When I first began building a sustainable wardrobe I thought it would be a simple process of buying preloved and sustainably made clothes, being more intentional about my shopping practices, educating myself about key issues in this space and learning how to take care of my clothes better so they last longer. In some ways it has been this simple. And yet, the day-to-day application of these principles has been less clear cut; full of stops and starts, mistakes and lessons, internal struggles, competing values, conflicting views, compromises and the gradual understanding that sometimes there’s no perfect solution. I’m sure that I’m not the only one who has had difficulty reconciling their ethics with the practicalities of everyday life, so below are five challenges I’ve encountered on this journey so far and how I personally have navigated them.
Confusion and overwhelm
In a perfect world there wouldn’t be “sustainable fashion” only “fashion”. However, the reality is that there is such a distinction because there are problems with the current model of the fashion industry and its supply chain and navigating these issues as consumers is not always an easy task. Not only are these issues complex and multi-faceted, often with no single solution (as an example, both recycled polyester and natural fibres such as cotton come with their own environmental challenges – micro plastics in the case of recycled polyester and water, land use and pesticides in the case of cotton) but there are also multiple terminologies to navigate, with “slow fashion”, “ethical fashion” and “conscious fashion” all having slightly different meanings and greenwashing. Sometimes brands would also like to do more but struggle to make it economically viable. Although it can be overwhelming at time, educating myself about these issues and different competing considerations has helped me to make better and more informed decisions, as has seeking out some good directories such as Good On You, which has helped me find sustainable brands and has guided my choices by way of a rating system. However, I’ve also learned to embrace the grey and do the best I can with my current understanding and knowledge. After all, that’s all anyone can ask!
When we are passionate about a cause we can find ourselves inadvertently approaching it in an idealistic manner, striving for perfection or wanting to do it the “right” way. However, as I mentioned above, sometimes there are competing important factors and no perfect decision. Pressuring ourselves to create the “perfect” sustainable wardrobe can sometimes, in fact, inhibit us from taking action because we feel overwhelmed by the scope of the problem and the solution. Instead, I’m a big proponent of prioritising progress over perfection. Just because we can’t create the perfect sustainable wardrobe it doesn’t mean there aren’t shifts we can make to shop more consciously, wear what we have or to buy pre-loved. Like implementing healthy habits, sometimes making small incremental changes consistently over time can lead to a significant and meaningful impact. As Anne Marie Bonneau, the Zero Waste Chef says: “We don’t need a handful of people doing zero waste perfectly. We need millions of people doing it imperfectly” and the same goes for sustainable and ethical fashion.
The reality is that sustainably and ethically made pieces do cost more because that is what the garment truly costs when high quality fabrics are used and workers are paid a living wage. However, even knowing this, sometimes it can be difficult to reconcile the price of clothes with our budgets. I have navigated this challenge by buying more pre-loved clothes and changing my perception about how I purchase clothes and look after my wardrobe; buying less but better, investing in timeless pieces, prioritising and actually saving up for these pieces. Until the mid-1900s most people had very small wardrobes (I’m sure you’ve heard about your grandparent’s “Sunday best”). However, I also recognise that everyone has different financial constraints and even when buying clothes intentionally its a privilege to afford the more expensive sustainable brands. Everyone’s sustainable fashion journey will look different and even if you can’t afford sustainable brands there are still ways to practice sustainability by buying less, looking after what you own and re-wearing it. Even a fast fashion T-Shirt becomes sustainable if it is worn regularly for years.
Not being able to try on potential clothing purchases, either because the sustainable brand or second hand retailer only has an online store, or doesn’t have a physical store near me, has definitely been one of the challenges I’ve experience when building a more sustainable wardrobe. Even in an age of online shopping and cost effective, fast postage (which comes with it’s own sustainability pros and cons because of the travel miles) I still struggle to order items online because I just don’t know whether they will fit properly and because of experiences I’ve had buying something I thought would suit but doesn’t. To be honest I’m still working on this challenge sometimes I do choose to purchase an item online if I’m fairly confident it will work, particularly if I can easily return it. Other times I will prioritise brands which are closer to me, buy from sustainable brands stocked in department stores or just buy from brands which are not sustainable but which are quality, timeless pieces I love.
Finding clothes that suit my aesthetic
This challenge is has become much easier because of the number of sustainable brands now available and I do prefer prioritising these brands. However, occasionally I won’t be able to find an item that really works for me, in which case I will turn to regular fashion labels. For me, (and everyone will have a slightly different approach and set of values around this) I’ve decided that sustainable fashion is not just about buying sustainable clothes but encompasses my approach to shopping so sometimes buying a dress from a brand which is not “sustainable” as such but which I love and will wear over and over again long term can sometimes be better than buying a dress from a sustainable brand that isn’t quite right.