How To Transition To A Sustainable Wardrobe Woman sorts through jeans and shirts to decide which garments to keep in her new closet

How To Transition To A Sustainable Wardrobe

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Last week we discussed how the fast fashion industry is harming both people and the planet as well as the definitions and importance of ethical fashion, sustainable fashion and slow fashion. If you haven’t read that post yet, click here! Today you’ll learn how to transition your current closet to a sustainable wardrobe built on both secondhand and responsibly made garments.

Start With Your Current Wardrobe

Throwing out and starting over is the antithesis of zero waste. You can still work with what you have and build, replace, and swap over time.

Going Through Your Closet

Before you can make any plans for the future, you have to figure out exactly what you own. You may think you know, but I’ve surprised myself many times by actually looking through my dresser and closet and finding items I totally forgot I owned.

Try to answer these questions:

  • What do I actually wear on a regular basis?
  • What actually still fits me?
  • Which items have I never worn?
  • Which items do I need for special occasions? (Cocktail dress, heels, suit and tie, etc.)
  • Do I have duplicates of this item? (Meaning if you have three green t-shirts, you probably only need one.)
  • Which items are showing too much wear? (Stretched out, holes, etc.)
  • How many of each type of item do I need? (How many shirts, pants, socks, etc. could you comfortably live with?)

Answering these questions will help you split up your items into a few different piles:

  • Keep
  • Repair
  • Return
  • Get Rid Of

Put the Keep pile back into your closet or dresser. Repair garments yourself or find someone to do it for you (a tailor, a friend, Craigslist, etc.). Return items you have never worn and don’t plan to wear if possible.

Getting Rid Of Clothing

There are many ways to get rid of unwanted clothing, and you likely won’t have to throw any of it into the trash.

Unwearable Garments

If an item is too stained to wear or beyond repair, can it be used as a cleaning rag? Fabrics like cotton, linen, or other natural fibers make good cleaning rags. Cut the garment into squares and hem around the edges. Old socks are great because they work like mittens. They don’t need to look pretty; they’re for cleaning messes!

For fabrics that won’t do well, you can recycle them! Goodwill stores will take stained or worn out clothing and other fabric items for recycling. Click here to find you nearest Goodwill location.

Some brands like Patagonia (Patagonia only) and H&M (any brand) will take back clothing items for recycling or resale as well based on quality.

Friends And Family

For items that you just don’t need anymore, check if friends or family want them first. Host a clothing swap and encourage others to bring their unwanted items for exchange. Give hand-me-downs to siblings if you’ve outgrown items. By directly going providing clothing to its next owner, you save on the resources used in selling it yourself or donating to charity or a thrift shop.

Selling And Consigning

Reselling clothing secondhand has never been easier. There’s loads of websites/apps where posting a listing is as easy as snapping a picture. Here’s a quick list:

You can also always stop by a local consignment shop and consign there. This supports local businesses and reduces transportation emissions.


Lastly you can donate clothing to charities or thrift shops, but I do have to give you a warning about donating.

Charities that donate clothing to underdeveloped nations have caused some unforeseen problems. Kenya used to have a thriving garment industry while imported donated clothing was distributed for free. In the 1980s, thing changed.

Donated clothing began to be sold for cheap to undercut new garment prices, and the garment industry workforce has since declined by over 96%. In addition, when organizations send these garments overseas, they wrap them in giant plastic bundles like this.

I’m sure you’ve seen those big yellow bins in parking lots for Planet Aid, but this organization has been linked to the cult-like organization called the Teachers Group and little to none of your donations ever go to helping others. Instead, an investigation found donations get sold for personal use by members of the organization. Employees are forced to give up personal rights, salary, and all of their time to the will of the Teachers Group.

Wait It Out

As a final tip for paring down your wardrobe, if you’re hesitant to give things away, try this. Set aside your get rid of pile in a box or bag for a few weeks or a month. If you miss something, pull it out and keep it. Many times you’ll realize you never gave that bag a second thought, and it will be easier to let go.

Start Building A Sustainable Wardrobe

Let’s start transitioning that wardrobe into sustainable wardrobe. Sustainability and minimalism go hand and hand, especially when it comes to how much we own. I have a bunch of tips for prevent your closet from ballooning back to its original size as well as how to properly shop for replacement items.

Minimalist Wardrobe

Now that you’ve reduce the amount of items in your closet, how do you keep it that way? Many people love shopping and use retail therapy to deal with stress. It can be hard to quick those habits, but here are some tips.

Stop Impulse Buys

First, figure out what is causing you to shop or seek retail therapy. Is it stress, anxiety, or all those flashy sales emails? Work to combat emotional triggers (check out these tips on reducing stress and anxiety) and unsubscribe from email and mailing lists.

This tip can work for physical stores, but I think it works better online. Wait to make a purchase. After finding something you like, go home and spend a couple days thinking about if you actually want or need it. You can leave the wallet at home to remove temptation so all you can do is window shop.

When shopping online, go ahead and add items to your cart, but wait to check out. Don’t buy them right away. Let the cart sit for a few days before coming back and making a decision. (Bonus: some sites will send you a coupon code if you leave items in sitting in a cart!)

One In/One Out Rule

I like this tip because it not only prevents stocking back up on loads of clothing, but it also makes you think about both what you currently own and what you want to buy. The one in/one out rule means for every item you purchase, you must get rid of one. For example, if you want to buy a new shirt, be prepared to give up one you own (using the methods above to reduce waste of course).

This rule will prevent a lot of purchases because you are forced to take inventory of your current wardrobe. It will help limit you to purchases you actually need instead of just buying something new to buy something new.

You can also follow this rule in reverse. Once an item kicks the bucket, go out and find an ethical and sustainable replacement for it. This mirrors other aspects of transitioning to a zero waste lifestyle in which you get as much use out of what you own and slowly replace things over time with better options.

Capsule Wardrobes

One day I really hope to have a capsule wardrobe. Capsule wardrobes are highly limited wardrobes usually based on the season which contain a small number of versatile garments that can be used to create many different outfits.

Many capsule wardrobes consist of neutral tones because they are easier to match with everything, but in my opinion that’s kind of boring. Feel free to create a sustainable wardrobe around a specific palette of colors (like warm autumn shades) or use a single color as an accent found in multiple garments.

Wardrobes range widely in size, but based on guide online, 30-40 items seems to be average (although some wardrobes don’t include underwear, socks, and the like in that total). Check out this post by Candace from Just Posted to see how 28 items can create 60 different outfits.

Secondhand Sustainable Wardrobe

Shopping secondhand is the easier (and cheapest!) way to create a sustainable wardrobe. Some people are really turned off by “used” clothing, but there is absolutely no reason to be. Buying secondhand is great for our environment, and I think shopping in a thrift store is a better experience than a “normal” clothing store.

When secondhand shopping, keep in mind the quality of the items although the store is pretty good about only putting up things in good shape. Check for stains, holes, or other damage that may compromise an item. Also try to limit the amount of synthetic fabrics in your items to prevent shedding of microplastics in the wash.


Pretty much all the clothing I’ve bought in the past two years has been secondhand (the other portion is responsibly made). Being able to pop into the shop and find something new is great because you don’t need to worry about doing all that research into clothing brands.

In fact, I wrote an entire post on why everyone should be thrifting. Not only will you find a wider variety of clothing, but it’s already proved its worth so if there’s quality or fit issues, you’ll already know. Read the post for more reasons to thrift shop.

When buying secondhand clothing online through sites like Poshmark, you can see where the buyer is located to source clothing closest to you. This cuts down on transportation emissions (and you’ll get your items faster).

Clothing Swaps

In addition to buying clothing secondhand, you can be on the receiving end of someone else’s wardrobe transition. Accept items from others, and pick up a few new things from that clothing swap we talked about.

Clothing swaps fill in the desire for new things without needing to buy anything. You can keep your sustainable wardrobe looking fresh by swapping out just a few items every now and again. Swaps are also great for getting others involved in sustainability and they save items from going to waste.

New Sustainable Wardrobe

When you want to buy something new, make sure it’s not fast fashion. I discussed the problems with fast fashion in last week’s post as well as the alternatives: ethical fashion, sustainable fashion, and slow fashion. You can read the post here!

Here’s the aggregated list of good brands from that post:

When buying new items, I keep in mind a handful of requirements and questions. These are just what I follow. You can choose whatever you desire.


  • Garments should be made from natural fibers (cotton, linen, lyocell, hemp, bamboo, leather, wool, alpaca, etc.) or recycled fibers (recycled polyester or recycled nylon).
  • They should be built to last multiple years, fit well, and feel comfortable.
  • They should avoid being part of a trend so they won’t go out of style.

Questions To Answer

  • What are the ethics of this brand? Are employees paid well and treated fairly?
  • Where are their factories located?
  • How transparent are they about their practices?
  • What is their commitment to sustainability? What programs do they run/participate in?
  • Do they give back to the community?

I do my research before making new purchases so I know I am buying from brands that are ethical and sustainable and so I can be proud to support their efforts.

Caring For Your Sustainable Wardrobe

Transitioning to slow and sustainable fashion doesn’t stop at what’s in the closet. You have to take care of those items to make them last as long as possible. By stretching the lifespans of items, you reduce how often you buy and how much you buy as well as saving on resources for new items.


Washing and drying our clothing uses lots of water and electricity or gas. It also puts wear on our items by tumbling them around and scrubbing them against other garments.

Wash Less

Mom may have told you to make sure you wear new clean clothes every day, but in reality our clothes don’t usually dirty after a few hours of use. You can wear garments a few times before tossing them into the laundry bin, especially jeans and sweatshirts.

Here’s two different charts for reference (Chart 1 and Chart 2), but you can adjust based on your needs/wants. I wash my work jeans once a week and wear t-shirts a couple days before washing (I really only wear t-shirts at home and as pajamas).

Washing And Drying

When you do need to clean your clothing, take care to do it properly and conserve resources. Wash laundry only when you have a full load. Many washing machines also have a knob to adjust the size of the load so it knows how much water it needs to use.

Most items will clean just find in cold or warm water instead of hot so you can reduce energy use. You can also opt out of the dryer altogether and line dry your laundry. Here is a similar drying rack to what I have, and you can also string up a clothes line and use clothespins.

Be sure to read the tags to ensure you are properly washing items. Some garments should be hung up to dry or laid flat instead of going into the dryer. Others require a delicate wash cycle or handwashing. Be sure you know if and how items can be ironed. Here is a guide to reading all those laundry symbols so you can be a laundry pro.

Washing And Drying Aids

Now what do you use to clean your clothes? I’m talking about detergents, softeners, and dryer sheets. Liquid detergents are mostly water and come in plastic bottles. Better options are homemade detergent (click here for a recipe), detergent bought in from a bulk refill station, soap nuts, or powder detergent that comes in a cardboard box.

Softeners and scent boosters aren’t really necessary at all. I have never used these and see them as wasteful. If you want a scent boost, try this lavender dryer bag that also eliminates static. A more natural alternative to single use dryer sheets are wool dryer balls. They can be used for hundreds of washes!

To remove stains, try a stain stick or natural remedies. P.S. The sun is a good stain remover!

If you still wear synthetic clothing that can release microplastics in the wash, check out the Guppyfriend bag or the Coraball which will capture the tiny bits of plastic and prevent them from entering our waterways. You can read about the dangers of plastics in our oceans here.

Repair Your Wardrobe

Repair is the Xth R in Bea Johnson’s list of R’s for a zero waste life. We touched on it in the beginning, but repairing your clothes is a great way to extend the life of your garments. I’ve collected a few different ways you can mend you garments so you can choose the look you want.

Invisible Mending

This is the most common way to mend clothing: making it look like it was never mended. Invisible mending will match thread color and stitching will be hidden inside. Here are some tutorials:

Here are some photos of work I’ve done. I didn’t take before photos on most things, but I did get one of the jacket and a pair of jeans (see Patching And Other Repairs section for that after photo).

Visible Mending

I absolutely LOVE visible mending because your sustainable wardrobe becomes a talking piece. People will notice your repairs and ask about them. Now you have the opportunity to talk about why you choose to fix your clothing instead of tossing it out and buying new. You also get to modify your garments to be truly unique and match your style. Check out these tutorials:

Here are some photos of work I’ve done. The heart was sewn in the side seam of a pair of jeans at upper thigh level, and I just decided to use bright pink thread to sew up a small hole in my gloves.

Patching and Other Repairs

Sewing on patching can either be decently invisible or very visible, and it’s the easiest way to fix holes. All you have to do is cut a piece of fabric to size and stitch it on or you can buy easy iron-on patches.

I’ve also added some links to other sewing tutorials for things like buttons and zippers.

Here’s a comparison of a patch I did for my husband and one I did for myself. I went for a more invisible approach for my husband’s jeans, but still gave it a bit of flair. For my own patch, I wanted it to stand out a bit.


I know this was a lot of information, but this isn’t an overnight process. Transitioning to a sustainable wardrobe will take time, and I hope this guide will make it easier for you. Got any tips or want to suggest another clothing brand? Add it in the comments!

How To Transition To A Sustainable Wardrobe Woman sorts through jeans and shirts to decide which garments to keep in her new closet

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