Sustainable living

How to get the most out of your clothes

Style shouldn’t cost the earth: 6 sustainable tips to help your wardrobe, wallet and the world.

Man looking at clothing secondhand shop

We know our fashion choices are hurting the planet.

Textile waste is on the rise and the fashion industry is now the planet’s third largest polluter, releasing 5% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. Locally, Australians discard over 6,000kg of textile and clothing waste every 10 minutes.

But style shouldn’t cost the earth. Prolonging the life of our clothes, and disposing of them correctly when we’re done, can go a long way towards addressing the problem.

Store and protect your clothes

Start with the basics. A little care can go a long way and save you big money in the long run. Investing in shoe conditioners or leather protectors are easy ways to prolong your favourite shoes.

Put expensive items in cotton suit bags to avoid moth damage. Or repurpose an old sheet by cutting a hole in the top for a coat hanger to come through and sew the sides for a DIY suit bag. Store clothes away from direct sunlight to help prevent fading.

By keeping your clothes in active use for an extra 9 months, you can help reduce their carbon, water and waste footprints by 20-30%.

Wash with care

Extend the life of your clothes by following the care instructions on their label. Different types of fabric need different amounts of care. Otherwise you might find your favourite shirt has shrunk after a few washes.

Watch Sustainable clothing: Fabric care and choice 101. Leah Giblin, creator of clothing label Day Keeper, covers which fabrics to buy and avoid, how to reduce the impact of polyester and caring for natural fibres.

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A pretty good rule of thumb is to wash clothes in cooler temperatures. It’s kinder on the fabric and more energy efficient.

Make sure you zip up and button all items to stop clothes getting snagged in the washing machine. Delicate washing bags will help keep your intimates extra safe.

Skip the dryer, which can shrink clothes twice as fast as the washing line. Air drying your clothes helps extend their life, minimises wear and tear and reduces energy use. If you’re worried about colour fading, turn items inside out when hanging them in the sun to dry.

Consider whether you need to wash an item in the first place. Clothes don’t always need to be washed after every wear. Try refreshing your clothes without washing. A spot wash can help address small spills and stains. Freshen up clothes and remove any smells by airing them out or putting them in a plastic bag in the freezer overnight. Hanging items in a steamy bathroom can also help to smooth out creases and avoid the iron.

Mend and repair

A ripped or torn piece of clothing is a sign that it’s well-loved, not that it needs to be tossed. Even if an item has a hole or tear, the fabric likely still has a lot of life in it.

Take damaged clothing or shoes to your local tailor or repairer. The cost to repair is often a fraction of the price of buying something new.

You can also try repairing it yourself.

You’ll find plenty of repair tutorials on YouTube, or check out The Social Outfit’s Quick Mends Lockdown Series.

Mending isn’t just about fixing an item, it can make it even better. Visible mending techniques, like elbow patches, can bring new life to old clothes, with no sewing machine needed.

If something can’t be fixed, you could cut it up and use the fabric for rags or to patch up a hole in something else.

Watch Sustainable clothing: Tips for upcycling old clothes. Learn how to refresh a stained shirt, turn an old tee into a pillowcase and transform socks into heat packs.

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“I can’t solve climate change but I can mend a sock… It’s about influencing what you can influence.” - Erin Lewis-Fitzgerald (ABC Radio), author of Modern Mending

Swap, sell and donate

Why not organise your own clothes swap with a group of friends
Why not organise your own clothes swap with a group of friends

If you’re sure that an item of clothing is no longer for you, think twice before tossing it away. If it’s in excellent condition – something you would proudly give to a friend – you have the following options:

Recycle responsibly as a last resort

Check if your clothing brands offer take-back schemes for recycling their items. H&M and Zara have garment collection programs where you can drop off any brand of clothing in their stores for recycling.

Upparel and Boody also offer recycling programs that allow you to book online and have a box of items collected from your door. We'll also collect your old, unwearable items through our doorstep recycling service – just make sure you label and separate them from any reusable items.

Avoid putting clothes, shoes and fabrics in the rubbish bin, and never put them in the recycling or garden organics bins.

“There is no such thing as away. When you throw something away, it must go somewhere.” - Annie Leonard, Greenpeace

Choose sustainably

Watch Sustainable clothing: Shop your wardrobe. Leah Giblin shows how to shop from the clothes you own. Create stylish and fresh looks, without buying more stuff.

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Buying second hand is a simple way to shop more sustainably. You’ll find unique pieces and save money, all while helping expand the circular economy and reduce textile waste. Check out online marketplaces, your local charity shop or one of our free clothes swaps.

When it’s time to buy something new, invest in good-quality pieces that last. One way to check for quality is to look at the seams and stitching – if they look messy, uneven or coming apart, don’t buy it.

Support brands with ethical, sustainable practices. Search brands on Good on You, a website that rates clothing companies based on their environmental, fair labour and animal impact rating.

Choose natural materials like cotton, linen or hemp that are organic and recycled if possible. Shirts made from a single component, like 100% cotton or wool, can be more breathable, so you may sweat less and wash less. Synthetic materials like nylon and polyester shed microfibres when washed. This means your clothes release millions of tiny plastic pieces into our drains.

Published 13 April 2022, updated 18 March 2024