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Sustainable Fashion: 11 Things You can do to Reduce your Fashion Carbon Footprint

Some pretty scary statistics are coming out lately about the hugely detrimental impact that the fashion industry has on the environment. They vary from study to study, but by way of example, it is said that fashion is the second most polluting industry in the world. 300-thousand tonnes of clothing goes into landfill each year. Around 1⁄2 million tons of microfiber (or the equivalent of 3 million barrels of oil) is dumped in the ocean every year, nearly the same amount as the DeepWater Horizon spill.

Although I’m not perfect in this area, I’m taking more and more steps to address the way I shop and care for my clothes to bring sustainable fashion into my wardrobe. Here’s eleven things you can pick and choose from to reduce your fashion carbon footprint too.

1. Shop sustainable fabrics

Cotton is one of the least eco-friendly fabrics there is. Even though it is a natural fiber that can biodegrade at the end of its life, cotton is also one of the most environmentally demanding crops there is. The cotton industry now uses 25 percent of the world’s insecticides and 10 percent of the world’s pesticides. It’s hard to avoid though, so if you do go cotton, try to ensure it’s organic. Organic cotton isn’t grown using pesticides and herbicides, and the production process uses less water and is free from chlorine, bleach and synthetic dyes.

More sustainable options include:

Hemp: its a very durable fabric that becomes softer with washing and wear, and it’s biodegradable at the end of its life. Beyond that, the hemp plant doesn’t require a lot of water, and it can produce two to three times more fiber per acre than cotton. It actually replenishes the soil it grows in rather than extracting its nutrients.

Linen: is made from flax. It’s durable and breezy. Linen production uses little water and doesn’t require any chemical fertilizers or pesticides. Bonus: It’s biodegradable, too.

Tencel: is a semi-synthetic fibre with properties almost identical to cotton but it’s made from renewable wood materials. 80% less water is used in the production of tencel compared to cotton.

Pinatex (vegan leather): it’s actually pineapple leather. The leaves of the pineapple plant have recently become one of the most sustainable vegan leather alternatives on the market.It’s natural, biodegradable, reduces waste and provides additional income to farmers who would otherwise throw pineapple leaves away.

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Linen, one of the most eco-friendly fabrics

2. Shop ethical brands

So many fashion brands are doing more to implement sustainable processes and products. And now there are tools you can use to check out what your favourite brands are doing and how they rate.

My favourite rating tool is the Good on You app. It rates a large (and growing) list of fashion brands based on how sustainable and ethical their practices are. Use it to search for your favourite brands to see how they’re doing, discover new (more ethical) places to shop, and stay up to date on news and offers.

Some brands I love and which rate very well for their sustainability include:

  • Filippa K: has been a favourite of mine for years because of its minimal Scandi aesthetic. But it also has collections that are completely recycled and use no dying. Its packaging is all recycled and biodegradable.
  • Veja: makes very cool sneakers with raw materials sourced from organic farming and ecological agriculture, without chemicals or polluting processes.
  • Arnsdorf:a Melbourne and New York based fashion label which makes beautifully sharp yet feminine pieces from sustainable fabrics. Arnsdorf eschews the traditional fashion seasons along with the prolonged cycles of waste that result from them. Rather, Arnsdorf releases small numbers of timeless pieces at regular intervals and can make them to measure at a reasonable price for customers.
  • ReformationUS label Reformation makes its pieces from sustainable materials, rescued deadstock fabrics, and repurposed vintage clothing. And their dresses have a pretty vintage vibe.
  • Witcheryan Australian High Street favourite of mine is Witchery. It uses a not insignificant amount of sustainable fabrics, but also measures and reports on its water usage and carbon emissions.
  • Anna Markiz and Minna Paussu: two Helsinki-based fashion designers who I met and interviewed on a recent trip to Finland. You can read all about their ethical designs and sustainable practices here.
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Trousers from Arnsdorf. Shoes from Filippa K
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Witchery Skirt. Veja Trainers

3. Invest in Quality

I recently wrote about the oldest pieces in my wardrobe. It got me thinking about why these pieces have survived all those ruthless wardrobe culls I’ve carried out over the years. Part of it is due to their excellent quality. Case in point are my ankle boots from R.M. Williams which I bought seventeen years ago. I have worn them every year. Any lesser quality boot would have given up and died a death by a million steps at this stage. But the excellent craftsmanship of these boots means I can still be seen booting around town many a weekend in my RM Williams.

It goes without saying, but the better the quality, the longer the life, the less waste.

Oldest Items Wardrobe

4. Avoid trends – invest in classic designs

On a similar theme, if you invest in classic designs they’ll last longer too. Think about how many times you’ve thrown out a be-tassled jacket, velour tracksuit or wedge-heel sneaker because it was part of a trend that came and went far too quickly for you to get enough wear out of it. Invest in something timeless (and quality) and you’ll wear it for years to come.

Brands I like for their individual designs that eschew trends and have their own aesthetic agenda include Toteme, Camilla & Marc, Scanlan Theodore, TheoryFilippa K and By Malene Birger. These brands play by their own rules.

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By Malene Birger trousers and singlet top. Scanlan Theodore crepe knit cardigan
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Camilla and Marc blazer

5. Create a Capsule Wardrobe

There’s a blogpost coming soon on this very topic, but for now, start thinking about your capsule wardrobe. A capsule wardrobe means having several timeless items that never go out of style, and that can be combined with seasonal pieces.

The beauty of a capsule wardrobe is that the pieces should all be interchangeable. The number of outfit combinations is much greater, so you shop less and only need to top up with one or two additional pieces each season.

6. Plan your Wardrobe

Each season analyse your lifestyle: what outfits you have for each occasion, event or situation (e.g. work, date night, weekend daytime, school run etc). Identify where the gaps are. Do you spend 60% of your time at work, but your work outfits only represent 40% of your wardrobe? Do you have seven dressy outfits, but not enough casual weekend outfits?

Write down a list of the items you really need and stick to it. You’ll avoid impulse buying and regretting purchases that are not fully thought-through.

Take it slow when you’re shopping. Make sure each item ticks all the boxes and can go with at least four other items in your wardrobe. A well-planned wardrobe means much less waste.

7. Vintage, clothes rental, borrow

This one’s obvious. Shopping vintage gives clothes a new home and a new lease on life, rather than have them destined for landfill.

Same goes for renting clothes and borrowing for occasions: clothes have a much more useful lifespan, and you have less call to buy more clothes to add to the pile.

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Vintage cowboy boots and cashmere jumper bought at the Rosebowl Flea Market, L.A.

8. Extend the life of your clothes

Re-sole shoes and spray leather shoes with waterproofing spray. Hand wash your clothes with a gentle detergent (especially the cheap fabrics if you want them to last longer). High boots keep their shape if you store them with used plastic bottles in them. Remove pilling from knitwear with a sweater stone. Use cedar hangers to keep moths away. Find a good tailor and take clothes in for mending or alterations.

Ask around: everyone has their own little life hacks they use to care for their clothes and extend their lifespan. And if you have any tips, leave them in the comments section below.

9. Care for your clothes ethically

The biggest impact on the environment caused by clothing occurs in the production phase. However, clothes washing and care accounts for a third of the total carbon footprint of clothing. Ways you can reduce your carbon footprint include washing your clothes in lower temperatures and hang dry clothes rather than tumble dry.

If your denim needs a freshen up, rather than wash them put them in a sealed plastic bag and put it in the freezer for one week. It doesn’t remove stains, but it will kill living organisms and make them feel crisp and clean again.  It sounds weird, but I’ve done it and it works.

10. Give clothes second (or third life)

Once you feel you’re done with any items, donate to charity, recycle (your local council should have information on its website about where you can recycle your clothes and textiles), re-sell (eBay and Depop are two places I’ve sold my pre-loved pieces before), give to friends. One woman’s trash and all that…

11. Spread the word

The more we know, the more we can do. Whatever brands, tools, tricks and fabrics you find that do their bit for the environment and ethical treatment of workers, tell people about them. Post about it on your social media. Raise awareness. It all makes a difference.