10 ways to cut your wardrobe’s carbon footprint in 2022

Here’s a bunch of easy tips for saving the planet in style.

by Sophie Benson
05 January 2022, 1:32pm

still from Ladybird

New year, new you? Don’t be silly. The only resolutions you need to make this year are in those in service to the planet. Faced with a news churn of wildfires, droughts, floods, tornadoes, and melting ice shelves, most of us (with the exception of oil giants and governments, it seems) want to tread lightly on the environment as we head into 2022. But it can be difficult to know how to do that while still designing, creating, buying, and partaking in fashion; an industry which is so often — and rightly so — pinpointed as a major culprit of ecological breakdown

With that in mind, whether you’re thinking about how to shop better, or you’re a designer struggling to make sense of the sustainability conundrum, here’s 10 ways you can kick off the new year with the planet in mind. 

1. Use what already exists

It’s estimated that between 80 billion and 150 billion garments are made every year. Granted, there’s a serious chasm between those two figures, but whichever one you pick, that’s a lot of clothing being made for a planet which is home to just under 8 billion people. And of course, that’s just clothing — it doesn’t take into account the many metres of fabric produced each year that are either wasted via offcuts or simply never being made into wearable pieces.

The world is full to bursting point with incredible fabrics and clothes already, so it makes environmental sense to use what already exists instead of putting more pressure on new, virgin resources. Take inspiration from those who’ve taken more innovative approaches. Duran Lantink splices and stitches unworn garments into new creations. Nicole McLaughlin makes garments and accessories from tennis balls, Haribo packets and everything in between. American design house Collina Strada mix deadstock fabrics with innovative biomaterials. Then there’s The Revival and The Slum Studio, who both use their design skills and creativity to upcycle clothing waste left on their doorstep due to the colonial practice of dumping clothes from the Global North at Kantamanto market, Accra.

2. Borrow and swap

Using what already exists applies to creating outfits, not just clothes themselves. When you don’t have the right piece for a certain occasion, or you simply want to try out a new look, our first instinct is often to buy something new to complete it. The perfect item, though, is probably sitting in someone else’s wardrobe. Ask friends and family if you could borrow something of theirs that you love (and be prepared to return the favour in the spirit of the sharing economy), attend or even set up a community clothes swap event, or try out one of the new raft of peer-to-peer sharing apps. Nuw allows you to swap clothes with other users, while By Rotation is the social rental app which allows you to rent pieces directly from other people’s wardrobes. Even designer stores like Selfridges are getting in on it.

3. Make what you sell

The burning, destruction and landfilling of unsold stock proves that fashion overproduces. To (over)simplify why this happens: brands essentially hazard a guess at how many units they can sell and manufacture accordingly, and often this results in them sitting on billions of pounds worth of unsold stock. Perhaps, if you’re a fashion retailer, the simplest way to avoid this is revisit how fashion used to operate and simply make what you sell.

Operating on a made to order business model not only reduces waste and preserves resources, it means you can offer customised options such as made-to-measure fits or custom colourways, further personalising the relationship between the garment and the wearer. On-demand makes a lot of sense for small batch makers, but even if you’re looking to expand, you can still use the model. Thanks to innovations in manufacturing tech, there are now plenty of factories who offer the service too.

4. Save up

67% of consumers say high prices are a deterrent when it comes to buying sustainable products, and fast fashion brands capitalise on the perception that sustainability is unaffordable by saying they democratise fashion with “accessible” products. Obviously, everyone needs clothes, not just for keeping warm, but for a sense of self-expression and social acceptance. However, we’re buying more than ever, and throwing away more than ever, suggesting we often buy more than what we truly need — or actually wear.

The average UK shopper spends £40 per month on online clothes shopping, so, if your income affords it, instead of buying multiple cheap items that you only wear a few times, save up for one — or a few key pieces which you’ll treasure forever. That said, if you don’t have the spare income to save, and buy fast fashion because that’s what you can afford, then you should feel zero guilt for working with what you have. We can make changes in ways that go beyond our shopping basket.

5. Think about end of life

The fashion industry rarely thinks about end of life, like what happens to a product when it breaks or a consumer is finished with it. Because of this we’re seeing clothes pile up across the globe. ‘Extended producer responsibility’ rules are trying to change that by making producers responsible for the disposal of their products. But while some brands throw money at the problem, there are far more creative solutions than that.

The key is asking yourself some questions during the design process. Could this easily be taken apart? Could this be made into something else? Am I willing to take this back when my customer is finished with it? Am I just adding to the waste problem? From there you can devise the answers. Take inspiration from Fixing Fashion and create online tutorials for turning your garments into something new, re-sell unwanted garments which are returned to you, or design your pieces to be easily broken down for reuse and recycling, skipping things like adhesives and mixed materials.

6. Make things with multiple uses

Most people buy according to occasion, or use; say, a sequin dress for a party or a tote bag for shopping. The need for multiple things to accommodate our lifestyles only accelerates consumption, so consider how you can design products which answer to more than one need. Petit Pli specialises in creating garments which grow as children grow, and has expanded into adult’s clothes to accommodate maternity wear and fluctuating sizes. Emre Pakel, meanwhile, creates trenches, trousers, and dresses which can be turned into bags.

Push the limits of your pattern cutting and design skills to develop adaptable, modular, versatile pieces which will see users through a multitude of events and life phases, cutting down on the need to constantly buy new stuff.

7. Experiment with biomaterials

“Everything you make returns to the Earth as food or poison,” says Céline Semaan of Slow Factory, and if you’re working with fossil fuel-based synthetics that ultimately head to landfill, the latter is most likely. It’s estimated that synthetics will grow from 69% to 73% of total fibre production globally by 2030, with polyester accounting for 85%.

We’re at a point where we need to leave fossil fuels in the ground so luckily there are a whole host of new exciting bio-based fabrics and fibres to experiment with. Collina Strada uses rose sylk, made from the waste of rose bushes and stems; Nike and Chanel have used Piñatex, a ‘leather’ made from pineapple leaf fibre; Stella McCartney made a co-ord from lab-grown mushroom leather; and Vollebak has developed a t-shirt made from algae.

If none of those appeal to you, you could try out crystals made from human sweat, spider silk-inspired biothreads, or fabrics made from the humble orange.

8. Make secondhand your first choice

As mentioned earlier, there are billions upon billions of pieces of clothing being made each year, which means that if you have your eye on something new, an exact version of it is already likely to exist somewhere in the world. Given that fashion works in cycles and everything is pretty much just an iteration of something that went before, why not buy the original rather than the modern day copy?

The existence of charity shops, Depop, Vinted, eBay, vintage shops, Vestiaire Collective, and TheRealReal, as well as a host of own-brand resale platforms from the likes of Mara Hoffman and Levi’s, means there’s an option for all budgets. Before you click buy on something brand new, do a sweep of secondhand platforms. It may take a little longer, but it will ease pressure on the planet and more than likely save you some cash too.

9. Offer service as a product

Service as a product (often abbreviated to SaaP) is a central tenet of the circular economy because it displaces the production of new goods. Of course, making stuff is the goal for many creatives, but services can be just as creative and satisfying.

Helen Kirkum offers ‘SaaP’ with her Legacy line, taking customers’ treasured sneakers and collaging them into a new, completely unique pair. Fashion rental is ‘SaaP’, as is repairing clothes. Selling patterns rather than clothes, hosting workshops, teaching people how to sew, embroider or crochet, and customising existing clothes or accessories are all services which require skill and creativity but don’t require making and selling new products. Offering services doesn’t make you any less of a designer or creative than someone who is manufacturing — you’re just taking a different path.

10. Do literally nothing

The great thing about caring for the environment is that sometimes the less you do, the bigger impact you have. As Orsola de Castro of Fashion Revolution said, “the most sustainable garment is the one already in your wardrobe.” So, rather than buying secondhand or sustainably made clothes, you can just… buy nothing at all. It’s easy, it’s cheap and it will help you completely reassess your relationship with clothing and consumption.

Buying nothing at all may sound extreme (and there may be some absolute necessities you can’t do without) but buying so much so frequently is a recent invention which has been normalised by brands who want your money. It takes zero time, zero money, and zero effort, making it perhaps the easiest action you could hope to take.

Follow i-D on Instagram and TikTok for more on sustainable fashion.

sustainable fashion