Why we should all go on a new clothing diet

To scale back climate change, a study recommends buying just 3 new articles of clothing a year


Our overheating planet calls for a major wardrobe edit. Photo: Adrienne Leonard

If you were to do a clothing audit right now, and examine every item you’re wearing, you would probably have to fess up to at least one irresponsible purchase. Maybe it’s the rayon blouse that seems natural (it’s made from wood pulp, after all) but actually involves a toxic, energy-intensive manufacturing process. Perhaps it’s your fleece whose fibers will wind up as one of the many microplastic pollutants in the ocean. Or maybe it’s the fact that you’ve got too many new clothes in your closet. Because 3 items per year is the most we should be purchasing if we want to help avert the climate disaster we’re heading toward.

It sounds like a number pulled out of thin air, but it comes from a study called “The Future of Urban Consumption in a 1.5°C World,” conducted by a network of cities called C40 Cites, the University of Leeds, and global design and engineering firm Arup. They’ve traced 10% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions to the consumption habits of people in the world’s major cities, from the food they eat to the clothes they buy. In order to scale back our accelerated rate of climate change, and keep the world from warming up beyond the 1.5 degrees Celsius / 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit temperature change target in the Paris agreement (which we are already on track to surpass, of course), the authors pinpoint some of the drastic cuts that consumers need to make by 2030, including a major wardrobe edit.

The C40 report does offer a less “ambitious” goal of buying just 8 new items of clothing a year, which was the norm back in 2000, before fast fashion brought our current average up to 18 new clothing purchases a year. The researchers also factored in all the emissions involved in say, growing the cotton for the shirt that you will either purchase in a store or get delivered to your door. No matter how “green” you make that process, no matter how much cities, nations and businesses also curb their emissions, people need to pick up the slack, too.

It’s easy to feel like we’re headed toward environmental destruction and there’s nothing we can do to help, so we might as well eat another cheeseburger or get that leopard print sweater from H&M. This report very cleary contradicts that notion, and asks the world’s biggest consumers to go on a range of diets. One of the most meaningful but difficult challenges they prescribe is eliminating meat and dairy from our meals. I’m going to go out on a limb and say most of us can’t stomach that just yet (though we are starting to lose our taste for milk).

Shopping for fewer clothes, though, feels doable, like a dress rehearsal for the bigger habits we need to break. Our closets by and large are so full, we throw out on average a whopping 75 pounds of textile waste a year. And no one is asking us to stop adding to our wardrobe altogether; just to procure our clothes with care. If you’re up to the challenge, here’s how to get to that magic number of #3newclothes in the new year:

Maresa Ponitch of Dusty Rose Vintage shared recently on Instagram, “This stack of very compressed clothing bales represents about 1/4 of the clothing we processed EVERY. DAY.”

Make second-hand your first go-to

Maresa Ponitch of Dusty Rose Vintage, and the vintage pop-up, Gold Dust, sees vintage and second-hand clothing as the only way out of our fast-fashion mess. In the course of her career, she’s overseen the sorting of ten 40-foot shipping containers of used clothes a day for vintage stores. “Being in a warehouse surrounded by textile waste and seeing what’s happening to it—I can’t ignore it,” she said. As the clothing has piled up, so has its plastic content. “What we used to do with clothing that couldn’t be sold again as clothing would get shredded. Now, because of the high plastic content in the fibers, these machines are being destroyed; you can’t do anything with it except throw it into the landfill.”

Understandably, she has a passion for people using already-in-existence materials, and vintage sellers such as Noir OhioHousing Works and Gabriel Held who will be at Gold Dust are worth checking out any time of year, as are any of your own favorite vintage shops. The NYC Vintage Map will help you find one near you and its feed (@nycvintagemap) shares pop-ups and sales.

Clothing swaps are another good source for new-to-you threads, and The Green Building hosts ones for women’s clothes in the spring and fall.

Kate McGregor celebrated the 13th business anniversary of her sustainable clothing boutique, Kaight, this year. “In 2006, ‘sustainable fashion’ was a novel and rare concept; today brands from emerging start-ups to global companies are understanding that changes to the fashion industry are vital – not only for the health of our planet but for our personal well-being,” she posted on Instagram. Photo: Kaight

Shop from sustainable brands

If you’re going to buy new, buy from a sustainable brand or shop. Kaight, a boutique with locations in Brooklyn and Beacon run by Kate McGregor, stocks only clothes from sustainable, ethical fashion brands whose style is timeless, so you can wear them for years. (When she doesn’t shop from her own store, she buys vintage, too, from a boutique like 10 ft. Single by Stella Dallas.)

Eileen Fisher, considered a pioneering, sustainable designer, also offers an online resale shop, Renew, and sells second-hand Eileen Fisher in all of its New York stores. I’m a year into my purchase of a second-hand sweater, skirt, and blouse at the brick-and-mortar Renew in Irvington, NY, and they still feel new.

There are so many green fashion brands now, including Amour Vert, Pact, Study NY, and Coclico, it’s hard to know the best to shop from. The app Good on You is a helpful tool to sort through the brands that walk the eco-walk versus the ones who are posing. It gives many labels you may consider to be green, like Everlane and even Eileen Fisher, a so-so rating.

Repair your denim

Making denim is a water- and chemical-intensive process, so you’ll want to choose your new jeans wisely. (Of course, Good on You has a guide for that.)

But rather than shop for new denim every time you get a hole in your jeans, repair them through Loren in Greenpoint. The company has a 5-10 day turnaround time and the total cost runs anywhere from $35 to $55. You can drop off or mail your jeans to them, and they’ll ship them back.

Rent the Runway’s flagship Flatiron store has been open since 2016. Photo: Rent the Runway

Make 2020 the year you rent (some of) your clothes

To stick to this #3newclothes program, you’re going to need a solution for workwear and special occasions. The OG of clothing rental companies, Rent the Runway, now offers a subscription service that lets you keep their monthly shipment for as long as you like. But if you’ve shied away from these services because the return process seems onerous, you can visit their Flatiron flagship to get an idea of what’s on offer, bring back or pick up clothes, and even book an appointment for styling advice.

To decide on other subscription services, this Real Simple guide lays out the terms of 15 different options like Stich Fix, which gives you just 3 days to decide what you’re going to keep or send back, or Trunk Club, which lets you decide when you want a new box—monthly, seasonally or for one occasion.

Photo: Guppyfriend

Enough with the fleece

You’ve likely heard that plastic microfibers are wreaking havoc on the ocean as they break down, accumulate bacteria and become food for small fish, contaminating the ecosystem and our food chain. And it all starts with the fleece and polyester in our wash. The average load of laundry, scientist Peter Ross of conservation group Ocean Wise told WBUR recently, releases anywhere from a few thousand to as many as 10 to 12 million microfibers into our water system, the majority of which will not be filtered out by wastewater treatment plants.

In that same WBUR interview, Ross noted that “polyester fleece sweaters can shed millions of fibers in a single load of laundry whereas some performance gear that is tightly woven, but it’s equally made up of 100 percent polyester, might not shed much at all.”

It’s hard to justify buying any more fleece, knowing this. But when you do wash your existing fleece and polyester, contain the mess in a Guppyfriend Bag. The laundry bag keeps the majority of fibers from shedding into your wash.

Wait, what about underwear?

Undergarments like socks and underwear don’t count in this 3 items a year prescriptive (phew!). Though you may want to consult Good on You before you replenish your underwear drawers.

2 Responses

  1. Chris Pederson -

    I like your advice to shop for fewer clothes. My wife loves clothes but she spends too much on them. If she shops for cheaper clothes then she can still get a lot but still less than she would normally.

  2. Dressmate -

    This is really very good advice to shop for a few, but what you like to shop, that must be some unique and elegant and obviously worthy. Sometimes, you can get something very rare piece for your wardrobe at a very reasonable price. So, start diet shopping.


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