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How to create a sustainable, plastic-free wardrobe

Georgina Caro, a sustainable lifestyle coach (PgCert) from the award-winning blog Gypsy Soul, discusses how and why you should consider switching to a more sustainable wardrobe.

Creating a sustainable, plastic-free wardrobe is important due to the huge impact that clothing has on our planet.

Why create a sustainable wardrobe?

The production of clothing has enormous impacts on human rights and our environment. Yet, the vast majority of clothing is disposed of after just a handful of wears.

  • Up to 64% of new fabric for clothes is made from plastics.
  • In the UK alone we throw 336,000 tonnes of used clothing into landfill every year.
  • That’s £140 million worth of used but still usable clothing going to waste every year.
  • Each Briton produces 3.1kg of textile waste every year. Only 0.3kg of that is recycled.
  • Further to that only 0.4kg of that textile waste is reused.
  • British consumers spend on average £980.50 per person on clothing annually

The amount of clothes we consume and the materials they contain is not sustainable and needs to change.

Building a sustainable capsule wardrobe

One of the main ways to live sustainably is to buy less but buy better. This also applies to your wardrobe.

The best bet is to buy any new clothing from reputable, sustainable manufacturers and brands or, even better, buy second-hand organic and sustainable clothing from charity shops.

What is a capsule wardrobe?

The term ‘capsule wardrobe’ was first coined in America in the 1940s to describe a small collection of clothing that were designed to be worn together with complimenting colours and lines.

A capsule wardrobe consists of clothes you love, wear and use on a regular basis. The idea is to have a small range of garments that mix and match well to create different outfits. There is no set rule on the amount of clothing you should have but the experts recommend between 25-50 pieces. The total amount is down to the individual but this gives you a guide to work towards.

The main aim of a capsule wardrobe is to have timeless, good quality pieces that you look after, meaning they will last you for many years to come. Although the sustainable pieces may cost you more initially it’s worth it in the long run as, with the correct care, the items should last you a long time. Focus on quality over quantity.

High fashion pieces have no place in a capsule wardrobe as fashions change so often the clothes quickly become redundant.

Declutter your wardrobe

Before you begin to create your new sustainable wardrobe you need to sort through and declutter the items you already have. When you start to look into it you will undoubtedly find outfits that no longer fit, have worn out and may even items you have never worn.

Sociologist Sophie Woodward conducted a study and discovered that 12% of clothes in our wardrobe are unused. Not only are the clothes taking up space in your wardrobe, it’s also a complete waste. Have a clear out, decide what you want to keep and what you don’t and pass on items you no longer need to someone that can make use of them.

The keep or throw dilemma

The question of whether it’s better to keep your existing clothing or replace it with sustainable alternatives is a tricky one. Should you keep an item of clothing and reuse it even if it’s made from polluting materials? The answer isn’t as easy as it seems for a few reasons.

Reusing what you already own

The first rule of living sustainably is to reuse what you already own, rather than adding to your wardrobe or replacing items that are still useful. Even if the item is not made from sustainable materials, or comes from a brand that doesn’t act ethically, it is still better to keep the item as it’s already in circulation.

Throwing it away would only contribute to the waste problem. When the time comes to replace the item, you then have the option to make better choices and opt for sustainable clothing.

But what if that item is made from plastic fibres?

The threat of microplastics

Clothes made from synthetic materials, such as acetate, acrylic, nylon, or polyester release tiny microplastics every time they’re washed. These microplastics end up in our rivers and seas and that is a big problem.

Textiles are one of the two main sources of microplastics in our waterways, along with car tyres (a car tyre sheds 20 grams of plastic every 100km). These microplastics, or microfibres as they’re called when they derive from clothing, are fully ensconced in our food chain and have been found in almost everything that we eat or drink.

Person putting clothes in washing machine

Catching the microplastics

If you already own clothing made from synthetic materials, and you choose to reuse them, there are a few things you can do to reduce the amount of microplastics that are released. These include washing your clothes less often, opting to line dry over using a dryer and using microfibre capturing devices in your load, such as washing bags, filters and laundry balls.

Looking to the future, it's hopeful that washing machine manufacturers will re-engineer their machines to include microplastic filtration systems to prevent the release of the microfibres into our waterways. We’re yet to see a manufacturer attempt this, although new legislation has passed in France that as of January 2025 all new washing machines must include a microfibre filter. It’s a start!

Donate or throw?

Another dilemma you might come across is whether you should donate your old clothing or throw it away for good.

Again, one consideration within this is the microplastic problem. By giving away clothing that is made from synthetic materials it means those items may still emit harmful microplastics into our environment. You’re effectively just passing the problem onto another person. However, reusing items that are already in circulation has other benefits for the environment.

But throwing away items is wasteful, and microplastics may be released from clothing if it’s sent to landfill.

You will need to decide what you feel is best.

How to choose clothing for your sustainable capsule wardrobe

Moving on from reusing clothing, how do you go about investing in new items for your wardrobe? The best option is to start buying clothing made from sustainable materials and from companies that use sustainable manufacturing processes.

Once you have decluttered your wardrobe and consciously got rid of your unwanted items you need to start building your new capsule wardrobe. The trick is to identify your key colours. You'll need to decide on your base colours, accent colours and your patterns & textures.

Base Colours

Your base colours are the colours that go with everything. They should be neutral tones such as black, grey, navy blue or white. They form the base of all your outfits. They normally consist of trousers, shorts, skirts or dresses. Aim for 2-3 base colours.

Accent Colours

Your accent colours add a pop of colour to your wardrobe. Pick colours that suit you and compliment each other. Research colour palettes online to find colour matches that you like. Your accent colours can consist of tops, skirts, jackets or accessories such as scarves. Aim for 3-5 accent colours.

Patterns & Textures

You only need 2-3 patterned or textured pieces in your capsule wardrobe. These are one-off items that make your outfit unique. A good example of a patterned or textured piece is a well tailored floral print jacket.

Once you have decided on the colours for your capsule wardrobe you can focus on getting new sustainable clothing items.

Woman looking at clothes on a rail

How to find reputable sustainable clothing companies

To find credible sustainable clothing companies you will need to do your research, and use the guide to ethical clothing brands.

Don’t get hoodwinked by greenwashing propaganda. Greenwashing is a marketing technique used by companies to try to convince consumers that their products are sustainable when in reality they’re not. Some companies may claim to be ‘green’ but when you start to look into it they are far from sustainable.

The term ‘sustainable’ is an umbrella term which can cover different topics including ethical, vegan, fair trade, slow fashion and eco-friendly. Being sustainable can mean different things to different people. For example one person may want to only buy vegan clothing whereas another may want to focus on finding clothes made from sustainable materials. You need to decide what your personal priorities are.

Here are some points to look out for when deciding whether a clothing company is truly sustainable or not:

  • How transparent is the company?
  • Do they have a sustainability page on their website?
  • What are the clothes made from?
  • Are the clothes vegan?
  • Do they have a give-back scheme to return used clothing for recycling or repair?
  • Where do they get their materials from?
  • Do they use sustainable dyes?
  • Do they offer a fair wage to their employees?
  • How do they transport the clothing?
  • What packaging do they use? 

Be aware of the language they use. Some companies can be very clever about how they use words. Words like ‘handmade’ or ‘green’ do not necessarily mean that they are a sustainable company. A product can be handmade, but how were the workers that made it treated and what materials were used?

If you cannot find the information you need on the company's website, email them and ask questions. If they’re not forthcoming with their answers, avoid them and find another more transparent company.

There are lots of great apps and websites that focus solely on rating sustainable companies. Essentially they do the hard research work for you and rate the companies based on certain sustainable standards. These apps can be incredibly useful but it's still worth doing your own research too.

The Ethical Consumer guides to ethical clothing brands and to high street clothing shops are useful resources.

Clothing certification schemes

Here are some green certifications to look out for when choosing clothes:

  • Fairtrade Certified Cotton
  • Global Organic Textiles Standard (GOTS)
  • Cotton Made in Africa (CMiA)
  • Better Cotton Initiative (BCI)
  • Global Recycle Standard
  • Organic Content Standard
  • World Fair Trade Organisation (WFTO) Guarantee System

Although green certifications can be helpful, don't rely on them completely to determine whether a company is sustainable or not. They can be incredibly expensive to get and smaller companies simply cannot afford the costs. Look for companies claiming to meet certification standards and ask them questions about how they are doing this.

Avoid fast fashion

Stay away from fast fashion wherever possible.

The fast fashion industry accounts for between 2 and 10% of humanity’s carbon emissions and is the second largest consumer of our world's water supply. Recent research has shown that 3 out of 5 fast fashion items ultimately end up in landfill.

Aim to buy better and spend more but make it last.

To summarise, actions you can take

In summary, here are some actions you can take to make your wardrobe more sustainable:

  • Creating a sustainable wardrobe is important to reduce waste and help prevent microplastics being released into our oceans and waterways.
  • Reuse clothing you already have, but consider whether it’s contributing to the world's microplastics crisis.
  • If it is, find methods to reduce the impact including washing your clothes less often and using microfibre filters.
  • Create a sustainable capsule wardrobe.
  • Buy clothing from reputable sustainable brands and manufacturers.
  • Do your research before you buy.
  • Stay away from fast fashion.
  • Buy clothing made from sustainable materials from charity shops and second hand stores where possible.
  • Buy better quality clothing, take care of it and make it last.