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5 questions to ask before buying new clothes

We’ve all had that feeling of having nothing to wear – but did you know that most people don't wear at least 50% of the items in their wardrobe? What’s worse, the average American only wears 18% of the garments in their closet. Many of these unworn clothes are discarded as waste, propelling the climate crisis. 

So, before your next clothing purchase, consider these five questions before adding them to your shopping cart: 

Colorful set of sustainable clothes hang on a rack

Can I find this secondhand?

Buying something pre-owned rather than creating resource demand for a new item is always more sustainable and affordable. The growth of online marketplaces and retailer’s secondhand sites have only made it easier to find the exact style or piece you’re looking for second-hand. (PS - you can save 5% cashback at secondhand retailers using your FutureCard Visa® Card) 

Refreshing your wardrobe with something new (to you) doesn’t necessarily have to be purchased – swap with your friends or family or others in your community to sustainably exchange your pre-loved clothes with other pre-loved ones. 

Who, where, and how did this item end up in my shopping cart?

The climate crisis is intersectional, so ethical labor practices are a necessity for a greener planet. Since only 2% of all garment workers are paid living wages, the price of the item you’re considering might not reflect the true cost of producing it. Ask yourself who made your garment and in what working conditions, where was it produced, is it a part of a sustainable supply chain, and how is it transported? These are all critical considerations when building a wardrobe that is both environmentally and socially responsible.  

These questions will inform and empower you as a consumer to support brands that are ethical and eco-friendly. If you can’t easily find the answers, take that as a sign to shop elsewhere. Good On You is a great resource for researching fashion companies, but most responsible companies will directly disclose factory information, third-party certifications, and sustainability reports – after all, who would want to hide the fact that they treat their workers and the planet well? 

What fabrics are used and how do I care for it?

The materials used to make clothing also factor into the question of its ethical production and carbon footprint. While sustainable fabrics like organic cotton, hemp, and Tencel are great alternatives to synthetic materials derived from fossil fuels like polyester and nylon, checking for third-party Organic and Fairtrade certifications is essential to ensure the item you purchase is responsibly made. 

We rarely think about doing laundry when browsing for clothes, but this frequent chore adds up to 8% of all household emissions in the U.S. Dry cleaning can be even worse for the environment – and your health. Additionally, a main contributor to microplastic pollution is the synthetic fibers produced and used in many garments. Each year, the equivalent of 50 billion plastic bottles finds its way into the ocean from the textiles we manufacture and consume – partially from laundry.  

Before you purchase an item, look for natural and sustainably produced fabrics. Once you own the product, skip the dry cleaners, and wash your loads on shorter, cooler cycles to reduce microfiber shedding. 

Where and how long can I wear this item?

Rather than shopping for a one-off event, focus on the longevity and durability of your purchases. Natural, ethical fibers tend to have a longer lifespan than fossil fuel derived fabrics like polyester.  

To make sure you’ll actually wear what you’re purchasing, try to construct five outfits using the item with pieces from your closet, and think of five different occasions where you could show off your new purchase. For a next level challenge, think through how you could wear this piece through all four seasons. 

Given the average garment’s lifespan of 7 wears before it heads to a landfill, it’s also important to take trends into account – will you slip on this item for years and marvel at how timeless it is, or wonder why you bought it in six months? Using clothes for an extra nine months can reduce their carbon, water, and waste footprint by up to 30%. Buying something that aligns with your style and stays in your wardrobe for years can significantly reduce the environmental impact of your closet

Do I love the way I feel and look or am I trying to convince myself I need it? 

Trying to make it work because it’s on sale, it’s the last one left in your size, or just trying to satisfy a shopping itch? Before you let price, availability, or variable impulses dictate your wardrobe, stop and determine if this item really flatters you, makes you comfortable and confident, and is an important piece for your closet. This will undoubtedly factor into how much you will actually wear this piece - and continued use is the key to sustainability. 

If you’re shopping online, look for measurements to help approximate fit or contact customer service for more detailed information. Since returning purchases can more than double transportation emissions, try to only order pieces you know you will love, wear, and keep.