2007 was the year I began moving my life every nine months. I moved to a college 1,000 miles from home and switched dorm rooms yearly. I graduated college and moved almost exactly 5,000 miles away to Moscow, Russia. I then spent the next five years swapping apartments and traveling the world with quite a bit of frequency.
Suffice to say, I long ago learned to live with a pared-down capsule wardrobe. Not only is it easy to move, but I also found it greatly reduced decision fatigue.
What’s decision fatigue? The phenomenon that as we make more and more decisions, the quality of our decision making goes down.
All of us practicing zero waste are constantly making decisions – and that’s been proven to be exhausting. That’s a big issue when your choices are tied to your ethics. One of the ways to combat decision fatigue is by reducing the choices you have to make daily AKA leaving brain space for the real decisions. By paring down your wardrobe, you’re able to eradicate one area of common decision fatigue.
Beyond all that, as someone who I’m sure is deeply concerned with the state of the fashion industry (more on that below), reducing what you buy means no more agonizing over whether there’s slave labor or other ethically dangerous practices behind what you’re buying.
But for the past week and a half, I’ve even gone beyond my normal capsule. I’ve pared my wardrobe down to one piece – plus a few requisite layers since I’m in the autumnal Midwest. Yes, just one piece for over a week. (It’s actually been more like a week and a half now, but that’s not as catchy.)
Let’s talk about it.
so what am I wearing?
This post contains affiliate links, which means I earn a small commission at no cost to you if you purchase something through these links!
Before we go deep, let’s take a look at what I actually wore: a notPERFECTLINEN wrap jumpsuit that my Russian husband lovingly referred to as “a cool Soviet factory worker outfit”. (Thank you. The aesthetic I never knew I had.)
While far from local, I felt good supporting them for several reasons:
- They’re a small company creating beautiful garments in one of my favorite areas of the world (Eastern Europe – notPERFECTLINEN is in Lithuania);
- They source linen from local manufacturers – yes, Lithuanian linen is totally a thing. It isn’t certified organic, but is OEKO-TEX certified (tested to not contain 100+ harmful chemicals but doesn’t focus on anything else like water treatment) which appears to be the standard for most European linens I looked at;
- The carbon footprint of shipping the item is balanced out by my daily, drastic reduction in driving or buying online. Making daily sustainable changes means you have the ability to feel OK when you make choices you might not otherwise.
In the end, I’m super happy with my jumpsuit – obviously, as I’ve almost literally worn it non-stop – although the dark grey color is a bit bluer than I was expecting. The linen comes already washed and soft and the cut is very flattering. I’m already planning my next purchase when my current jeans come to an untimely, unrepairable end.
FYI: I’m 5’9 and wearing the M/L option.
OK, now back to why I took on this challenge…
how our fashion habits have changed
Our current obsession with consuming huge amounts of clothing is fairly new.
On average, the current women’s closet has about 100 items of clothing. (If we assume each outfit is 3 pieces, that’s enough to dress yourself without ever wearing the same thing for three months!)
But back in the 1800s, the average person often only had one daily outfit, a “Sunday best”, and perhaps another item for a cooler season. Even in the early 1900s, as industrialization made it easier to produce clothing, the world’s collective closets weren’t bursting like they are today.
For one very simple reason.
In 1918, an average linen dress would be about $5.25 (source). Using an inflation calculator, the middle price for a linen dress in 1918 was around $88 in today’s figures. Go back 10 years – before the ramped-up factory production post WWI – and that number skyrockets to $171 for a blouse and skirt. If you look at a well-made women’s suit (AKA a jacket and skirt) the price ranges from $170 to almost $400 in our modern currency.
The cost of clothing accurately reflected the time and resources required to craft a garment. Globalization had not yet emerged, so people were consuming goods made in their town or the next city over. Losing that connection has been disastrous for how we approach fashion.
Looking at one of the most popular stores in the USA (Old Navy), the average price of the first dresses I saw was $34.32. In what world can you get a knee-length, full-sleeved dress for that price ethically? (Spoiler alert: you can’t.)
The linen jumpsuit I bought was about 110 USD. I feel that’s a fair price for a mid-sized company producing in a lower cost of living country (the minimum wage of Lithuania is 3x less than the USA). I would expect USA-made products to be more expensive.
As I touched on before, globalization has allowed us to be completely removed from the creation process. Our clothes are made thousands of miles away by people whose suffering we never have to acknowledge and marketing does an excellent job of glossing over it all.
So instead of a close connection with a local seamstress or small business as we had in the past, we’re in a blissfully unaware bubble.
The way we interact with fashion today can be harmful in many ways.
What we see is a massive devaluation of our clothing and therefore the time, devastating amount of resources, ecological destruction, and immense human suffering behind each piece of fast fashion clothing you buy.
- On time: Elizabeth Suzann estimates only the labor and material cost of producing one of her shirts is $63.16. If they sold the shirt at that price, they would only be able to pay the worker who made it and cover the cost of materials. One way to drastically reduce that price is to mass-produce items. Self-reporting H&M workers estimate they make between 13 and 27 shirts daily while being paid pennies compared to ES workers.
- On resources: even when we’re trying to be good consumers, we fail to think about the high resource usage behind our clothing. For example, “it will take you about 290 gallons of water to grow enough conventional, high-yield cotton to produce a t-shirt, according to Cotton Inc. To grow the same amount of organic cotton for a t-shirt, however, requires about 660 gallons of water.” (source)
- On ecological destruction: the EPA has said textile waste makes up about 5% of all landfills and that only about 15% of post-consumer textile waste is actually recycled. (source)
- On human suffering: I don’t even know where to start here. People know their clothing comes from essentially slave labor, but don’t care. Watch The True Cost. Read about the exploitation happening even within our borders.
A devaluation so great that even when we know our consumption choices are victimizing women and children because – hey – “we deserve it”. We don’t and it’s time to make a change.
An ethical wardrobe is Zone 10 of The Essential Zero Waste Blueprint.
a challenge for you
I challenge you to wear the same thing for one whole week! Choose a simple uniform that suits you – a dress, jumpsuit like mine, shirt/jeans/blazer combo , whatever! – and wear it for a whole week straight.
- “People will judge me” | Nope. No one cares about you as much as you care about you. Really: think back to the past week of work – what were your colleagues wearing every day? 99/100 people will have no idea. If you do think people are looking at you, it’s likely the spotlight effect AKA the feeling that you’re being noticed more than you actually are. Humans are self-centered. You think people are looking at you, other people definitely aren’t 95% of the time. Embrace it.
- “I’ll get bored” | Maybe. That’s fair – and this is also why it’s only a week-long challenge and not a forever thing. Work through those feelings and keep going. If you do really feel more bored than relieved or ambivalent, get researching on ethical fashion blogs and learn how to channel your fashion creativity ethically!
- “My clothes will be dirty” | Sun and a breeze are your friends. You need to wash clothes a lot less than you think unless you’re getting particularly sweaty. If you do need to clean during the week, you can do simple spot cleaning, deodorizing, sink washing, or just throw it in with a normal load of laundry if you’re doing it.
The truth is there are very few people who will find that they love wearing the same thing every day. But maybe you’ll realize that you need a lot less in your closet than you might think (here’s how to mindfully minimize) or that you’re ready to embrace a uniform more than you thought. At the very least, make an intentional effort to think about how the clothing you choose affects both people and the environment.
Are you ready to try it?