Every Thursday, your Ethical Style questions, answered.
In the past few decades, the fashion cycle has accelerated, price tags have plummeted, and shoppers have adapted: We’ve learned to buy more clothes and value them less. The average master-bedroom closet in the United States now holds 48 square feet of stuff. Mint.com reports that the average American spends 15 to 23 percent of discretionary income on clothing—from an average of $131 a month in Tucson to $362 a month in Manhattan. The bulk of that investment will meet its end in a bag drop at the nearest Goodwill.
Buying smarter means making big, long-term shifts in our consumption habits. Of course, our culture’s accelerated consumerism has trained us to want instant results. So here are some quick fixes to help transform your splurges today, and learn to value the clothing you already have.
Chart your mall trips
Plug your banking information into Mint.com for a quick reality check on how much of your clothing purchases are being funneled to the back of your closet every month—and how much more money you could be spending on the people and experiences (and retirement accounts!) you love, instead of the shiny things that catch your eye.
Go shopping in your own closet
Hunt for the quality items hidden in your closet and figure out new ways to wear them. Use the fashion industry’s own trends against it. Bring a Vogue with you and match the shapes in your closet to the ones on the runway. Lean on the Pantone Fashion Color Report to breathe new relevance into seasons-old pieces. Did you know you already had a Bellflower sweater and a Starfish skirt? Now you do.
Treat old clothes like new
The next time you’re considering buying a new pair of shoes, head to the local cobbler and stock up on a new pair of insoles and a fresh heel instead. And if that salmon sweater still feels passé to you, fold it in some acid-free tissue paper and save it for later. When you unwrap it next winter, it’ll feel like a present.
Once you’ve started valuing your clothes more, start treating them better. Don’t mix your colors in the washing machine; skip the dryer and line dry instead; hang delicate embroideries and beadwork inside-out. Then, filter your closet to identify items that need some work, and tackle one new project a week. Start small: Learn how to sew a button back on that blazer you haven't worn in six months. If you're feeling experimental, pick out a new set of buttons (even mismatching ones) and update that old shirt. Click around YouTube to find some instructional videos to help you update old items in ways you never knew existed. And if an item is beyond repair, tuck it away for future elbow patches—even those can be sewn by hand.
Not all Goodwills are created equal. Do some Yelp research on your local thrift and vintage stores to figure out which ones are picked-over hipster hotspots and which are less-trodden gems. Block out an afternoon, and keep an open mind. You may find a perfect collared shirt or a pair of high-waisted shorts for cheap. But like with all shopping excursions, you may not find anything at all. And that’s ok, too.
Reevaluate what you "need" and what you "want"
A quick peek in our own closets confirms that most first-worlders don’t actually “need” most of what we buy, but we can start substituting splurges for more useful items. Start thinking about new clothing purchases as long-term relationships instead of one-night stands. A new pair of five-inch platforms would be stunning for that one hypothetical party a few months down the road. But if you really need a pair of all-around flats to make your commute feasible, get those instead. You don’t need to deprive yourself of every new shirt that you’ve had your eye on, but keep the “want” item in the back of your mind for a couple of weeks before you pull the trigger.
Get help, not "retail therapy"
Unfortunately, psychologists report that retail therapy actually works to lift your mood in the moment. But a few days after the rush, you’re left cringing at your credit card statement and feeling cold about the new stuff you splurged on. Instead of using credit card swipes as endorphin substitutes, go hiking, read a book, or try out a new recipe. The effect lasts longer, makes you a better person, and won’t end up in a landfill a few months later.
Quiz your clothes
Fast fashion encourages us to mentally disengage with the clothes we wear—just swipe a card, wear it once, and throw it away without a thought. Start taking a more active role in your shopping thought process by interrogating all your purchases. Here are three quick questions to ask of every item you’re sizing up: Does it fit well? Does it feel good? And can I take care of it? If a piece is too tight, scratchy, or high-maintenance, it will end up at the back of your closet instead of on your body.
Think outside the closet
Once you start thinking about what's in your closet, think deeper. Where was the item made? Does the brand adhere to labor compliance regulations? Has the company made any efforts to become more ecologically sustainable? Should any dress really be this cheap? Quality comes at a higher price tag; fair trade necessitates fair wages; organic cotton doesn’t have the same economies of scale or child-labor practices as conventional cotton. Instead of binge-buying to make yourself feel better or more on-trend, you can consolidate those saved funds to buy something that will last longer and support a fairer world, too.
Send all of your ethical style queries to email@example.com.