Zero Waste and your Wardrobe


Photo by Shanna Camilleri on Unsplash

Zero Waste September is now in full swing, with lots of zero waste tips being shared all over social media and elsewhere. Have you taken part yet? Not to fear, it’s not too late to do something if you haven’t already!

The Zero Waste (ZW) lifestyle is one which aims to minimise the amount of waste that we produce. The ultimate goal would be to produce no waste but this is no easy feat and certainly not one achieved overnight; building and integrating new habits into your life takes a while after all. An easy way to start would be to think about how you can reduce waste and minimise your impact on the planet in one part of your life, or one room of the house, for example. The 5 R’s of Zero Waste are Refuse, Reduce, Repair/Reuse, Recycle, Rot – adopting a few zero waste principles into even one area of your life can really go a long way.

So let’s break some zero waste concepts into different parts of the home. This post is the first of the series – the links to the other posts will be added here once ZW September 2020 has finished!

Zero Waste & your Wardrobe 

So let us first consider our wardrobes, and why we ought to do some reflecting on our purchasing habits: 
  • In 2015 it was estimated that EU citizens bought around 6.4 million tonnes of clothing, or about about 12.7 kg per person.
  • The fashion and textile industry accounts for 10% of all carbon emissions on the planet. It is estimated that if nothing changes, by 2050 it will account for one quarter of the planet’s carbon emissions – this is higher than the carbon footprint for the international aviation and maritime shipping industries combined. 
  • Consumption of fast fashion has been increasing exponentially; not only is this reflected in the amount of clothes that people buy (which has increased by 40% in the past two decades), but also by the number of clothing “seasons” that there are in the fashion industry. There used to be four seasons but there are now 52 mini-seasons instead, meaning that new clothes come in store every week of the year!
  • Half of all online orders are returned and most of these returned items are thrown away, since it is cheaper for companies to discard them than to repackage and resend them to another customer. 
  • 57% of all the clothes that we purchase end up in landfills or incinerators, and only 1% are recycled into new textiles. 
  • Buying second-hand also isn’t necessarily the answer as, since thrift shopping has become trendy, prices have drastically increased reducing the affordability for those who were relying on the lower prices to get by. 
  • Donating clothes is another tricky matter; less than half of used clothes are put out for reuse or recycling, and only 10-15% of donated clothes end up back in circulation. This means that when thousands of tons of clothes are shipped to other continents as a “goodwill gesture” they simply end up in landfills over there instead of here, rotting and leaching toxins into the natural environment. The abundance of clothing in the system also lowers the prices of clothes produced locally, and so additionally cause unfair and impossible competition for the local business owners. 
  • There are human rights issues connected with every stage of the clothes and textile industry chain; there are problems all the way from growing the raw materials needed to make the textiles, to the factories where the clothes are produced, all the way to the point where clothes are potentially donated as discussed in the previous point. The living and working conditions of the people who make our clothes are often incredibly subpar, with the workers earning below a liveable wage, while often being exposed to harmful chemicals at work, and then again in their local water or other natural sources if the chemicals leach out into their natural resources (unfortunately something that happens fairly often). These are just some examples demonstrating how environmental issues are often at their core also human rights issues, and tightly linked to one another. 

These are some pretty heavy stats on some very complex issues that unfortunately can’t be solved overnight. However, you will be relieved to know that there are plenty of changes that we can all make to reduce these impacts and hopefully play a part in changing the system for good. Let’s dive into some ways in which we can be more mindful about our wardrobes, particularly from a Zero Waste perspective. 

The Zero Waste mantra: Refuse, Reduce, Repair/Reuse, Recycle, Rot

👔 Normalise outfit repeating and get creative with what is already in your wardrobe. Outfit repeating is luckily already no longer considered an offence in many circles, but it’s not unheard of for people to buy new outfits if it’s already been posted on social media. Be a part normalising wearing the same clothes within your group of friends. Additionally, a fun afternoon activity could be figuring out how many different outfits you can create by mixing and matching your existing clothes – better yet, do this with your friends for an increased imagination bank.

🛍 Be mindful about what you buy. Buying less in the first place reduces the amount of waste being produced; when in the store ask yourself do I really need this? Going to shops or shopping malls less or only when you need to replace something is another sure way to reduce how much you buy; the temptation to splurge spontaneously will be much lower when you’re not constantly exposed to adverts about new products. If many people change their behaviour, this will also put pressure on businesses to change their business model. Since globally 72% of carbon emissions are a result of consumer behaviour, this would make a huge difference in terms of planetary emissions!

💸 Buying less will also save you money, giving you the opportunity to invest in better quality clothes, which will in turn will last longer. Contemplating what your style is, what you feel comfortable in, deciding on a colour scheme, and buying clothes that match each other will help you make smarter purchases – as the saying goes “in a world full of trends, remain a classic” and “classic never goes out of style”. If you’re feeling ambitious you could start putting together a capsule wardrobe with what you already own, and adding some new pieces only if needed.

👗 Clothes rental services are also becoming ever more popular. How many times do we really wear those fancy jackets or dresses? If you like to use fashion as a way to express yourself or like to experiment with new styles this could be a sustainable choice for you. In Helsinki, Vaaterekki operates like a library, where you can check out top quality Finnish design pieces for three weeks at a time. The Ateljé, also Helsinki-based but with the option for home-delivery, works on a more one-off basis, catering especially for more formal occasions.

👒 Thrifting gems and outfit swapping with your friends. While thrifting isn’t perfect, buying second-hand is still much more ecological than buying new items from the store. Helsinki has an amazing selection of second-hand stores waiting to be discovered and is a gold-mine for Buying and Selling Facebook groups (Kallio/Kamppi/Viikki/Meilahti – almost every area has one). This spring due to the coronavirus the HYY Environmental Committee weren’t able to host the Kirppis Appro/ Flea Market Crawl, an event that has quickly become a legendary staple, but keep an eye out for it again next year! Zero Waste Finland had also planned to host a clothes swapping event, which unfortunately also had to be cancelled – however, this could be an easy to concept to recreate amongst a small group of friends!

🧼 Take care of the clothes that you already have. Ultimately a big part of how ecological your wardrobe choices are comes down to how well you take care of the clothes and shoes that you already own and how many years you consequently can get out of them. An easy way to add years to your clothes is to wash them less frequently; most of the time airing them out will go a long way. T-shirts rarely get that dirty after one wear, but the armpits can be rinsed with cold water between washes if worried about any potential smell. Putting woollen sweaters and jeans in a plastic bag in the freezer is another way to reduce washes. When you do wash your clothes, make sure to wash them at the right temperature, washing them at lower temperatures when possible to save some extra energy. Pay special attention to which colours you wash together as well as to any specific fabric requirements. After washing air-dry your clothes whenever possible, as using a dryer takes a big toll on the fabric strength and life (and uses a lot of energy too). Even how you put your clothes away can affect how long they last – folding along the seams keeps them from losing shape. As for shoes, make sure to clean and/or grease them regularly to keep them in mint condition! This is a great Youtube video with even more info on how to properly care for your clothes.

🧵 Repair your clothes when needed. Aim to make regularly mending your clothes a habit, an extension for taking care of your them. Get handy with a needle and some thread and learn some basic repairs; a few stitches can extend the life of a piece by a long time. Buttons, zippers, and velcro amongst other things are also easy to replace. If you don’t feel confident in fixing them yourself it is worth investigating where your closest seamstress is located, and investing a small sum to fix those nicks or tears. Similarly a cobbler will be able to help maintain your favourite pair of shoes for longer than they would last otherwise.

♻ When they can no longer be used or repaired, give your clothes a new lease on life by repurposing them. Worn t-shirts can be repurposed into cloths, small bags, make-up pads, and scrunchies amongst other things. Only your imagination is the limit!

📣 Bonus Recommendation! This is not so much a Zero Waste recommendation as a general sustainability one, but if you have the time, reach out to your favourite clothing companies directly to ask about their environmental policies and what concrete actions they are taking to reduce their waste, as well as how they ensure good working conditions for their employees along the whole production line. If they know that their market cares about these things, there is a possibility for creating real company-wide changes. Similarly reach out to your political representatives and ask them what they’re doing to ensure a more sustainable clothing industry. 

Introducing some of these Zero Waste principles into your wardrobe can go a long way in reducing the amount of waste you produce. Being a Conscious Consumer and embracing Slow Fashion are the first steps to transforming the fashion industry into a more circular one. Let’s change the world together 🌍 We want system change, not climate change! 

Which of these will you give a go or what do you do already? Any other ZW Wardrobe tips that you’d like to share? Let us know in the Facebook comments below! 


If you’d like to learn more about the topic we recommend:


Words: Katja Kaurinkoski
Facts collected by: Katja Kaurinkoski & Iida Tuomola 


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