Six steps to a sustainable wardrobe

Munir Uz Zaman / AFP / Getty Image

Munir Uz Zaman / AFP / Getty Image

By bel jacobs

The fourth anniversary of Rana Plaza came and went but not enough has changed. In fact, the industry continues to grow: fast fashion retailers ASOS and Boohoo, for example, are set to see sales grow by up to 50 per cent this year.

Even a random selection of facts about the clothing industry demonstrate what bad news this is. The world already buys 80 billion pieces of new clothing every year – 400% more than it did twenty years ago – and the way they’re made and consumed has huge implications for people and environment.

The clothing industry is one of the largest polluters on the planet, just below oil. Think about the pesticides used in cotton farming and the toxic dyes used in manufacturing as well as the resources needed for extraction, farming, harvesting, processing, manufacturing and shipping – all while natural supplies shrink. And it’s not as if clothing spends much time in our hands: one third ends in landfill.

Meanwhile, 90 per cent of the 75 million people – some just children – who work in fashion and textiles across the globe are desperately reliant on their jobs to survive. This means they don’t dare ask for better pay, childcare, days off to see their family – or, in the case of Rana Plaza, the right not to enter a building they knew was dangerous and unstable.

All this for an industry which, in the harshest terms, is based on desires peddled by profit-making companies who control our assumptions of status and beauty. Here’s what we can do to help.


On average, the ordinary person see 5,000 ads a day. Each one carries a similar message: your life will be better if you buy what we’re selling. And it's not simply ads compelling us to buy; most fashion media is full of it. ‘Five of the best pink tops’ or ‘why you need red in your wardrobe this season’: best for who? And why – really – do you need red in your wardrobe? The call to purchase surrounds us.

It’s impossible to be immune to advertising but these messages have taken the planet to the brink. Campaigners are asking consumers to think about why they buy what they buy; to purchase more consciously and to be aware of how the media works to persuade them to part with their money. 

Trends, for example, are artificial drivers of business; tellingly, they tend to be ignored by creatives in the industry. Top stylists such as Katie Shillingford, former Vogue fashion director Lucinda Chambers and uber blogger Susie Bubble use what they wear as a creative response to the world around them. 

Modern society has become disconnected from the means of production; five years ago, no one knew where their oranges had come from or who had made their jeans. Today, increasingly, social media is stepping into that void of consciousness, showing consumers that there can be literally miles of difference between the products we see in magazines, presented in lush locations on gorgeous models, and how they are made.

Behind that beautiful leather shoe, for example, may be an tired girl working long hours in a hot factory, a bewildered cow being led to slaughter, a river running with toxins. They don’t show those in the ads.


A survey by children’s charity Barnardo’s found that the majority of fashion purchases are only worn seven times. A corresponding report by recycling agency WRAP found that extending the life of an item of clothing is one of the most effective ways to reduce carbon, water and waste footprints.

Learning to wash clothes correctly helps them last longer, as will the traditional crafts darning, stitching and repair. For needle-phobics, companies such as Patagonia and Nudie Jeans offer free repair services. The Good Wardrobe is an on-line community hub dedicated to helping visitors care for and prolong the life of clothes.


Fashion is part of human culture. The trick is to convince consumers that purchasing sustainably isn't about denying the love of clothes but about rejecting a system that ensures they are never happy with what they have. Long forgotten pieces can be given new life with imaginative styling: wearing shades of just one colour, clashing patterns imaginatively, wearing clothes outside their usual use.

Scarves used as belts, t-shirts worn back to front, skirts worn as dresses as well as creatively layering are just some of the tricks of the 21st century stylist. Catwalk and street imagery provide a stream of inspiration.

Being an ethical consumer is about rediscovering the pleasure of a piece that has taken you from fine dining to a festival; that has seen you through a break up and a make up. Convince consumers that what they already own has both a history and an undiscovered future - and we're one step closer to sensible purchasing.


Vegan, organic, ethical, vintage, the options are growing – and they're far prettier than they use to be. Consumers can now choose brands that are locally produced and/or use raw materials carefully, work with factories that abide by labour standards and create sustainable garments with a lower environmental impact. Pioneers include Bruno Pieters' Honest By and the ethical version of Net-a-Porter, Reve en Vert. The vintage market continues to grow, too: both Traid and Oxfam Fashion offer fine secondhand stock.


There's no shortage of information out there. Organisations like Fashion Revolution, co-founded by Orsola de Castro in the wake of the Rana Plaza tragedy in 2014, has used a canny mix of celebrity, marketing and collaboration to raise awareness of the conditions of workers in Asia. 

Meanwhile, media makers are responding to a new thirst for awareness amongst design students and campaigners. The recently published Slave to Fashion (New Internationalist, 2017), by People Tree founder Safia Minney, for example, helps address the disconnect by giving voice to workers around the world.

Andrew Morgan's True Cost (2014) is now a cult classic, encouraging audiences to ask who really pays the price for cheap clothes. Older documentaries are resurfacing: My Fancy High Heels (2010, dir: Ho Chao-ti) is such a heart-rending report on the Chinese leather industry, you'll wonder what else goes on behind the scenes.

New buzzwords continue to emerge; 'transparency' is the latest. Compiled between January and March this year, The Transparency Index rates 100 of the biggest global fashion brands and retailers, including Topshop and Prada, according to how much they disclose about their social, environmental policies, practices and impact. On average, brands who disclosed scored just 20 per cent transparency; none scored above 50. Sportswear giants Adidas and Reebok came out on top with 121.5 out of 250 points, closely followed by high street megaliths Marks & Spencer and H&M.

“There is no way to hold companies and governments to account if we can’t see what is truly happening behind the scenes. This is why transparency is so essential.” said Fashion Revolution co-founder Orsola de Castro: “Transparency encourages scrutiny, vigilance and accountability. It’s like opening one’s front door and allowing others to look inside. And of course, the more doors are open, the more the picture becomes clearer, the better we can understand and ameliorate supply chain workers’ lives and the environment.”


Sustainability still has a long way to go, hobbled by the fact that the system – capitalist and expansionist by nature – is hardly set up to allow real change. But it's getting harder to talk the walk without walking the walk, especially as those who wish to challenge systemic inequities are learning to be more vocal about their beliefs. Organisations that can make change on a macro-scale - governments, conglomerates, multi-nationals - are increasingly finding themselves targets of campaigns and petitions. Power to the people, indeed.