Principles for buying clothing sustainably. Each principle contains an “S” word, a question to ask yourself, an example of what not to buy (how the principle applies), and an elaboration. 🛒
Is this store sustainable?
Don’t Buy Example:a tank top from a fast-fashion company.
Are you purchasing your product from a store that emphasizes sustainability? A line of products from a store that isn’t necessarily sustainable? A store that has sustainable goals but currently doesn’t emphasize sustainability? A thrift store? A locally-owned business? A minority-owned business? A female-owned business?
I usually draw the ethical line at buying a product from a store where all products are made sustainably; you’ll have to determine for yourself
Don’t Buy Example:a t-shirt from Target (a well-established company with many locations).
Part of ethical consumerism is being deliberate in who you are supporting with your dollars. When possible, see if your clothing can be bought from a small business before buying it from a large brand. Choose to support a locally-owned boutique, rather than a retail giant!
Am I buying this piece secondhand?
Don’t Buy Example:a brand new pair of jeans.
The #1 most sustainable shopping practice is: don’t buy anything. #2 is: shop secondhand. When possible, see if your clothing can be bought second-hand before buying brand new.
Buying secondhand is more sustainable because it doesn’t require finite resources to be used––the clothing has already been produced. It also delays existing clothes from ending up in the landfill. Secondhand shopping ensures that the piece is given a new life, the piece is unique, and the piece is (usually) less expensive––it’s a win-win-win! And nothing beats the rush of discovering the perfect item for an amazing deal at a thrift store!
NOTE: there are some arguments against thrifting that you can read more about
(although it’s mostly agreed across the board that if done correctly and intentionally, thrifting is a sustainable and ethical shopping practice).
Is this piece made of materials that I support?
Don’t Buy Example:a down jacket with coyote fur. Even if the down feathers are fair-trade, do you want to support the farming industry by buying a product of said industry? Even if it’s secondary.
Not only should the material be sustainably and ethically sourced (see #1 for more info), but ideally, the material would also be sustainable and ethical––this includes recycled cotton, organic hemp, organic linen, bamboo textiles, TENCEL (a fabric made of cellulose). Yes, you may have to do some research on what the clothing is made out of. But it will be worth it if/when you save an animal’s life by not buying a product that requires the slaughter of an innocent animal!
NOTE: Following the Substance Principle to a T limits clothing options. But as said before, you get to decide how you’ll implement these principles for yourself! And as my dad says, “your values only matter when they’re inconvenient to uphold!”
Is this piece made of natural fibers?
Don’t Buy Example:a fleece jacket (fleece is made out of acrylic fibers).
Synthetic fibers are constituted of non-natural materials (e.g. coal, petroleum, acrylic, spandex) and are usually formed through chemical processes. Instead of buying clothing made of synthetics like polyester, rayon, acrylic fibers or spandex, opt for clothing made of natural materials, like silk, cotton, linen or jute.
Four reasons I don’t buy synthetics: 1) they’re not as breathable (and some just aren’t breathable period), 2) they generate microplastics, 3) they stay on our earth forever, and 4) your epidermis is your largest organ! And the things that touch your skin are absorbed into your bloodstream... do you want plastic and chemicals constantly on your skin? I know I don’t!
I make two exceptions to the Synthetic Principle when buying 1) clothing made solely out of recycled plastic bottles and 2) vegan leather products.
1)Recycled plastic bottles: Some athletic leggings and sports bras are made of recycled plastic bottles, and I am okay buying synthetics in these cases. When I wash these items, I put them inside of a
that not only protects my clothes but prevents microplastics from entering water sources.
2)Vegan leather products: Not all vegan leather is created equal. Some are plant-based and much more ethical and sustainable than their leather alternatives. However, some vegan leather is simply green-washed plastic. That means that, unlike leather goods, these vegan goods (e.g. shoes, belts, purses) won’t break down because they're made out of plastic. While it may take hundreds of years for a pair of leather boots to decompose, in the end, they will. However, with a vegan version of a leather good, there is no chance of the item ever breaking down because it’s not made of natural material. Since these plastic items pose a threat during and after their lifespans (they shed plastic fibers and may end up in water or a landfill), I’ve chosen to buy alternatives that are made of natural materials (e.g. canvas, cotton, leather).
With those two exceptions, my principle is to avoid buying synthetic clothing if possible.
Is this piece sourced ethically?
Don’t Buy Example:a t-shirt sourced from a factory that doesn’t pay its workers a living wage and cuts corners around environmental guidelines.
This is subjective. However, I believe that with the environment in the worst shape that it has been, it’s critical to support slow fashion. Slow fashion combines sustainability with ethics by encouraging consumers to make purchasing decisions that are quality-based rather than fashion-based; emphasizing slower production schedules and small-batch, zero-waste collections; and aiming to reduce textile waste in landfills.
One characteristic of a slow fashion brand is that its products are usually locally sourced, produced, and sold. So rather than being made abroad using cheap labor, the clothing is made using the local workforce and resources. Before buying something, research where the clothing is sourced. Your spending shows what you truly value; choose not to buy clothing that exploits workers and resources and choose to buy clothing that pays a living wage and supports the local economy.
NOTE: “Ethical” sourcing is subjective. For me, it means ideally buying from a company that pays its workers fairly and makes its products in small batches, locally.
Is this piece coming from within my country?
Don’t Buy Example:a pair of shoes from a company in France (even if it’s a company that emphasizes sustainability!) if you’re not living in France.
My principle is to try to buy clothing that’s Made in the USA, rather than made abroad. This reduces carbon emissions from shipping and also supports US-based companies! Before purchasing, figure out where the item is coming from!
Does this piece solve a problem in my life?
Don’t Buy Example:a long jacket in the middle of the summer.
Do you have a need for the piece of clothing? I.e. is it necessary? If it’s cold, it may be necessary to buy a warm winter coat. If you have a black-tie event, it may be necessary to buy a fancy ballgown (although I’d recommend renting one because you probably won’t wear it much and the cost-per-wear will be insane!). However, if you’re living on the West Coast where the coldest it gets is 40℉, consider whether you really need a new coat. And if you’re just buying a dress because you think it’s pretty, consider waiting until you have a special occasion that requires a certain type of dress.
NOTE: It can be helpful to determine for yourself whether “wanting beauty in your life” or “wanting to fit in” are real problems that justify buying a new product.
Is this different from everything else I already own?
Don’t Buy Example: a new black dress when an almost-identical one is hanging in your closet.
If you already have a similar piece of clothing that solves the problem you’ve identified, do you really need another solution? No matter how sustainable a brand is, or how timeless a piece of clothing is, remember that the MOST sustainable option is to not buy anything at all! Additionally, the Similar Principle doesn’t require a piece to be unique (e.g. a sweater that is all colors of the rainbow)––it just has to be unique to your closet! So in theory, the Similar Principle would support your decision to buy a plain white shirt if you didn’t already own one.
NOTE: If you’re like Steve Jobs and plan on wearing the same outfit every day, obviously this principle doesn’t apply! As someone who wore the same style of a white t-shirt and a pair of blue jeans every day for almost two years, I can vouch that a self-imposed uniform certainly has its benefits!
Is this piece easy to clean/wear? Or does it require a lot of upkeep?
Don’t Buy Example:a silk tank top that must be dry cleaned after each wear.
Is the product made of a material that is easily machine-washable or will you have to bring it to the dry cleaners each time you get a stain on it? Will you have to line-dry or can you run it through the dryer? Will the clothing require ironing before each wear or does it not wrinkle easily? I’m not saying certain ways of servicing should be a deal-breaker––you need to decide that for yourself––but this should be a factor in your purchasing decisions. When you’re making your purchase, remember that fabrics like silk and rayon require special methods of cleaning, and linen wrinkles very easily!
Will this piece last a long time?
Don’t Buy Example: a poorly-made sweater that will only last 3 washes before starting to pill.
Calculate the lifespan of the product; how many times can you wash/wear your piece before it wears out? You want to make sure that your unit has the lowest cost-per-wear possible, so you know that you’re making the most out of your money. Indicators of product lifespan include quality of the seams, the washing instructions (handwash only vs. washing machine friendly), type of material, and strength of the fabric.
When I only owned 7 white shirts, I wore them over 60 times each––about $0.40 per wear! Another aspect of cost-per-wear is asking yourself whether you’re willing to pay the cost for the piece of clothing you’re considering purchasing. If the product’s lifespan is long but you only see yourself wearing it three times (e.g. a fancy dress), the cost-per-wear may be extremely high. Consider renting or borrowing a dress in that case!
Can this piece be worn with anything?
Don’t Buy Example:a blue jean jacket that you would only wear with black jeans (which you don’t own).
Ask yourself: Is the piece of clothing versatile? Or does it have to be worn with another piece of clothing (i.e. in a set)? Determine whether you already own the other pieces that you’d wear in a set, or if buying this new piece of clothing would make you buy the matching/coordinating pieces. And decide if you’re willing to buy the matching pieces to complete the set.
Do I love all parts of this piece?
Don’t Buy Example: a two-piece swimsuit that comes with both a top and a bottom, and you only like the bottom.
Ask yourself: Do I like both the top and the bottom? Or am I just buying the set so I can have one of the pieces? If it’s the latter case, try to see if there’s an alternative where you can buy the single piece that you want (so you don’t end up with a piece of clothing you don’t want!)
Is this piece timeless?
Don’t Buy Example:a trendy crop top that will quickly go out of style in the ever-changing fashion cycle.
Will the style hold up as trends change? Will the clothing design stand the test of time? Other “S” words to keep in mind when determining whether the piece is stylish: silhouette, shape, simplicity.
Is this piece simple?
Don’t Buy Example:a hoodie plastered with the NIKE logo.
Does the clothing have words, designs, or brand logos on it? Clothing that doesn’t display text, trendy patterns or brand names will stay fashionable––i.e. be much more timeless––than clothes that do. In flex culture, people pay premium prices for clothes featuring certain clothing brand logos. I don’t subscribe to this; why would you pay EXTRA to become a walking advertisement for a clothing brand? If anything, they should be paying you!
Is this piece special?
Don’t Buy Example:a fancy dress that you want, but don’t have a special event planned to wear it to.
A piece can be special in multiple ways. It can: have a unique design, be worn to a significant event, constitute part of a costume, or match clothing that your friends have also bought (a symbol of friendship*). I always try to make sure that new pieces I buy––especially ones that are single-use (i.e. not simplistic and not versatile)––are for a special event or purpose.
NOTE: I would argue that your friendships––like all other aspects of your life––are not at all defined by the clothing you wear or the items you own!
Does this piece fit well?
Don’t Buy Example: a jacket that's a bit too narrow in the shoulders and doesn’t fit correctly.
If the piece is too tight or too loose, chances are you won’t end up wearing it. Ill-fitting clothing can make you feel less confident––and feel self-conscious; why would you intentionally get something that won’t make you feel like your best self? In the case of shoes, ill-fighting clothing can also have physical consequences––if too large or too small, shoes may rub your heel raw, hurt your toes, or cause blisters to form.
Also, although you may think that your purchase will serve as motivation to lose weight, I’d recommend delaying your purchase until you’ve reached the size that you want (don’t pre-emptively buy it). To make the most of your money, you want clothing that you’ll reach into your closet for as many times as possible; the piece should fit you today.
Is this piece comfortable?
Don’t Buy Example: a stiff leather jacket that looks great but makes it hard to raise your arms!
If the piece isn’t comfortable, you probably won’t wear it as much. Also, similar to ill-fitting clothing, you probably won’t feel as confident. So when shopping, try to buy items that feel good––and make you feel good!
NOTE: If you can think of a better “S” word than “snuggly”, let me know!
Is this piece better than all the alternatives out there?
Don’t Buy Example:a white t-shirt with bad stitching and loose threads hanging off the sleeves.
When you’re buying basics (and just any clothing in general), consider investing in a more expensive alternative if it will last longer! Why wouldn’t you want the best for yourself? You get to decide what you define as “superiority”––is it the best price point? the best quality? the best design?
Would I buy this piece if I had to pay full price for it?
Don’t Buy Example: a pair of jeans you’re thinking of buying 50% off (in a Buy One, Get One 50% Off deal) that you wouldn’t normally buy.
If the answer is no, you’ll only buy the product if it is on sale, question the reasoning behind your purchase. And consider putting the item back onto the rack! (or delete it from your cart; do people even buy clothes in person anymore?)
Remember that you save 100% when you don’t buy anything!
Sleep (on it) 😴
Will I still want this piece tomorrow morning?
Don’t Buy Example:a $120 track jacket that you saw while shopping for leggings and now want.
To avoid impulse purchases, I recommend sleeping on your decision to buy a piece of clothing. Place your item in the shopping cart and let it sit there overnight (or longer! You could try 30 days!). If by the end of your sleeping (i.e. waiting) period, you still want to purchase the item, you can go ahead with full confidence that you’re making the right decision!
If you feel like you need to buy an item because there is a flash sale, this Sleep On It Principle can help you question whether you want the item because you need it, or because it’s on sale (Sale Principle!).
NOTE: I’ve found it’s helpful to keep a “Wishlist” of items that I’m thinking about buying and leaving the items on the list for 30 days. Usually, by the end of the 30 days, I’ll realize that I don’t need the item, and sometimes I’ll even forget about the list––so clearly purchasing the item wasn’t pressing at all! You don’t have to use the Wishlist for all items you want to buy, but at the very least, try out the 30-day waiting period for items over $100!