Closet Audit: Creating a Sustainable Wardrobe

Closet Audit: Creating a Sustainable Wardrobe

Marie Kondo’s sometimes ruthless tactics toward sparking joy in one’s home—especially one’s closet—seemed wildly original in their frankness when they first hit the US. Take everything you own out of its place and touch it, making sure you really love it, before putting it back in its ideal place, or tossing it? Sounds like a recipe for disaster all over the country, especially when Americans are notorious gluttons of stuff and trash: including 80 pounds of used textiles per person. Eighty pounds is the weight of a small human—and maybe you can even visualize what that heap of pants that don’t fit (but might one day), old free college shirts, and prom dresses lurking in your closet would look like if pulled out for a joy-sesh.

I for one can certainly visualize that, for well before there was a Marie Kondo I, as a teenager in suburban New Jersey, would often examine my wares en masse just as she recommends. Plagued by a poor body image and frustrations with trends and brands that never looked right on me, but I bought anyway because I just had to to even approach “fitting in,” I could usually answer the question of which pieces sparked joy with quick precision: none of them. Okay, maybe a few things: the oversized sweatshirts and striped tee-shirts that fell somewhere on the spectrum of making me feel like me and making me feel invisible. So seasonally, or whenever I was bored, I’d turn out everything in my dresser and closet and after a few hours look smilingly at the folded piles of clothes I hated and wouldn’t have to face anymore when I was tasked with getting dressed every morning.

Today, I have far fewer—really, none—of those self-deprecating items of clothing. I’ve settled into a comfortable uniform of styles (still stripes and sweats—but now they’re Parisienne, and more expensive sweats and called “athleisure”)  and brands that I know fit well, and that allow me to buy things online without having to schlep to stores and endure the pain of trying things on. Having these pieces in my possession is a source of joy in and of itself, as are the little missions I give myself every so often when I allow myself to buy something new. And yet, hand in hand with those new acquisitions remains a strong desire to purge, to minimalize even my minimalist wardrobe.

Part of this inclination I know comes from an intense consciousness of the waste crisis we have on our hands, as a species. The textile waste statistic listed above is just a small portion of what we throw away—most offense of all, plastics, 19 billion pounds of which ends up in the ocean every year. If we keep going at the rate we’re going, we’ll soon be drowning in our own waste. Whenever I look at my closet, which is often, I can’t help but conjure that image of heaps of clothing I tossed willy nilly over the years, and imagining with a pang of guilt where all that currently resides. How, then, could I add more to those piles by further streamlining my clothing, even if it’s done from a place of good intentions?

the aftermath of fast fashion

Last week, I attended a panel event on sustainable fashion hosted by Eileen Fisher, one of the industry leaders in eco-conscious items and methods, that addressed that very question. Many of the speakers, whose backgrounds in fashion and sustainability were quite diverse, traced the answer back to the source. Sloppy production (including making sufficient and careful fit samples, which are the prototypes of different styles meant to be tested on real humans for wearability but often not), financially-driven manufacturing decisions, and a host of other factors are behind those heaps of clothing we toss every year. The articles themselves are basically designed for a handful of wears only: “fast fashion” is thus a term that could be applied to the speed at which styles are available for purchase as much as the speed at which they leave our closets once again. And at such affordable prices, it’s hard to not justify disposing of something when you can get another one just like it for a few dollars.

One might think that I’d come away from the event with renewed guilt and frustration. The latter was definitely present, but I also felt empowered. With this knowledge, I was reminded that I could continue to shop as long as I made informed decisions (and I love learning/researching). Curating a cache of brands, like Eileen Fisher, whose products have no way of inducing guilt, I can make purchases without having to worry about the true cost of their production. (EF also has a tremendous repurposing program, where they will take back and repair or recycle used items from their store—so everything is full circle.) Clothing from such brands might be more expensive out the outset, and has certainly been a hindrance to me in the past; but isn’t a single, high-quality investment piece I can wear for years a smarter financial decision than ten shirts I don’t really like and eventually want, and have, to get rid of within a year? Aside from new purchases, I can rest assured that the fact that my current clothes are 98 percent joy-giving means I won’t need to throw anything away anytime soon—until they’re literally unwearable. I just wear and rewear and repeat (washing on a regular, and strategic, schedule of course).

My closet audit, then, this season wasn’t so much about purging and replacing. It was about mindfully acknowledging the plenty that I have, and taking steps to encourage others around me to do the same. I don’t like to evangelize about most things—whether it be literal faith or lifestyle—but rather find it most effective to live by example. So rather than worrying about whether my colleagues will notice I rotate through the same five sweaters and two pairs of pants weekly (yep, outing myself there…) I own that with a Beyonce-like confidence. My outfits might not be hand-sewn sequin affairs (and think about how many wears Bey gets out of those!), but my stripes are just as fierce, and worthy of an encore performance.

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