Hey Dan & team. I’ve been reading the blog for a couple years now and really appreciate your honest perspective on things – especially the articles about fast fashion and sustainability. As a recent college grad, I am guilty of buying cheap clothes at stores like H&M (I’m on a tight budget, man!)… So my question is: what are the best ways to shop for sustainable clothes (that won’t kill the planet), on a budget? Thanks
Hi there – thanks for this question!
It’s young people like you – becoming more conscious of your consumption habits and environmental impact – that give us the courage to believe that we can make sweeping changes to the fashion industry (one of the worst global industries in terms of pollution and waste). According to the United Nations, the fashion industry is responsible for 8-10% of total carbon emissions – more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined! (If you haven’t already, please read our article "The True Cost of Fast Fashion").
Australia and California may already be on fire, but we can still make positive changes to reduce our impact.
Here are some things you can do to curb your effect on the environment, when it comes to shopping for clothing:
1. Buy natural fibers, not synthetic
Always buy clothing made from all-natural fibers (like wool, cotton, linen, silk, hemp, etc), not synthetic fibers (like polyester, nylon, spandex, rayon, acrylic, etc). Synthetic textiles are oil-based products and are basically a derivative of plastic. That means they never biodegrade (or have an incredibly long half life, for the science folk out there). I would go so far as to argue that some of the synthetic clothing sold at “fast fashion” stores should be considered “single use plastics”, and should be outlawed the same way plastic straws are. If you combine a synthetic textile with a hyper-trendy short-lived design, the end product is essentially a “single use plastic”…and it’s much larger and more intricate to produce than a straw.
2. Avoid trends, buy classic timeless designs
The absolute best, most sustainable thing you can do, when it comes to shopping for clothing is to buy an item and wear it as frequently as possible, for as long as possible. Replacing clothing, or buying new styles (even if it’s made from all-natural fibers or made by a “sustainable brand”), is the worst thing you can do. Think of it like this: in order to make a new garment (let’s call it a cotton t-shirt for this example), a farmer needs to plant cotton seeds using industrial equipment, apply pesticides, harvest with more large equipment, then ship the raw material to a processing plant. The processing plant then uses a whole lot more water, and chemicals, and large machinery, to treat the fibers and get them ready for weaving. This treated material is then shipped once again to a textile mill which again uses a whole lot more water, and chemicals, and larger machinery to turn the treated raw material into a textile. The textile is then shipped once again to a sewing plant, which then uses more water, oil and large machinery to turn the textile into a garment. This garment is then shipped once again and then hung in stores that flash 100-foot-tall neon signs in order to attract your attention and convince you to buy this new product. Then you buy it – and wear it 1-3 times before the trend is announced as “over”. Then this garment is considered garbage, and all of the energy and resources that went into its creation are wasted. This is happening every second, of every minute, of every day. And the “cycles” or “trends” are only getting faster, not slower.
3. Buy the best quality you can afford
With the same idea of avoiding trends so your purchases will last longer, you should also try to buy the highest quality (most durable) product you can afford. It takes a similar amount of resources to make a garment that is glued together and will fall-apart in the wash as it does to make a hand-sewn garment that is built to last. Again, the key is not replacing items or throwing them out. Buy quality and whack it till the wheels fall off. Good menswear is resilient and actually gets better with age. There are also psychological benefits to shopping this way.
A note on “donating”
You may think that donating your old clothing is mitigating the effects and saving the planet – but clothing donation involves a tremendous amount of additional resources, including industrial chemical-based cleaning and a whole new series of global shipping. And in the end, a large percentage of donated clothing goes unwanted and still eventually ends up on landfills.
4. Buy local to cut down on shipping
Consider where your garments are made, and how far they had to travel, to cut down on shipping emissions.
While I do believe that the “made to order” business model is much better for the environment (as opposed to making a whole bunch of unnecessary inventory that doesn’t sell). H&M, for example, infamously has made more than $4Billion dollars of unsold merchandise…at an average price point of <$50, think of how many garments that is! Made for no reason, which will eventually be burned. Yes, burned.
However, if you’re having garments made one-at-a-time in places like China or Vietnam, and shipping them one-at-a-time in single boxes around the world, this is also problematic. Not to mention, typical “online custom” fitting processes (such as “self measure”) are built for business scale, and not garment quality or accuracy, which is why re-make rates for most custom brands are in the 20-30% range. This means companies are not only shipping one garment at a time, but a quarter of the time they are shipping 2 or 3 garments per order. This is relatively new territory, but I have not seen one article discussing the environmental impacts of the long-distance “one at a time” business, even through custom products continue to grab more and more market share.
This is one of the many reasons we at AOS make locally in the United States – most of our customers are domestic and most of our packages don’t travel very far (compared to making overseas). Not to mention our re-make rate is less than 1% due to our exclusive fitting process – we are willing to provide the service of individual human-reviewed fittings, not only to make sure you love your garment(s), but also to make sure that we are not wasting fabric or unnecessary resources.
5. Buy second-hand if possible
Check out our "Guide to Vintage Shopping", and our "Guide to Buying Menswear on eBay", for starters.
6. Know your size, and how to use alterations
One of the biggest reasons people throw-out clothing is because it doesn’t fit. Never buy the wrong size, even if it’s on a crazy last-chance clearance sale. You won’t wear it. Also, having an understanding of tailoring will allow you to alter your clothing to fit properly (and only buy clothing that can be altered), rather than giving up on it. Check out our "Guide to Alterations".
I hope this helps brother. There should be nothing stopping you from dressing with style, in a sustainable way, on any budget.
Thanks, as always, for reading and doing your part. Together we can make a difference.
Yours in style,