The world's trusted guide to sustainable and ethical fashion

The world's trusted guide to sustainable and ethical fashion

6 Steps to a Sustainable, Ethical, and Affordable Closet

This is my #haulternative post for Fashion Revolution Week, in which I talk about the sustainable and ethical alternative to buying a huge “haul” of cheap clothing from a fast fashion brand. 

It’s Fashion Revolution Week (that’s right, it’s a full week this year instead of just one day; there’s too many great events!) and I thought it would be a great time to share with you my five-step program for a sustainable and ethical wardrobe overhaul. If that sounds expensive and time-consuming, don’t worry. It’s not. It’s actually a fun, refreshing, and very affordable process!

You’re here, so perhaps you don’t need to hear this. But just in case you need convincing: Fashion is the fourth most polluting industry. Clothing manufactured in Bangladesh, currently the bottom of the barrel in terms of regulations and labor costs, contribute to a toxic soup of garment factory effluent, both into the water and air. Factories inspections are sloppy, leaving behind shocking safety hazards, plus worker exploitation, child labor, and sexual assault. In short, when you buy a cheaply made garment, a direct line can be drawn to carbon emissions, toxic waste, and underpaid workers struggling to live under horrendous conditions and meager pay.

Things are slowly starting to change for the better on a large scale, though much more needs to be done. But on a personal level, if you want to keep your conscience clean, and avoid financially supporting businesses and people who profit off of misery and pollution, take my advice. I’ve been hell bent on curating a sustainable and ethical wardrobe for five years now, and I’ve got the process down.

Achieving a sustainable wardrobe doesn’t require emptying your entire closet and starting over. It doesn’t require a huge budget. It doesn’t even require that you change your fundamental style to that of a Bali yoga teacher or elderly Japanese lady (you know what I’m talking about – all those linen pants and slippers.) It just requires picking up some new habits. Let’s start today, as we head into spring, a time of renewal.


1. Take a shopping fast.

According to Quartz, “The average American house has doubled in size since the 1950s and closet space has increased, too, particularly with the advent of the walk-in closet in the 1980s. We likely have more than five times as many clothing items as we did in the first part of the 20th century.”

Before you clear out your closet, you need to clear out your mind from all that clutter put in there by brands, retailers, and magazines. This is where the shopping fast is key. It’s simple: Do not buy any fashion, new or used. If you absolutely need something, say for a wedding or a hiking trip, see if you can borrow it from a friend or a lending service like StyleLend or Rent the Runway.

The shopping fast allows you to take a breath, step back from the little voice in your head and in pop culture that says, “New things make you happy!” and see what happens when you disengage from the hedonic treadmill. Do you become depressed, or does the fog clear? Do your finances stay the same or improve? Do you find yourself with more time, now that you’re not dealing with packages, tailoring, returns, and … shopping? Do the experiment and observe the results. Here’s how to do it:

  • Pick a time period that you’re comfortable with, either a month, three months, six months, or if you feel especially bogged down and depressed by your closet, or if you’re struggling with credit card debt, a year.
  • Unsubscribe from all retail newsletters. Yes, all of them. You might have to unsubscribe from Revolve three times to make it stick. Keep going. Even that ethical fashion brand you like. You can resubscribe later, I promise.
  • Stop reading fashion blogs. (Except mine. Kidding. Not really; please stick around.)
  • Stop reading fashion magazines. If you love the articles – as I do in Marie Claire and Elle – skip the whole front of book section, which is basically just a place for magazines to appease their advertisers with fake recommendations.
  • Keep a list. Whenever you covet something, write it down on a list, but don’t buy it. You can also pin it to your Pinterest board. What this does is allows you to feel like the item is still within your grasp, to calm your grasping consumer self by knowing you won’t forget about it or lose it, which works as a sort of reverse psychology. Once you write it down, you can comfortably wipe it from your mind. I keep an Evernote “Shopping” list for this purpose. Some things have been on there forever. Some things I write down and when I come back to them a month later, realize how little I actually want them, and delete them. Some things I do eventually buy after mulling them over for a while and saving up enough money. They tend to be staple, flattering, well-made pieces, by the way.
  • Avoid shopping as a pastime. Hanging out with your mom? Go to High Tea instead of SoHo. Killing time? Take a walk around the neighborhood instead of stopping into a store. Three glasses of Malbec deep and finding yourself drawn to your laptop? Call up your ex and tell him or her how much you miss them. ANYTHING but shopping as a pastime.
  • Practice the front-to-back closet method. Depending on your closet, this might also be the left to right method. Or right to left. Here’s what you do: Every time you wear something, when you put it back in your closet, put it in the most inconvenient location, away from your eyesight. I have a pretty straightforward closet, so I just slip what I’ve most recently worn in on the right side. For drawers, I fold it up tightly and “file” it like a document in the back. When I’m thinking about what to wear, I always go to the left of my closet, because over time, everything I haven’t worn yet migrates to the left. Everything I haven’t worn also floats to the front of my drawers. Every day I look at that one top that I still haven’t figured out how to wear. Eventually, with a sigh, I pull it out and try to integrate it into a cute outfit. If I succeed, awesome! If I don’t, then I come to terms with the fact that I actually do not like that top and it’s time for it to go in the goodbye pile. The bonus is that I’m actually doing an admirably efficient job of rotating through my closet for fresh looks, which keeps me away from shopping. And I’m cleaning out my closet as I go, instead of in one massive, intimidating purge.

2. Decide what you value.

While you’re going through your shopping fast, it’s a good time to educate yourself. There are many factors to consider when wanting to support conscious fashion. Do you want to buy fashion that is:

  • Made with purely natural materials?
  • Made with organic cotton?
  • Made with polyester from recycled plastic bottles?
  • Made locally?
  • Made by artisans in developing countries?
  • Secondhand?
  • By an emerging designer or small brand?
  • Vegan?
  • Cruelty-free?
  • Dyed with non-toxic dyes?
  • Upcycled?
  • Timeless and made to last?

If you’ve been a long time reader of EcoCult, you might have noticed I’m pretty agnostic and inclusive when talking about sustainable and ethical fashion. I highlight efforts in almost any realm to produce fashion in a way that is less harmful to people, animals, or the planet. I recommend you learn about the issues and pick a few that are important to you. Because it is the very rare item that covers all of these points, especially since some are in opposition to each other. If you want to wear only natural materials, then you can’t wear clothing made from recycled plastic. If you want to buy locally, then you can’t support artisans who are paid a fair wage to use their indigenous skills. Vegan items are often made from synthetic fabrics, in lieu of wool, leather, and silk. Leather items tend to last a long time, but are made from animals. Upcycled items tend to be quirky and edgy, and maybe you want classic, timeless items, but can’t find what you like in the vegan or artisan version.

So it’s important to rank all the values I just laid out and decide which ones are most important to you. For me, I rank timeless and well-made at the top, so that I can buy fewer things of higher quality. I support independent designers who produce in the Garment District, and artisans who make gorgeous pieces from natural and sustainable materials. If I can find something that hits almost all these points, great! If not, I don’t beat myself up. If all of us chose even one thing to support, it would make a huge difference, because something you buy at Forever21 or Gap might not hit even one of these components.

(Related reading: Do You Pity Shop?)



3. Refine your style.

As I alluded to in the last step, one important part of having a sustainable closet is conserving resources. You do that by only buying and owning items that you love and allow you to express your personal style.

As you’ve been going through your shopping fast, you might start noticing that you have things in your closet you thought were cute in theory, but don’t look good on you. Or don’t make you feel good, or like yourself. You probably bought it because it was a “must have.” But the stylish woman doesn’t need to get in on every single trend. (If she did, why does Anna Wintour always seem to wear a variation on an expensive coat and knee-length dress with heels? Girl doesn’t care about wide-legged pants, no matter how many times editors try to make them a thing.)

But how to refine your style? I’ve got one word for you:

Pinterest. I know. Pinterest has a reputation for sugar cookie decorating tutorials and tips for organizing under your bathroom sink. But it played a key role in my developing confidence in my style, though by accident. One of the boards I created on a whim I call “What Shall I Wear Today?” where I pin cute outfits that I hope to someday recreate with the sustainable items in my closet. After pinning for a year or two, I started noticing very clear themes in all my pins. Skinny black pants. Grey sweaters. White blouses. Tailored wool coats. High-waisted denim. Wow, look at that. That is my style! After looking through my pins, I went back to my closet with fresh eyes. Suddenly, there were items in there that looked glaringly out of place. They were pricey, trendy pieces that seemed cool, but whenever I put on, didn’t feel quite right. Pinpointing my style allowed me to be true to myself.

IRL collage. You don’t necessarily have to use Pinterest. As your shopping fast starts to come to a close, go to the bookstore, the kind that stocks a lot of high-end, serious fashion magazines, and pick out a few that really appeal to you. Then take them home and rip out your favorite ads and outfits to make a collage. I’ve also been doing this for a while with an album, and I’ve noticed over the years that what I’m drawn to has barely changed. It’s all fitted tailoring and sleek lines in solid colors. I’ve been pushed around by trends and my surroundings (hello Vera Bradley in college, yuck) and lost my way, but I always kind of knew my core style. I just needed to have the confidence to choose it and stick to it.

3b. Update your shopping list.

Once you’ve got a collection of outfits you would love to wear, you can make a list of your core basics, see how many of them you already have, and add any you don’t have to the shopping list you’ve been keeping. Go through your shopping list again and take out all the dumb stuff you threw on there that you realize now doesn’t suit you.


4. Clean out your closet.

You’ve already been doing this all along, because of the shopping fast, the front-to-back method, and the style selection. But now for the final push. Go back to your closet, maybe with The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo in hand, and really clean it out. Don’t be afraid especially to get rid of the designer or high-end label item that isn’t quite you. I know, it’s painful to think of the money you spent and you would like to have something expensive in your closet for the moral boost. But it will have more value to you if you actually get it out of your closet. Be ruthless. I’m a huge purger, and I can think of one thing since college that I got rid of that I wish I hadn’t. One thing out of hundreds. Sort the clothes you are getting rid of into consign and donate.

5. Get cash for your clothes.

The consign pile will be full of things you could get money out of. (Here’s what to do with the donate pile.) Take them to a consignment store, which will go through them and offer you cash or store credit. Then, you can use the store credit to pick up things from your carefully curated shopping list.

Wow, do you realize that you now have a close-to perfect closet that reflects your personal style and makes you feel good about yourself, and you haven’t even spent any money yet? So dope.


6. Go shopping – consciously.

Here we are, finally, at the final step toward a sustainable wardrobe, and the only one that involves spending money! After you’ve cleaned out your closet and used some of that money you’ve earned from consignment to check a few things off your personal must-have list, you might have a couple more basic items you want to buy. I guarantee you that you can find the item you need made in a way that aligns with your values, though it’s a lot harder to do so in your local mall. Just check out my Shopping Guide, which lists the best sustainable and ethical retailers and brands in every category.

This post contains affiliate links, which means that if you buy certain products on this page, I get a small commission. EcoCult only promotes brands we believe in, no matter what! 


  • Alden Wicker

    Ruth Alden Wicker is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of EcoCult. Along with growing EcoCult to be the leading international information hub for sustainable fashion, she also writes for publications including Vogue, The New York Times, Wired, The Cut, Vox, InStyle, Popular Science, Harper's Bazaar, Quartz, Inc. Magazine, Martha Stewart Living, Craftsmanship Quarterly, Refinery29, Narratively, and many more.

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