The First Steps Toward A More Sustainable Wardrobe

As you begin your journey toward a more sustainable wardrobe, you may start to wonder what the completed product ought to look like. How many clothes will you own? And what kind of garments? Which brands should be present and which ones aren't allowed? How will you know when you're done?

In their discussions on The Minimalists Podcast, hosts Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus frequently describe their sustainable lifestyle as an ongoing process rather than a destination. I believe we can all benefit from adopting this outlook in most regards. However it is slightly easier to apply standards to a closet than an overall lifestyle.

Ideally a wardrobe that is curated and maintained around the goal of sustainability will be:
  1. perfectly sized to the individual's daily lifestyle (not so many clothes that items go unworn, but not so few that laundry becomes a tetris nighmare)
  2. reflective of the individual's ethical standards (fair trade, vegan, secondhand, etc.) and
  3. comprised of the most stylish and high-quality materials available to the individual, to ensure maximum lifespan and wearability of the garments
Of course once these standards have been met, it is up to the owner to abide by them, ensuring they are not shopping unnecessarily and are replacing garments as-needed in accordance with their ethical values.

So. With these points in mind, are you there yet? Are you "done"?

I'll go first: I'm not. Not even close. I may be the brains behind this blog. I may be the one encouraging friends to swap-not-shop and rethink fast fashion impulses, but that does not make me the Patron Saint of Sustainability. If you could open the suitcases beneath my bed, if you knew how long the bag marked "Goodwill" has lingered behind my closet door, if you felt the wince of desire that crossed my face on tantalizing journeys past the shop windows of 5th Avenue, you would know: I'm still working on it.

But I've come far from where I was before. And for those of you who are still in a position of owning too much clothing, struggling to avoid an impulse purchase, or simply lacking confidence in your personal style, listen up, because I'm about to drop on you the most sustainably fashionable action to ever grace your ears. And it's something you can do RIGHT. NOW.

Ready? Here it is:


Wear the clothes you already own. Chances are, they're not bad ones. (You bought them for some reason, right?) Pending on where and when they were purchased, it's likely they're not as worn out as you think they are. My very favorite sweatshirt from eighth grade (which I probably wore every single day of my fourteenth year around the earth) could still serve its intended functions were I to put it on right now: it would keep me covered and it would keep me warm.

Me, in all my totally unstylish teenage dirtbaggery.

The caveat, however, lies in an additional function of clothing. A privileged function. A human-imposed function. The fact is, most of us don't want to wear a sweatshirt selected by our 14-year-old selves. Hurley International and I had our heyday alongside the other posers of junior high, but I've learned my place since then. I'm not a skateboarder, and I doubt I ever will be. This is no longer the type of Rachel I want to pretend to be; this is no longer my style.

When you're struggling with a style change, it can be difficult to be responsible and wear your clothes. What's the first thing we all want to do when we get a new job or pant size?* BUY NEW THINGS! ALL THE NEW THINGS! A CLOSET FULL OF NEW PERSONALITY! If such habits are already in place, it will be difficult to avoid that impulse to shop and face your wardrobe as-is. But I encourage you to try. Even a few weeks of self-styling can provide a tremendous boost to your creativity. Besides, until you give yourself the time to explore, you're liable to continue making the same shopping mistakes -- and then you may never find your style at all.

Once you own up and face the actual contents of your closet, you may discover what I discovered: That you have A LOT of clothes! In order to restyle these garments, you're going to have to familiarize yourself with them. Choose an inventory process that suits your brain. For me, that was diving headfirst into Excel heaven and color coding a week of my life away. For you it might just be scooping everything out of the depths and flinging stuff into smaller piles on your bed. Take some time to reintroduce yourself to these garments. Ask them how life is at the back of the dresser. Then: play. Put on some music and your favorite underwear. Grab two pieces that make zero sense together and figure out a way to make them sing. Snap photos of your favorite creations, and soon your phone will be filled with nonsense like this:

If you're really, truly struggling with wearing what you have (maybe you're having a baby, I don't know), strive to find your garments a new home. Host a clothes swap, visit a consignment store, or donate to a local charity. Avoid undercutting the purpose of minimalism by being wasteful with what you relinquish. There is almost always an alternative option to the landfill.

The most important piece of advice I can offer while you're whittling down your wardrobe and discovering your style is this: Avoid shopping. Better yet, set a sustainable challenge for yourself, like purchasing only from thrift stores or pretending H&M doesn't exist for a year. It might mean spending less time on certain websites, where you're prone to impulse buying. It could entail unsubscribing from retailers' email lists. I really can't stress the importance of letting yourself sit with your wardrobe like this, without incoming purchase distraction to stop you from discovery. Give yourself space to learn how to pair things, what makes you feel confident, and where your shopping mistake minefields lie.

If you follow these steps, the road to sustainability will turn from Mt Everest into a pleasant medium-grade hillside. To summarize:
  1. Wear the clothes you own.

  2. Teach yourself how to style them together.

  3. Don't shop for new ones.

  4. When you must part with something, show it a sustainable farewell.


Later this week I'll be sharing a more detailed approach to wardrobe creation for those of us still grappling with piles of still-wearable clothing. Stay tuned!

*Besides celebrate the event with a gargantuan cookie.

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