Building a more sustainable wardrobe

On the resurgence of capsule wardrobes — and how you can start building your own.

Thinking about who made our clothes, where, and under which conditions seems like a daunting task, especially when we’re influenced by the adrenaline rush of purchasing a trendy turtleneck sweater for the sweet price of $19.99.

Many of us fall victim to “fast fashion.”

Those unfamiliar with the concept of fast fashion need not look further than local malls, which are hubs for stores that have perfected the art of making consumers feel off-trend in the span of two weeks. Gone are the days of seasonal fashion. Stores introduce new trends every few weeks, resulting in an excess of cheap clothing and a faster turnover in people’s closets, with clothes being discarded more often as a result.

But considering these garments are being assembled cheaply, they’re often in too poor condition to be turned into hand-me-downs or to actually get on the racks inside the Goodwill store where you dropped them off. Garments often end up in the landfill, and because they are made of synthetic and processed fibres, they won’t decompose for decades or even centuries, all the while releasing greenhouse gases.

Photo by Diego Torres Silvestre on Flickr.

Retailers’ ability to keep costs low and production and turnover rates high is one of the main reasons fast fashion is so successful. To do this, someone has to lose, and it is usually the woman or child sitting halfway across the world at a sewing machine. “Employers get away with [child labour] because the fashion supply chain is hugely complex and it is hard for companies to control every stage of production. That makes it possible to employ children without big brands and consumers ever finding out,” The Guardian reported in a special feature sponsored by Unicef. And according to a report from the International Labour Organization, women make up an estimated 68 per cent of garment industry workers and are often subject to long hours and low wages.

Recently, there has been a shift, and consumers are becoming more curious and are looking for answers when it comes to how their clothing is made. Slow fashion, a movement created to juxtapose the damaging effects of the fast-fashion cycle, seems to be gaining momentum. However, the slow fashion process can seem overwhelming, with the task of figuring out how to start, where to look and who to trust.

The capsule wardrobe

Enter the capsule wardrobe, a trend that Lori Moran, a lecturer in Human Ecology at the University of Alberta, believes has been reintroduced under new light due to its accompaniment with the slow fashion movement. The capsule wardrobe concept came into fashion in 1980, when fashion consultant Susie Faux began promoting this simplified approach to creating an elegant wardrobe. “I think the idea [of a capsule wardrobe] has been around for a long time, maybe more as a marketing concept, and I think the logic behind it remains the same,” says Moran. “It’s just interesting now that it has a good fit with sustainability.”

A simple search of “capsule wardrobe” on one of your social channels will yield many accompanying tags #capsulewardrobechallenge, #minimalistfashion, #ethicalfashion. The overall idea is to slow down purchasing habits by making conscious and ethical choices while at the same time scaling down to clothing basics. For example, two pairs of pants, one skirt, three shirts, two jackets and two pairs of shoes could really be all you need for a complete wardrobe.

“I think, at the most basic level, it maybe helps address the notion of just having too much stuff,” says Moran. “And considering things like what’s it made out of? Where did it come from? Who put it together?”

Moran believes the practice is rather logical and will hopefully encourage people to think beyond the price on the tag. Ideally, people will want to invest in their garments more, adopting the mentality that the pieces they’re buying should withstand the test of time.

Photo by the Office of Sustainability.

Changing tides

Moran also sees limitations to the future of fast fashion. “I don’t think it can keep up at the pace its going, because at some point I don’t think you’ll be able to find ever-cheaper production. There has to be a limit at some point.”

The pace does seem to be slowing down too, with younger generations placing less value on material goods. “Millennials are more interested in spending their income on experiences rather than stuff,” says Moran. “Every year there seems to be a slightly larger group who says they are going to pay more attention to where stuff is coming from. They want to learn more about sustainable fashion.”

Moran adds that another Human Ecology lecturer, Vlada Blinova, often says that students don’t understand a lot about the quality of textiles and construction because they have only ever dealt with fast fashion.

“I think that people respond to the hardships of the workers but, again, maybe for a few weeks after. It doesn’t seem to really stick for a long time. I think it will have to be more and more in our face,” says Moran. She adds that consumers may want to find better options but can be turned off by low availability and high prices.

So now you may be thinking, “All this capsule wardrobe stuff sounds pretty cool. I’d love to make a conscious effort to scale back and curate a wardrobe of quality and ethically sourced pieces, but where do I start?”

Morgan Hamel, fashion ethicist and operator of The Garment.

Morgan Hamel, a fashion ethicist who runs The Garment, a company that offers workshops to help women create their own capsule wardrobes and find ethical brands, offered us some tips on where to start.

Hamel has always been inspired by fashion and ethics, and then her two worlds collided.

“When my oldest daughter was a little over a year old, I took a sewing class. I was surprised at how much work it took to create a single garment — the tracing, the cutting, the pinning and the stitching — it was so time-consuming,” says Hamel.

“And yet I loved it! I loved the slowness of the process, and the fact that I made something for my daughter with my own two hands. It inspired me to think about the construction of my own clothing, and about how much of it I owned — at the time it was a lot. The Garment was born out of a desire to get back to basics and connect women and responsible brands.”

How to make your capsule wardrobe

Based on Hamel’s suggestions and some of our own digging, we’ve created a step-by-step guide to get your capsule wardrobe started.

1. Hamel suggests starting with a plan. “Spend some time getting clear about why you want to have a capsule, and where you hope to be at the end.”

We recommend keeping the quality over quantity mantra in mind. If you’re a student on a budget, we recommend shopping consignment. We’ve included a list of a few stores below.

2. “Then take a little time to define your style,” says Hamel, “and think about your colours.”

3. Hamel suggests getting a friend or family member’s opinion. “Invite a friend. This process is super fun to do in a community with others,” says Hamel. After all, these are the people who know you best and having someone there for moral support (especially if you have the tendency to hoard) can help a lot.

4. After that, it’s time to pare down your wardrobe.

“Ask yourself the following questions,” says Hamel. “Do I love it? Does it fit? Do I feel good in it? Does it work for my life? Once you’ve done that, step back and let go of what you don’t love.”

5. Be thoughtful about your purchases. “When you identify something you need, be intentional about it,” says Hamel. “Return to your colour scheme and chose a fabric that works for your body and your life. I also think it’s important to be mindful of who made your clothes, and the conditions in which they were made.”

A capsule wardrobe workshop organized by The Garment

Finding responsible brands

We know this last part can be tricky, especially considering it’s hard to know who is being honest when it comes to their manufacturing and sourcing processes. Kendall Barber from Poppy Barley (a footwear company co-founded in Edmonton by her and her sister) offered a good tip: check on publicly traded companies by reading through their investor portals, which will contain information on how and where they source their product. If digging that deep isn’t for you, though, there are also other Canadian bloggers such as Lee Vosburgh from Stylebee, who has curated a list of Canadian-based brands and shops that are ethical, based on her research.

For those of you that prefer to thrift and reuse, here are some great up-scale consignment stores around Edmonton that offer a great selection of clothing at affordable prices:

Written by Michele Fowler, a communications volunteer with the Office of Sustainability.

Photos by Morgan Hamel (@thegarmentlife on Instagram), unless labelled otherwise.