Mending and Maker Style Projects To Try At Home
Skip the Clothes Dryer
Avoid the tumble dryer and line dry as much as possible. Dryers are tough on clothes and can break down fibers more quickly than line drying or air drying. Skipping the dryer when you can keeps your clothes looking good for longer.
As an added bonus, line drying saves money, helps whiten clothes better, and you may even enjoy it. The tumble dryer is one of the most energy-hungry appliances in a house, so skipping it regularly can add up in savings. Drying in the sun can also help white clothes stay bright or naturally bleach out stains. And a few minutes of hanging the clothes to dry outdoors is quite peaceful.
Don’t Discount Brick-and-Mortar Thrift & Resale Shops
Long gone are the days of thrift stores being stale, smelly, cramped spaces full of tatty low quality clothes. Today we have many options for clothing that is preloved, thrifted, secondhand, and new-to-you. Not only is it good for the planet, but it’s also great for your wallet because secondhand options are much less expensive than their brand-new counterparts.
In the United Kingdom, Mary Street Portas went into charity shops in 2009 for a TV series called “Mary Queen of Charity Shops” and showed them how to market themselves better. That gave some charity shops, like the British Heart Foundation, a new lease on life. If you’ve not been in one lately, I’d highly recommend checking them out as you might be pleasantly surprised. New, funkier op shops are popping up too, like Dapp, which is aimed at 18-30s. These shops provide a refreshing change on the high street in the UK.
Many UK high street brands donate excess stock to charity shops, so if you know where to look you can grab yourself a bargain and support a charity at the same time. Martin Lewis, of Moneysavingexpert, shares some tips on how to bargain hunt in UK charity shops here.
Pro Thrifting Tips for Clothing | In-Person Shops
- Bring a list | When shopping at charity or thrift stores, go with a list of what you hope to find. Aimless wandering can be really overwhelming, especially for new thrifters.
- Set aside some time | Plan to spend at least 30 minutes at a thrift shop the first time you visit. Be prepared to search through the rails/racks. You never know what you will find, but it may take a bit of patience. If you don’t have time or patience for a bit of searching, the online resale outlets are great because you can utilize the filters to narrow down your search and find what you need. (See more below about tips for shopping online resale shops.)
- Practice makes perfect | The more often you visit thrift shops or use online resale channels, the quicker you’ll get at knowing where to look, what you’re looking for, and how to find it. Just like anything in life, a new skill takes a bit of time to master.
- Check clothing quality | Don’t forget to check the quality of the item front and back before you buy it. Look for stains or imperfections (especially ones that can’t be fixed). There are tons of items in good condition at thrift shops, but they’re sometimes mixed in among items that don’t have great longevity. You can get a great idea of the quality of a garment by feeling the fabric and checking the seams. If the seams (particularly inside) are loose or crooked, the garment is not likely going to last.
Related Reading: Thrift Store Shopping Tips
Check Out Online Secondhand Shops
Still not convinced or prefer to shop online than in-store? There are a host of thrifted, consignment, and preloved clothing sites popping up online. When I lived in the US, I became a big ThredUp fan. I searched by size and filtered for new or ‘as new’ conditions. From summer dresses to winter boots, I found plenty of clothes that were better quality than I would normally be able to afford, as branded items are priced at a fraction of their normal cost.
Back in the UK, Vinted, eBay, and Schpock as well as Facebook Marketplace, are my new favourite apps. I like Vinted as you can make offers below the asking price, and there is no uncertainty or waiting to be the winning bidder like on eBay. I’ve bought a lot of my daughter’s clothes from here as she’s going from a soccer-mad girl to a trendy tween. So far so good!
Hyper-local ‘Buy Nothing’ or Giving Facebook groups are always a great place to ask for preloved sports equipment or clothing, so before you hit ‘Buy’ on Amazon, ask your local group if anyone has the same thing going unused in their cupboard.
Related Reading: Why Secondhand Isn’t Second-rate
Pro Thrifting Tips for Clothing | Online Shops
- Download the Vinted or ThredUp App (or the preferred app of your choice). | You can use most of these apps on your phone or via the internet. If you’re using them on your smart device, the apps are a bit easier to navigate.
- Utilize the filters | Online resale shops have so many items that it’s nearly impossible to find the right item if you just scroll for days. Instead, use the many filters they offer on their site for characteristics like size, brand, color, style, season, price range, and more. This will make your search so much more efficient (and far less frustrating).
- Allow time to find items | Set up searches using the filters for specific items or brands you’re looking for and allow yourself time to find things. This isn’t an on-demand shopping experience, but it can be way more fulfilling when you find what you’re looking for.
- Look for familiar brands | So many brands have various levels of quality and different sizing. When shopping secondhand online, it helps (especially as a beginner) to focus on brands you know. If you stick mostly to familiar brands, you can anticipate the quality and know what size fits you so you don’t have too many surprises when the package arrives on your doorstep.
Related Reading: Secrets to Scoring the Best Secondhand Style from thredUP
Join Local Community Swap and Buy/Sell/Trade Groups
Join your local ‘Buy Nothing’ or Giving group on Facebook. Groups exist around the world in so many communities, and it’s such an intimate way to share our abundance with our neighbors. You can learn more about Buy Nothing sites in several of our resources about the gifting communities.
Facebook Marketplace also has lots of opportunities for great finds in your local communities. There are so many buy/sell/trade groups that have specific niches like kids’ clothing or boutique fashion. Set up Facebook Marketplace saved searches. Facebook will notify you when items that meet your search criteria show up on Marketplace, so you don’t have to routinely return to the site to look for items on your wishlist.
If there are no Buy Nothing or Facebook Marketplace swap groups in your area, consider starting one! It’s likely there are many people in your community who will love it and be grateful for your efforts (and you’ll feel good about the benefits to your community and the planet).
Don’t Forget to Donate or Sell Your Clothes Too
Buying secondhand clothing is important to limit the new resources we consume. But don’t forget that you can donate your clothes instead of tossing them in the trash. And all of the clothing resale apps are great for selling your unwanted clothes once you’re done with them as well. You can even sell your clothes to make a bit of extra money on Facebook Marketplace. We can help keep textiles out of landfills through our purchasing and disposal habits!
Pass along your family’s clothes to others
We sometimes live in a culture that frowns upon sharing our abundance with others, particularly when that means passing along our old clothes to friends and family who could use them or accepting their old things, even when we need and want them. Buck the culture trend, and jump on the hand-me-down wagon. It saves money and helps reduce textile waste in so many ways!
Share Hand-Me-Downs with Friends and Families
If you’ve got kids, then chances are you’ve passed on their outgrown clothes to a friend with younger kids at one time or another. Maybe you’ve even been lucky enough to receive clothes for your own kids from a friend or family member. Sharing clothes in our networks is such a great way with little effort to extend the lives of our clothes, even if we’ve outgrown them (with respect to size or style).
But what happens if you don’t know of anyone with kids of the right age for you to gift clothes to or receive clothes from? Clothing swaps are the answer!
Try Clothing Swaps in Your Community
Clothing swaps come in all sorts of formats. In the UK, local councils or community organisations often run clothing swap events where you bring a number of items you no longer need and take home the same number of items that you want. Councils also have rails, posters, and tips you can use if you want to set up your own clothing swap, so they’re a great place to start your search if you’re looking to try out clothing swaps.
Dopplle is another clothing swap option in the UK for college/uni students. They run swaps at universities as well as in some sports centres in Hertfordshire. You get credits when you donate items to the swap. You can use those credits at future swaps, so the pressure is off if you can’t find anything straight away on the days when you donate.
While in the US, I loved being part of 143 Exchange, a clothing exchange that takes new or gently used clothes from local residents and hosts two big events a year (plus specialist pop-ups) at which people can take whatever they need for free. They don’t need to have donated clothes to take them. Financial donations are gratefully received, though they’re not compulsory.
At one event held in September 2021, we had a brand-new wedding dress that someone was able to get for free! Imagine the carbon emissions saved and waste reduced just by sharing that one item (and what a neat and unique experience as well). Since starting in 2020, over 1,000 people have attended a 143 Exchange event and taken clothes to a new home. That’s a huge hand-me-down circle!
Ask around in your area and see if there is anything similar where you live, and if not, why not set up one yourself? You can always just start small with a neighbourhood 4th of July, back-to-school season, or Halloween outfit swap.
Only Buy and Swap What You Need
Even though so many of these fashion items we’ve discussed are free or inexpensive, only buy or swap what you really need. If it’s going to sit on a shelf in your house and never be used, don’t waste your time or money collecting and storing it. It’s tough sometimes to limit consumption even when something is so affordable, but a mindset shift toward more mindful consumption is also a big part of sustainable living habits.
Do you shop in thrift shops? What’s your top tip for finding that hidden bargain? Let us know in the comments below and let’s use our closets to build a more sustainable future.
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About The Author
Sarah Burgess is co-founder of the social movement Just1bag2020, mother of two, and British Expat who spent four years living in the United States and recently moved back to the United Kingdom. Sarah spends her time promoting local sustainable change through small, easy-to-do actions that everyone can do to help out the planet. When not picking up trash and persuading others to do the same, Sarah and her family can be found travelling the world and experiencing everything this precious Earth has to offer.