When it comes to making sure our homes are eco-friendly, it is easy to neglect the closet. Your clothes, however, might just be the biggest culprit. All those synthetic fabrics will take over 200 years to fully decompose, and the microfibers often end up in the ocean and in the bellies of sea creatures. The fashion industry produces 20 percent of all wastewater, and the amount of pollutants it emits is the second largest in the world (the first is oil). This is all while generating 10 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions, more than the combined total from all international flights and maritime shipping.

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So what can you do to build a more sustainable wardrobe? First and foremost, educate yourself. Before you do anything, learn why you’re doing it. Start out by doing some research to figure out what your biggest priority is. Vegan and cruelty-free? Non-toxic materials? Organic materials? Do you care more about what the clothes are made out of, or who made the clothes? Arming yourself with information makes it easier to make better decisions for yourself and the environment.

store with racks of clothing and neon sign on wall

Support ethical businesses

The rise of fast fashion has brought about high demand for cheap, trendy clothing items. The cost of manufacturing these inexpensive clothes has led many factories to turn toward cheap labor and sweatshops in developing countries — often with dangerous work conditions on unlivable wages. When you do purchase clothes, read the label and see where it was made. If you’re not sure about the country, opt for the U.S. and the U.K. where the labor laws are more strict and regulated.

close up of linen shirts

Invest in higher quality, eco-friendly fabrics

Growing materials for certain fabrics take a heavier toll on the planet, so buying clothes made from natural materials like organic cotton, linen or hemp can help offset the environmental impacts. Not only do certain fabric materials take huge amounts of water to grow, but the chemicals used to rid these crops of pests also seep down into the soil and natural water supply. The upside is that not all crops are grown this way. Organic cotton is grown without synthetic fertilizers or pesticides. Hemp is versatile, strong and requires much fewer pesticides or fertilizers to grow. Linen, made from flax, demands less water and energy sources, and it is naturally biodegradable.

Related: Faux fur or real fur, which one is better for the planet?

donation box filled with clothes

Don’t throw clothes away

This seems simple enough, but it’s surprising just how many pieces of clothing end up in the trash every year. In 2015, there were 10.5 million tons of textiles in landfills, and many of those were synthetic fibers that don’t decompose. When a favorite piece of clothing gets torn, mend it up rather than tossing it in the trash — you’ll save more money, too! Not a master sewer? Take it to a tailor. If you really want to get rid of something, take it to a donation center or thrift store. Or, try a clothing swap with a friend — you’ll both get new pieces for your wardrobes without anything ending up in the trash can.

Related: Eco-friendly options for decluttering waste

bright thrift store with racks of clothes and hanging plants

Shop vintage and thrift

When it comes to fashion, choose timeless over trendy. Buy clothes that will work year-round rather than just for a season. Think multi-purposefully. Most importantly, don’t think that being on a budget means limiting yourself to cheap clothes or fast fashion trends.

group of friends holding shopping bags

Shop mindfully

Stop to ask yourself: do I need this, or do I just want it? There’s a big difference there. If you really need something new for a wedding or special event, buy with purpose. Don’t just go into a store to shop for nothing in particular, or you’ll most definitely end up with something you don’t need. Also, if you buy items that are more versatile, it will actually help you in the long run. You’ll have more outfit choices and less clutter to worry about in your closet.

clothes drying on a line outside a brick building

Take good care of the clothes you have

Using a lower temperature in your washing is not only less damaging to fabrics, but it’s a win for the environment, too. Heating accounts for 90 percent of the energy used from doing a load of laundry. If you can swing it, skip the dryer altogether and hang-dry your clothes (of course, this works better in a dry, warm climate). You can also try washing your clothes in larger batches, because this will waste less water and electricity. Consider switching to an eco-friendly brand of detergent as well. Keep an eye out for ones that are biodegradable, phosphate-free and made from plant-derived ingredients. The better shape your clothes are in, the longer they will last.

Related: How to decode confusing labels on common household cleaners

jean skirt made into a purse


Here’s the good news: there are more ways to express your personal style than buying clothes. Learn to make your own accessories or bags; it might turn into a fun new hobby or a skill you never knew you had! Rather than throwing old clothes away, repurpose them into something new. Old T-shirts make great dusting rags, and soft materials like cotton can be made into pillowcases or quilts. Check out these great ideas for recycling old clothes from DIY for Life.

Images via Charles Etoroma, MNZ, Prudence Earl, Raw Pixel, Peggy and Marco Lachmann-Anke, Egle and Shutterstock