I’ve always fancied myself a sustainable shopper. When I stumble upon a vintage market, I get that sweet surge of shopper’s dopamine. When brands I love accomplish sustainability goals, I nod my head yes and raise my hands to the sky. And each time I score a particularly campy pre-loved coat, I inch a little bit closer to my sartorial dream of resembling Penny Lane from Almost Famous.
But just how sustainable am I really? Have I ever actually dissected my wardrobe to determine if I’m practicing what I’m preaching?
I decided to put my closet to the test. Enter the Closet Crunch.
Inspecting all 132 items in my wardrobe across the tops, bottoms, jackets, sweaters and dresses categories, I recorded the following:
1· where each item was made,
2· what it was made of, and
3· if I bought the piece new or used.
Turns out that 71% of my wardrobe was purchased brand new and 29% was second-hand (vintage, consignment, hand-me-downs, etc.). I’m certainly not perfect. But – if you can forgive the glaring cliché – knowledge is power. Understanding what’s in our wardrobes helps us to actually meet the environmental and ethical goals we’re making.
"But – if you can forgive the glaring cliché – knowledge is power. Understanding what’s in our wardrobes helps us to actually meet the environmental and ethical goals we’re making."
Take the fact that over one-third of my clothing is crafted from cotton, making it the primary material in my wardrobe. It’s biodegradable, which is a plus for the environment, but it also can take nearly 3,000 gallons of water to produce a single t-shirt. This crop also accounts for 16% of global pesticide usage, according to the Environmental Justice Foundation.
Garment workers in China created 34% of my wardrobe. It makes sense, as the country leads the global garment export industry with an annual value of $120 billion USD. But it’s no secret that the wages are low and the work is long. That’s what attracts so many bottom-line obsessed companies. Workers’ voices are silenced by a country-wide ban on independent trade unions, and though not all factories are cut from the same cloth, the track records of companies using Chinese labour like UNIQLO, Nike and Zara aren’t exactly stellar.
Confronting myself with the realities of my closet wasn’t easy. I don’t expect that everyone will set up a spreadsheet and spend hours studying the labels on their clothes (shoutout to COVID for all the free time!!!), but acquainting ourselves with our closets is table stakes for fostering a sustainable, realistic approach to our personal style. It gives us the grounds to create our own tailored plans to weave responsibility into our shopping habits.
"acquainting ourselves with our closets is table stakes for fostering a sustainable, realistic approach to our personal style."
Next time you think you’ll just pop into H&M for ~one little thing~, remember that your wardrobe is a living, breathing creature. Run your hands over its flurry of colours and textures (unless it’s of the all-black variety, à la dearly departed Karl Lagerfeld) and picture the skilled workers that sewed it all together. Think about the smells and sights and sounds of the landscapes the materials were derived from. Humanize it -- that’s where sustainability starts.
Laura Robinson is the Calgary Editor for NEXT magazine, as well as a journalist & fashion assistant with experience in broadcast, print & digital reporting. She obtained her MA in Journalism from Western University, and also works in creative direction, fashion editorial styling, copy editing and social media management.