Buy. Wear. Wash. Repeat: The True Cost of our Clothes

Do you really need that?

How many items of clothing does a person need? One hundred items? 66? 33? Fewer?

It is an interesting exercise to examine how many clothes you own and to try and determine how many of them you actually need and how many you are holding onto just in case. To stand there holding a t-shirt you aren’t actually so keen on, trying to decide if you really need it at all.

Amongst the recent wave of minimalism, some have taken on the so-called 333 challenge. The idea is: can you get by for three months wearing only thirty-three items of clothing? Sentimental items such as wedding rings and necessities such as underwear, socks and glasses are not included, making the challenge significantly easier and ensuring there is no need to wash clothes all the time.

Those who have taken on the 333 challenge report having less to worry about, no longer being limited by suitcases and realising that happiness isn’t directly proportional to size of wardrobe. One participant called Raymund even goes as far as to state that

Simplifying my wardrobe, and my life, has allowed me to focus on personal growth and contribution to the growth of others.”

The 333 challenge is primarily about improving quality of life by having less – something completely at odds with consumerist logic.

Someone who would (presumably) ace the 333 challenge is school teacher Julia Ranson. Her pledge to wear the same dress to work for 100 days started out as a lesson for her students, before drawing international attention.1 Ranson’s pledge challenges the cultural norm whereby (particularly female) workers in non-uniform workplaces feel that they are expected to have a range of different outfits to wear at work. Buying or renting large wardrobes of smart clothing can be a very expensive affair and is particularly draining for those worse-off.

In an interview with USA today, Ranson was quoted as saying

“I think sometimes people are afraid to challenge the status quo, and sometimes the status quo needs to be challenged when it doesn’t make sense”.

And it isn’t just random bloggers who choose to only wear one outfit to work. There are high-flying individuals such as Barack Obama who are known for wearing the same outfit to work every day, as was Steve Jobs.

Having few clothes is one thing and buying few clothes is another. It is quite possible to be a minimalist who has a constant conveyor belt of new clothes coming into your life while others leave. Clearly, this is not in line with principles of sustainability.

The no-buy movement challenges the idea that we need to buy clothes regularly and instead recommends us to make the most of what we have, repairing them where necessary, as opposed to taking the ‘easy fix’ of just replacing them. These ideas are far from new, of course.

In May this year, I took part in a die-in staged by Manchester Extinction Rebellion (XR) in the Arndale shopping centre. For eleven minutes, a group of us laid down in the thoroughfare – one minute for each of the years the IPCC reckons we have remaining to tackle the climate crisis. With placards brandishing messages such as “FAST FASHION FCUKs OCEANS” and “If it’s cheap, the world will pay the price”, we were making a stand against fast fashion and the associated disposable attitude to clothing. Further to playing dead for eleven minutes, participants pledged not to buy any clothes for the following year.

As quoted in this article, rebel Jake Rigby said:

We have to turn the consumer model on its head as it’s not working. We need to get away from this idea that economic growth is the absolute goal in society because it’s not. It’s the thing that’s destroying the planet, killing people all over the world and causing hundreds of species to go extinct every day.”

That is, fast fashion is just a symptom of the real problem. It stems from something deeper – the root cause of global consumerism and the associated throwaway culture.


Do you really need to wash that?

But it isn’t just how many clothes you buy which matters; it is also important to look after those clothes properly. By looking after clothes, they will last longer and need replacing less often.

Perhaps counter-intuitively, looking after one’s clothes often entails not washing them too often. In a recent BBC article, fashion designer Stella McCartney is reported as only washing her clothes when they are stained or smell, going as long as possible before giving them a spin. Instead of washing clothes between wearing them, many garments can be refreshed by hanging or airing them out, or even putting jeans in the freezer.

As reported in a previous blog piece, 35% of plastic pollution found in the environment comes from clothing, much of that being released during the washing process. Not only will less frequently washed garments last longer, they will also release fewer microplastics into the environment.

When garments containing plastics are washed, it is recommendable to use a liquid detergent and a low temperature. “Powder detergent creates more friction between the clothes [during washing], so fibres are released, whereas liquid is smoother.”, according to Laura Diáz Sánchez of the Plastic Soup Foundation. Sánchez also recommends against overloading washing machines, as this will reduce the friction further.

As well as contributing to plastic pollution, additional friction can accelerate the degradation of clothing garments and lead to their discolouring.

When you stop and think about it, it is remarkable how many things we are told we need to wash (regularly) that are actually completely unnecessary. Washing your hair is actually a completely unnecessary expense, as documented in the book Happy Hair. Chip Bergh, CEO of Levi Jeans, has a pair of jeans he hasn’t washed for 10 years – puzzlingly, in this case, it is not even that we are being told to wash jeans.


What about this one?

Naturists aside, ordinary citizens do need clothes and those clothes will eventually wear out completely. When replacing old clothes, there are a number of matters to consider: how to sustainably dispose of the worn-out garments; how to choose durable clothes next time round; and how to choose new clothes with a minimal carbon footprint.

Textile recycling bins are becoming more and more common, making responsible disposal easier. Alternatively, scraps of textile can be saved for patching other garments.

In terms of sustainable fabrics, there are a number of plant fibres which fit the bill. Hemp can be used to make remarkably sustainable fabrics and can be found readily online with retailers such as THTC and Jungmaven, as well as in some physical clothes shops. As a weed, hemp thrives in conditions in which conventional crops would struggle. In particular, it requires far less water than cotton and can survive in poor soils without any need for pesticides. The carbon emissions for hemp-based fabrics made using conventional methods have been found to be lower than for cotton and significantly lower than for nylon, acrylic or polyester.  Organic cotton and hemp may provide the key to yet lower emissions. Better still, hemp absorbs 1.37 tonnes of CO2 for every tonne of harvested stem. But it is not only the stem which is useful – almost all of the plant can be used for making clothing and even building materials and plastics.

Bamboo is another rapidly growing, sustainable crop which can be made to use clothing. What’s more, it absorbs around five times as much CO2 as hardwood trees and can lead to much higher yields than cotton.

Second hand shops are, of course, great places to purchase clothing with a small carbon footprint2, since no new resources are required for their provision, other than those associated with transport and sale.


Hemp tshirt available here

Of course, this is all very good assuming that clothes only exist to be worn. But clothing is often much more than pragmatic: it can be a means of expression or even a political statement. However, this does not imply that personal or political expression requires the possession of many items of clothing. On the contrary, Julia Ranson expresses a point of view using just one piece of clothing, as does the t-shirt shown opposite.

To close, consider the following quote from Ranson, taken from her website:

The challenge I’m presenting is this: Let’s think before we buy, wear, discard, and buy again. Can we buy clothes used? Buy responsibly? Buy LESS? Learn to sew a few things? (Stop shaking your head. Everyone’s great grandmother used to, so you can too. Boys too.) Do we really need so many new outfits? Are we just perpetuating a culture that defines us based on what we’re wearing rather than what we’re doing? What if we spent our energy trying to BE good, interesting humans instead of trying to LOOK good and interesting?


1Ranson did wash the dress on weekends, keeping it clean by wearing an apron during particularly messy classes and being careful not to drop food on it.

2This assumes that a carbon footprint is something attributed during a product’s first purchase, rather than its lifetime


[1] A history of the world in seven cheap things, Jason W. Moore and Raj Patel.

[2] Happy hair, Lucy Aitkenread

Sources: header image


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