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Creating A More Sustainable Wardrobe: A Guide

For a long time, the fashion industry slipped under the radar for its impact on the environment. I guess everyone was so busy focusing on the way it tends to warp women’s relationship with their bodies and a myriad of other social issues.

But then, in 2013, the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh collapsed killing 1138 people. Not just any people. People who worked long hours and got paid less than minimum wage to create garments for fast fashion chains, such as H&M. For the first time since Nike’s sweatshops caused an outcry in the 1990s, the world received a sobering reminder that the clothes we buy with the change in our pockets and toss away without a second thought are actually made by real people – mostly women with households and children and husbands and errands to run – in far off places, working in shocking conditions.

Then, of course, there is the unpleasant little fact that the fashion industry is the second biggest pollutant on the planet. In the US alone, 13 million tons of textiles make it into landfills every year, accounting for 9 percent of total non-recycled waste. Apart from this, the water needed to keep cotton crops healthy and thriving is exorbitant, while the toxic chemicals in dyes seep into our rivers and oceans.

While this all paints a pretty dismal picture for anyone with a passion for dressing sharply, the good news is there are actually a lot of ways to keep your fashion-related carbon footprint in check.

Here are some ideas:


As consumers grow more aware of ethical practices in the fashion industry, large retailers are stepping up their game to offset the damage they do on an annual basis.

Both H&M and Zara have a clothing recycling incentive programme, where they reward shoppers with small discounts when they turn in the clothes they no longer use. Depending on how well-worn these items are, they get redistributed appropriately.

In H&M’s case, the following categories are in place:

  • Rewear – clothing that can be worn again will be sold as second-hand clothes.
  • Reuse – old clothes and textiles will be turned into other products, such as cleaning cloths.
  • Recycle – everything else is turned into textile fibres, and used for things like insulation.

The point, however, is that before you just pick up a bargain for a bargain’s sake, it’s worth doing a bit of research and scratching the surface to find out whether your favourite retailer or brand are doing their bit to help save the environment, support local small businesses or cut down on their imports.

It’s worth checking out the following:


One of the very best ways to make sure that you’re contributing to ethical and sustainable fashion, is to support local designers, makers and small businesses.

Whether that’s investing in two or three top quality items from local designers to form part of your capsule wardrobe or buying a basket bag from a trader at your village market, you’ll be making a huge difference.

When you support local industries, you help create jobs and keep people in service, you contribute to our economy and of course, get the seriously cool benefit of having truly unique items to show off.

Check out our fashion section for loads of eco-friendly options.

Here are also a few ethical local designers to check out:


My personal favourite way of minimising my clothing-related carbon footprint is to buy vintage and second-hand. There’s nothing quite like the thrill of thrift-shopping – finding absolute gems in pokey little charity shops or bric-a-brac markets.

Vintage/second-hand fashion is enjoying a huge rise in popularity in South Africa and preloved markets, Instagram accounts and online shops are popping up everywhere.

Here are a few of my favourite thrifting Instagram accounts:


Reduce, reuse, recycle your style by having a clothing swap with friends!

I’ve been part of a good many clothing swaps in my time and can tell you, you’ll be amazed at how excited someone else gets about that dress you haven’t worn in years! And vice versa, of course. Sometimes we lose our passion for our own clothes, but that doesn’t mean they’ve lost their magic. All it needs is the right eye!

If you’d like to do a clothing swap with friends, but don’t know where to start, here’s a blog post I wrote way back in 2011 about my first experience. It includes a few basic guidelines.


If you aren’t much of a sewer, the temptation is probably always there just to throw out any item of clothing with a tear or even a missing button. However, if you’re serious about being a more conscious fashion consumer, you’ll have to discipline yourself in this regard. If it’s a small hole in a sock or a missing button or two, it’s not too hard or time-consuming just to patch up quickly.

For bigger jobs, you can always approach a local seamstress or a nifty family-member or friend to help you out. Although I recently took up sewing with dreams of creating my own garments (spoiler alert: it’s really hard and I’m yet to make something wearable, but I’m getting there!) and generally try to fix up my own clothes, I often turn to more experienced hands for complicated jobs like resizing skirts/dresses/pants. This is a great way to ensure that you get maximum wear out of every garment!

Finally, if you’ve grown bored of the items in your cupboard and have a crafty side, why not think of ways to make them more interesting. Put a Sharpie to your sneakers or sew a patch onto your jeans. Really, the possibilities are endless!

And if you really can’t resist a fast fashion item… ask yourself this question:

Am I going to wear it at least 30 times? And if the answer is no, best you put it right back on that railing. The 30 wears campaign was started by Livia Firth – sustainability consultant, producer of the fast-fashion documentary The True Cost, and wife of actor Colin Firth – to help people rethink their clothing consumption. The ultimate goal, is to reduce the number of items you buy and, so doing, also reduce the related waste. Plus, you’ll end up having a closet full of only the clothes you really, REALLY like.

Want more ethical fashion advice? Check out our article about wearing ethical leather.

What are your sustainable fashion tips?




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