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By Boutique Handbook writers

Shoppers are more conscious today than they have ever been, from recycling and investing in reusable products, to wanting to know where or how an item was ethically sourced and made.

With the average consumer buying 60% more clothing than they did 15 years ago, according to the UN Alliance for Sustainable Fashion, how do we apply the same sustainable practices to our clothes? It’s easier than you think, once you know how.

Most of us buy clothes based on how they look and fit, but there’s way more to it than that. Have you been paying attention to what fabric garments are made of? What country they are produced in? Can you put it in the washing machine or it so delicate it’s a ‘one-wear’ item?

We speak to Jennifer Countess von Walderdorff, fashion expert and author of Look @ the Labels, to find out how to buy better and shop smarter.

Jennifer Countess von Walderdorff.
Look @ The Labels author Jennifer Countess von Walderdorff. Credit: Supplied

Sustainable fashion tips

Look at the label – where is it made?

It sounds obvious, but so many people don’t actually look at labels before they buy something. This is where you’ll find all the crucial information you need to know. The two main things that should consciously impact your purchasing are what fabric an item is made of and where it has been produced.

More commonly found in high-end fashion, you may see the country of design printed on it. This is good to know, particularly if you favour the British eccentricity of Vivienne Westwood or the Italian flamboyance of Gucci or Versace.

The country of design is often different to the country of manufacture. Where it is made is a legal requirement that must be listed on the label or inside the garment itself. While it might not seem important, due to the differences in national and international law, import and export would be extremely limited and difficult without it.

‘Made in China’ is very common to see, but ‘Made in Romania’ is becoming more prevalent since they joined the EU in 2007. You might find this label on goods produced on the high street like H&M, Zara or high-end brands like Dolce & Gabbana. Textile production in the UK peaked in the 1920s as it’s cheaper to manufacture elsewhere. However, it is worth noting British brands who do keep production within the UK, such as Lipsy and River Island.

Look at the fabric – what is it made of?

I hate falling in love with something visually, only to touch it and realise it’s not made of what I thought it was. If it’s a fabric that is mixed with a lot of other fabrics or had a lot of chemicals added to it rendering it un-recyclable, I don’t buy it.

For me, the worst is viscose. I haven’t bought it in years. It doesn’t have good retention in water so something might fit well when you first buy it, but it can easily shrink in the wash and then never fits on your body how it did when you bought it. It’s known as a ‘one-wear’ fabric.

Polyester is another fabric, that while a genius invention as it is used to elasticate swimwear and underwear, is an extensively synthetic fabric made from a kind of plastic. Both that and viscose are tricky to recycle, as well as their production being a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions (CO2) and considered to have an impact of global warming.

My advice would be stick to natural fabrics where you can, such as organic cotton, which is commonly seen on the high street now. When it comes to wool, opt for cashmere. Burberry, for instance, uses Scottish cashmere. Go for rich, real leather that is harder wearing and better made, and look out for items that are 100% linen. When you take away mass production, you get much better quality and an item that less people have, making it more unique.

Check the washing instructions – is it dry clean only?

It’s so annoying to find that perfect item you wear and love, but when you come to put it in the washing machine, you realise it’s dry clean only. See my rule about checking the label first above!

Not only is it time consuming, it’s possibly not worth the investment after you end up paying over its retail value in dry cleaning bills. Obviously if it’s a classic item, like a coat you can wear year after year, buy it – as long as you know you will wear it. Otherwise, think twice before getting out your credit card.

Hand washing is another option for smaller garments. I became a hand wash convert when my bra hook tore a wide hole in my favourite top of the season in the washing machine. Another tip is using a mesh laundry bag in the washer. Tip: Don’t overfill it! However, they are often made out of plastic. If you prefer a natural textile, use a pillowcase closed with safety pins for your delicate items.

When it comes to detergents, go with the most organic brand you can find. This not only protects your skin, but also the water supply. I’ve been a non-bio shopper for years, mainly due to the fact that whatever enzymes added to detergents to help break down stains simply did not agree with me. If you think about it, it’s probably better for your clothes too.

Check what clothes are already in your wardrobe

You look your best when your clothes fit you, so don’t buy in a compromise. If it fits your bum but not your waist, don’t buy it. Don’t buy something because it’s cheap and on sale, you’ll never wear it. Don’t buy something that is too small for you thinking I’ll fit into that next summer, it won’t.

My golden rule is stop compromising on aspirational purchases. I don’t buy much anymore and if I do, a lot of it is second-hand or vintage now. One of the best things to do before you even think about buying anything new is look at what you already have in your wardrobe.

The clothes you already have could represent a version of you that doesn’t exist anymore. After having my baby, for example, it was a long time before I stopped wearing my maternity clothes, simply because they fit the most comfortably. It can be tough to say goodbye to clothes as they hold so many memories, but if something doesn’t fit well and probably never will again, it’s time to say goodbye. Others can be restyled to suit a new you or altered to fit your current shape. Both are sustainable ways to revamp your style and breathe new life into your wardrobe.

Follow the ‘one-year rule’

Now you’ve looked in your wardrobe to see what you’ve got before you make any hasty purchases, how many of those items have you worn recently – and be honest. The ‘one year rule’ in fashion terms means if you haven’t worn it in the last year, you probably never will.

I’m a big supporter of one person’s trash is another person’s treasure so donate, donate, donate! I always start with friends and family. Ask my sister how many brand-new-with-tags pairs of shoes she has received from me. I’ve also gone shopping in her wardrobe (thanks Josephine!). Organise a clothes swap with friends or go to a clothes swap event to update your wardrobe. Go to your local charity store and give those unwanted items away. You may even be able to fill a gap or two for the missing items you need from the same place.

Similarly, if you find an item you absolutely love, it’s well-made and ethical and you know you’ll wear it time and time again, buy two! It’s a rule people who work in the fashion industry can afford to follow, once they redeem their discount (or a friend’s), but one regular folk perhaps can’t, whether due to limitations of space or money. But if you buy smart – classic items that will never go out of style – it’s always a good investment.

Sustainable brands to look out for

Marks and Spencer

Having worked for Marks and Spencer, I’ve seen first hand how ahead of the game they are when it comes to sustainable high street fashion. The highest quality fabrics are used so garments last and they take working conditions of the people who make their clothes seriously. Their incentive is to become a net zero business by 2039/40 – 10 years earlier than the Government’s UK-wide strategy. Impressive to say the least.

Gossard

With women recommended to buy a new bra every six months to a year, that’s a lot of bras to buy in a lifetime. If you want to be as sustainable as possible, I’d recommend checking out Gossard’s sustainable lingerie range. It’s made using fabrics that have at least 50% recycled yarn so it’s better for the planet. The shape and comfort are on point too.

Armedangels

German-based fashion label Armedangels are on a mission to make products people love that are the least harmful to the planet. Set up with sustainable-conscious shoppers in mind, their mantra is ‘less carbon, more love’. Clothes are designed to be timeless. Think denim, neutral basics and classics with a twist. Ships worldwide.

Our Shift

Our Shift is a pioneering activist fashion brand from Copenhagen, Denmark, definitely worth knowing about if they aren’t on your radar, They’ve dubbed themselves ‘warriors against overconsumption’ and regularly collect materials others have abandoned, such as deadstock fabrics and abandoned festival tents, to make clothes out of them. Ships worldwide.

Tomorrow In A Year

Tomorrow In A Year is a slow fashion brand based in LA producing legacy items of clothing that are made to last for life. They use fabrics like 100% cotton that can be traced back to the farm, organic-approved dyes, recycled packaging and create new styles in small product launches that last longer than fashion seasons. This is THE place to get quality T-shirts perfect for everyday wear. Ships worldwide.

For more tips on how to how to buy better and shop smarter, buy Jennifer Countess von Walderdorff Look @ the Labels from Amazon, price £9.99 (Kindle edition £7.99)

Read next: What is slow fashion and why is it important?

Read next: Socially conscious brands to check out

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