How to create a sustainable wardrobe?
Nowadays, buying clothes and shoes has become an everyday activity, which we often do without thinking. We went for a walk to the mall and ended up buying something because we craved it, because it is fashionable and caught our attention in one of the showcases. This is possible thanks to the fact that apparel stores offer a great variety of clothes and shoes, often at low prices, which allows us to buy them casually without causing a big impact on our budget.
How many times have you bought a piece of clothing on impulse and when you get home you realize that you don’t like it that much, it does not fit right or it is not flattering? As it turns out, the fashion industry is fueled by these impulse purchases. People need to buy more clothes than what they need and more frequently to keep this business model afloat.
This business model is called fast fashion, which is just like junk food: cheap, fast and low quality. Many large brands use this business model, completely changing the merchandise in their stores several times a year to always offer novel designs that tempt buyers, minimizing as much as possible the fixed costs and the time of design, manufacturing and transportation
In the fast-fashion model all possible shortcuts are taken to ensure that the company maximizes profits and reduces production times. To achieve this, they use low quality materials, ignore environmental protection protocols, using dyeing and manufacturing processes full of toxic substances, and hire poorly paid labor in countries where labor rights are not respected.
All garments begin as a fiber, either natural as cotton or wool, semi-natural, such as rayon and viscose or synthetic such as polyester and nylon. The production of each of these fibers has an environmental and social impact, for example, it is estimated that producing one kilo of cotton requires about 2100 liters of water and its cultivation uses toxic agrochemicals that have been linked to malformations in babies and cancer.
Other fibers such as polyester and nylon are derived from petroleum, so their manufacture requires enormous amounts of energy. On the other hand, polyester fibers break off easily in the wash and reach the water, where they join other microplastics and enter the food chain, ending up in our gut. Rayon and viscose are usually less resource-demanding than all-natural fibers, but since they are made from cellulose, it is important to make sure that they come from well-managed forest plantations and not from natural forests.
The dyeing of textiles is the process that uses the most energy and, therefore, the one that produces the most greenhouse emissions. Many of the companies that carry out this process for large brands are found in countries with looser environmental regulations, so it is common to see how their wastewater changes the color of rivers. In Colombia, for example, we have witnessed several times the color changes of the Medellín River due to illegal dumping of different textile companies located in the Aburrá Valley. The big fashion brands turn to these textile factories because they produce cheaper, since they do not have to invest in wastewater treatment systems and can use lower quality dyes that are often forbidden in other countries.
The production process
Manufacturing is another link in the process that is full of irregularities. The brands go to countries where the basic rights of workers are not respected, since they offer low prices. In these factories, the laborforce is mostly women, working in unsafe conditions and receiving miserable salaries. A very sad example of these practices is the Rana Plaza tragedy, a huge sweatshop in Bangladesh, which collapsed in 2013, leaving more than 1100 workers dead and another 2,400 injured. This huge 7-story factory produced garments for Primark, Benetton, GAP, among other large brands, which were identified by the labels found among the rubble.
The lack of traceability in fashion production chains makes these cases possible, since there is a kind of anonymity that often does not allow to link the brands with the companies that carry out the manufacture of their garments.
How to create a sustainable wardrobe?
One of the first steps to start a more sustainable wardrobe is to really think about what we need and not buy just because. This is not an easy task, we are already very used to “retail therapy” and shopping has become an activity that is often done to entertain us or to make us feel better with our lives
Organize and clean your closet. Many times we end up buying things very similar to those we already had because the closet is so cramped that we do not even know what’s in it. To begin, divide your clothes into 4 piles. The heap 1 is the clothes that you love, the heap 2 is clothes that you use but you do not use very often, heap 3 is clothes that do not fit at all, but you could fix and heap 4 is clothes that you are sure you will not use again. Take a few weeks to decide which garments you want to keep from piles 2 and 3 and donate, resell or recycle the rest.
The next step is to choose where to buy. This is normally reduced to four options, a branded store with a large selection, an online store, a local store, probably not as flashy or a second-hand/thrift store. Some second-hand stores are on the internet as Closeando, Renueva Tu Clóset y Go Trendier, where you can buy and sell clothing, shoes and accessories from slightly used to new.
The big brands usually belong to multinational companies that follow the fast-fashion model, while the smaller businesses have simpler and more transparent production chains and favor the local economy. We must also bear in mind that the social and environmental responsibility of brands is very variable. Some large brands have signed commitments to improve the conditions of the factories that produce their products and others do not. You can see a rating list here, based on the transparency of information available for ecah brand and how hard they are working to reduce forced labor, child labor and the exploitation of workers along its production chain
Finally, what to buy? As you have cleaned and organized your wardrobe, you will have more clarity of the clothes that you like the most. These garments, the ones you wear the most, have colors and silhouettes that surely flatter you and make you feel comfortable. These garments will be the closest thing to your personal style, so keep them in mind when you go shopping. Choose new clothes that complement the ones you already have and in a style that you know you’ll be happy to wear. The ideal is to buy good quality clothes, which are probably a little more expensive, but will last much longer. You can take a look at the “capsule wardrobes” , which combine up to 40 garments to create as many outfits as possible, using pieces with classic cuts, which don’t go out of fashion so quickly.
Before buying new clothes, look at the label, here you will find clues about the origin and quality of the garment you are looking at. For example, the country of origin can give you clues about the working and environmental conditions in which the garment was made. The materials can indicate the quality and durability of the garment, as well as information on how to take care of it to prolong its lifespan. If the garment was made in China, Bangladesh, Morocco, Cambodia, India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia or Indonesia, it is likely that the workers did not receive a fair remuneration for their work, although there are always exceptions. Garments made in Colombia tend to be made in somewhat favorable working conditions, although they are far from ideal. In Colombia, workers must be of legal age and have the right to receive at least a minimum wage (COP 781,242 in 2018), social security (healthcare, pension), to form unions and receive payment for overtime hours, but due to the large number of people who work informally, these rights are not always guaranteed.
As for fibers, garments made of polyester are more durable, but they contaminate the water with plastic microfibers. Also, at the end of their lifespan they do not biodegrade, so if they are not recycled they end up in the landfill for hundreds of years. Natural fibers, such as cotton, wool and linen, tend to be more delicate and difficult to care for, so you must take special care to keep them in good condition, while fabrics of rayon, viscose and other seminatural materials are usually a bit easier to care for and more resistant. There are also mixtures between synthetic and natural fibers, such as cotton polyester or denim with elastane. The type of fiber or combination of fibers that you choose will be related to the quality and duration of the garment.
The care instructions
To ensure that the garment you buy is kept in its best shape for as long as possible you should review the care instructions. Here it is important to be honest and ask ourselves : Am I really going to wash this wool sweater by hand so that it does not shrink? Do I have the time and budget to send these items to the dry cleaners? This step is important, because if we are not going to take care of the garment properly, we will not use it, either because it deteriorated or because we are too lazy to wash it by hand or take it to the dry cleaners, so it is better not to buy it.
Sustainable Fashion in Colombia
Several initiatives have been born in Colombia, that seek to create more sustainable garments, for example, using ecological and recycled materials or developing projects that involve the most vulnerable communities. Here we share some of these initiatives that can help you make your wardrobe more sustainable.
They are manufacturers of bags and suitcases that use recycled tires in addition to natural materials such as leather and cotton. They are suitcases and bags that are manufactured on a small scale in Bogotá, with a simple and transparent production chain
This brand uses second-hand garments, which are transformed to give them a second life. Each garment is unique and individual, as they are based on vintage garments.
This designer uses “deadstock” fabrics, and makes small quantities, using organic materials and eco-friendly digital printing. Her clothes are made locally in Medellín, Colombia
This brand produces garments with environmental respectful processes and also seeks to generate income-growth opportunities for the women who manufacture them. His house-workshop is located in Cali, Colombia
This brand uses recycled PET bottles to make garments, thus reducing the environmental impact of clothing manufacturing. Using recycled PET bottles, saves a lot of water and also helps reduce the problem of contamination of plastics. They are located in Medellín, Colombia.