'What, precisely, does an “ethical” wardrobe look like? My own attempts to assemble one have been nebulous at best. Like many, I’ve taken up the sustainable fashion movement’s call to “buy less, buy better”, cutting my clothing consumption by more than 75 per cent and doing away with leather (part of a concurrent shift to a vegan diet). But is it enough?
According to research from the Hot Or Cool Institute, a Berlin-based think tank studying the intersection of sustainability and society, it’s not even close to enough. To limit global temperatures from rising more than 1.5C above pre-industrial levels – and thus mitigate the worst impacts of climate change – we need to cut the annual carbon emissions generated by our wardrobes to 128.7kg. In the UK, that means we should be buying no more than nine new garments a year. In other parts of the G20, where the average emissions generated by a single garment is higher, the number of garments is five. That will require a significant lifestyle shift, since the average UK shopper is on track to buying 27 new items a year by 2030. Last year I bought 20 new things, which didn’t feel like a lot until I tallied it all up. It is at least an improvement on 2014, when, at the peak of the designer collaboration craze and my own particular enthrallment with Jenna Lyons’s J Crew, I bought 82 new pieces of clothing, shoes and accessories in a single year – and still managed to feel badly dressed. (When you buy 82 things in a single year, you don’t spend much time thinking about what you’re acquiring.)
The Hot Or Cool Institute’s study proposes a “sufficiency” wardrobe of 74 pieces, making up about 20 outfits: six for work, three for home, five for working out and sports, two for festive occasions and four for the great outdoors. Given that 70 per cent of garments hanging in our wardrobes are “passive” – ie never or only rarely worn – this seems like a perfectly workable number. Consider, too, that the average French wardrobe in the 1960s was made up of about 40 garments, and didn’t require wall-to-wall or walk-in closets to house everything (something I’m thinking about as I mock up joinery for my house).
“We’re not really asking people to go back to the ’70s or ’60s,” says Luca Coscieme, one of the study’s authors. “Even if people [returned to the volumes they were buying] in 2010 it would make a big difference… we’ve doubled [the amount] we’re buying in that time.”
Given what’s at stake, reducing our fashion purchases is not a big ask. Fail to keep temperatures from rising above the 1.5-degree mark by 2030, and we’ll be pushed past environmental tipping points from which there is no return. Cities will flood, Australia’s Great Barrier Reef will largely die off and an estimated 100 million people could be thrown into poverty. There are other ways we can reduce the footprint of our wardrobes too, such as washing our clothing less often and at lower temperatures, buying second-hand (the study does not put a suggested cap on second-hand purchases) and extending the lifetime of our items to eight years and nine months instead of the study’s baseline of eight years, which is where services like The Restory come in. But none of these actions rival the impact of buying less.
In that spirit, I’ll be limiting myself to five new things and four second-hand. And, in line with my diet, almost all will be plant-based.
The upside of being in my mid-30s and having dropped not-insignificant sums on wardrobe staples over the past decade – a heavy winter coat from Prada, a Khaite trench roomy enough to accommodate an oversized jumper, straight-leg jeans I took to the tailor so I’d never want for another pair – means that the gaps are few. But there are gaps. Some, such as an office-appropriate dress lightweight enough to cater for the hotter summers we’re having in London, will be a priority if I can’t find something second-hand. Others will need to wait until 2024. Less is more: the bare-essentials shopping list… '
- Lauren Indvik - Financial Times - 2023