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How to Buy Sustainable Clothing on a Budget

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Affordable Sustainable Clothing

There’s nothing like a new outfit to make you feel like a new woman.

But what happens when that outfit isn’t so trendy anymore? Or the cheap fabric pills after the first wash? Or we go looking again for the buzz we got when we purchased new clothes?

Australia is the second-biggest consumer of textiles in the world, each person buying around 27kg of clothing each year.

That translates to spending around $1,000 each on clothing per year.

Of the clothes we buy, around 23 kgs (that’s 85%) ends up in landfill (much of it synthetic). This clothing waste equates to around $500 million worth of clothes in Australia a year. Oxfam estimate 9513 garments are thrown into British landfill every 5 minutes!

That’s mind boggling!

The good news is, there are steps we can take to reduce the impact our clothing has on the environment while still saving money and looking good too.

1. Buy Fewer Clothes

A Cambridge University study (PDF) revealed that in 2006, consumers purchased one-third more clothing than in 2002 and we have four times more clothes in our wardrobes than we did in 1980.

‘Fast fashion’ – a business model based on high-volume cheap, low-quality clothing churned out to keep up with ever-changing fashion trends– is the reason we’re buying and discarding more clothes than ever before.

So, the first, most fundamental step to saving money on clothing and reducing our environmental footprint is to simply buy less.

A wardrobe of minimal, good-quality, timeless pieces (fashionably known as the capsule wardrobe), will see you looking good all year round while saving money and reducing textile waste.

2. Take Care of the Clothes You Have

As well as buying fewer clothes, you want to use the clothes you do have for as long as possible. For clothes to last, it’s important to buy the best quality clothes you can afford and then take care of them.

Ways to look after your clothes include:

  • Wash your clothes less
  • Avoid the tumble dryer
  • Wear an apron when cooking or doing dirty work to protect your clothes from stains
  • Remove stains with good old laundry soap
  • Mend your clothes

In his book, The Upside of Irrationality, Dan Ariely (my favourite behavioural economist) describes what he terms the IKEA effect: we place more value on things we make ourselves. If shopping is a hobby, making your clothing not only fills in time, it means you’re more likely to value and look after your clothes, making them last longer.

Replace that I just bought this feel good feeling with I made this myself.

3. Buy Second-Hand Clothing

Kids clothes don’t last long. Not because of the rough wear they get (although there’s that too) but because they grow out of them so darn quick.

Second-hand clothing not only saves you money, you’re keeping clothing out of landfill that much longer and you’re not adding to it by buying more new clothes.

I’m going to make a confession – I’m not good at buying second-hand clothes for myself. Some people have a knack for finding treasures- I’m not blessed with that skill, at least not when it comes to clothing. But it’s easier for the kids’ clothes.

4. Recycle or Repurpose Old Clothes

When your clothes have given you a good life, there are three ways to keep them out of the trash pile:

  1. Donate your clothes to charity.

Donating your old clothes to charity is a great way to recycle them, just make sure they are in good nick. If you wouldn’t buy clothes of the same quality, then don’t use charities as a dump. If it’s not good enough for you to sell, then it’s not good enough to give to charities.

  1. Sell your clothes.

If you’re looking for extra cash, then selling your unwanted clothes is a great way to make a few extra dollars.

  1. Repurpose your clothes.

Make new things like bags, aprons, kids clothes or furnishings from old clothes. The better quality the clothing is, the better quality the repurposed item.

Alternatively, turn your clothes into cleaning rags to avoid disposables.

And don’t forget that you can add cotton and other natural fibres to the compost heap.

5. Buy Sustainable Clothing

In an ideal world, all our clothes would be produced sustainably and provide a living wage for those working in the industry.

If you have the budget for it (and it becomes more affordable when you buy fewer clothes), invest in good quality clothes made sustainably.

Sustainable clothing options include:

  • Hemp
  • Organic Cotton (regular cotton being the most pesticide-intensive crop in the world)
  • Linen
  • Organic Wool
  • Alpaca Wool
  • Silk
  • Cashmere
  • Bamboo (sustainably grown, not so sustainably manufactured)

What about Viscose (Rayon), Modal or Lyocell (Tencel®)?

These fabrics are made from wood pulp and manufactured in a similar way to bamboo. The jury is out on whether these fabrics are sustainable or not; they definitely aren’t if sourced from old-growth forests, but increasingly, they are coming from plantation forests.

Resources to help you buy clothes more sustainably:

6. Buy natural fibres

If organic and eco-fashion are out of your price range (it’s not in ours either), the next best thing after buying less and buying second-hand is to buy clothing made out of natural fibres.

Synthetic fibres like polyester, acrylic, nylon, rayon, acetate and spandex shed tiny fibres in the washing machine, and these microscopic fibres (up to 70,000) get washed into waterways and can potentially poison the food chain (source). On top of that, when disposed of, synthetic fabrics don’t break down like natural fibres.

Mainstream clothing, even when made from natural fibres, isn’t ideal but it’s better than buying synthetic.

If everyone bought fewer, better quality clothes, disposed of fewer clothes and stuck to natural fibres, this would greatly reduce the burden of the fashion industry on the environment.

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9 Comments

  1. I really like this post and appreciate what you have outlined. Just last year I bought my first sewing machine and this year I’ve given myself the challenge of making all of my own clothes. I am hoping this will reduce my impact on the humanity side of the scale i.e. not buying mass-produced clothing from a sweatshop style manufacturer. But…I still buy my fabric from Spotlight and have bought two different rayon fabrics lately for dresses. I imagine this fabric production still has a significant impact on people and the environment so from here on in, I will try and keep that in mind :)

    1. Hi Michaela, nice to meet you. Good luck with your sewing challenge.

      I get my fabric from Spotlight too and it’s not ideal, but who of us live in an ideal world! I love rayon, it’s my favourite fabric *guilty feeling*. It’s so soft.

  2. I love buying second hand clothes! A friend got me onto it a few years ago and I haven’t looked back. In fact I find it difficult to buy new now because in comparison it’s so much more expensive.

    Another thing that I’ve recently started doing is trying to wear what I have in new ways. You know those people who have experimented with wearing the same item every day for a month say, but creating a new look by combining it with different accessories? I’m hopeless at that and it’s why I *feel* like I have nothing new to wear. So I’ve started working on finding new ways to wear what I already have and expand my look that way instead of by buying more clothes.

  3. Great article, really made me think about my habits and lots of good tips!

    You might be interested in http://www.boomerangbags.org – an Aussie company up-cycling pre-loved material and coffee bean bags to shopping bags, produce bags, totes etc.

    Keep up the great work ????
    Cheers,
    Dee

  4. All of these are great idea’s for many years now My sewing machine has sat in the cupboard, but it is back out and I am recycling clothing into new garments, and I try to purchase better quality cotton materials and avoid the others. Pinterest have many free patterns and ideas how to recycle clothing into new item for you and family to wear or use in the home. I have a favourite pear of jeans and the were starting to wear out so I have made them into shorts and a skirt that had a rip is now another garment. Recycle and give a favourite item a new lease at life. Keep up the excellent work, love to read and reread your articles.

  5. Over 2 seasons, I replaced my wardrobe with bamboo clothing. I just love the feel of the fabric and you can wear it in summer and winter, and just add different accessories to change the look. I have not bought any clothes this year, and next year, I will probably buy only one piece of clothing. Thanks for your great. I love buying second hand clothes as well.

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