Lessons learned: A clothes-free year, part 4

By Barbara Sibbald
Originally published in Montgolfiere Weekly

In just a few weeks, my year will be up and I will be free to buy clothes. Free, but not inspired. I won’t be reverting to my old habits. A year of self-imposed doing without has made me a reformed and better-informed consumer. If you too want to save money and time, while still dressing well, then my lessons learned might be of interest.

Cull your closet and dresser, so you can see what you actually wear. If it’s the wrong colour, size or fit, or simply doesn’t look good, give it to charity. Ditto for the “souvenir” clothes: the silver lamé dress you wore to your 40th; that square-dancing skirt. You will never wear them again. In general, if you haven’t worn an item in the last year, you likely won’t. The exceptions are special-event fancy clothes, but only keep what makes you feel fabulous. And only a couple of items.

Shop smart by creating a precise list of what you need. Not just a pair of black capris, but cotton blend with a side zip and no pockets. Then when you go shopping, you can tell the sales associate exactly what you are looking for. Browsing can be hazardous to your wallet. If you’re really keen to curtail your clothes-buying habit, check out the capsule wardrobe strategy.

Don’t buy under pressure — be it a shortage of time, a fabulous sale or an aggressive sales pitch. If in doubt, ask the store to hold the item for 24 hours, giving you time to decide. It must be the right colour, size and fit. It must go with other things you own and your lifestyle. And you must love how it looks on you. Keep the tags attached and the receipts at hand for at least a week, just to be sure. You can always return it.

Be wary of ultra-cheap new clothes for two reasons: to avoid the hazards of buying under pressure (see #3) and, second, to avoid having someone else pay a big price for that $4.99 blouse. And this brings me to my final point in this series of blog posts.

You may remember about three years ago, 1,137 garment workers in Bangladesh were killed and more than 2,200 wounded, when the roof collapsed on a substandard factory. Consumers were shocked, and retailers such as Walmart, Gap and Target promised to act. But mostly they have failed to do the necessary renovations: 62% of these Bangladeshi garment factories still lack fire exits, and 47% have major structural problems.

Then there’s the pervasive issue of child labour. As noted by World Vision, between 2011 and 2015, annual Canadian imports of goods at high risk of having child or forced labour in their supply chains have “grown remarkably”: “Garment imports from high-risk countries increased 30% from $6.0 billion to $7.7 billion.” The bottom line is that other people, mostly women and children, are paying a high price for our fast-clothing habit. Watch The True Cost if you want to know what’s going on.

What can we do? I’m going to try to shop ethically. That means buying less and probably paying more per item, but generally the clothing will be better made and last longer. In 1930, most women had about 30 items of clothing (not including undies); today we have 120. It’s not necessary.

But it’s not easy to change habits either. I’ve found some good apps. You can also buy locally made or second-hand clothing, or simply trade clothes with a pal. Some brand-name companies proclaim they are fair trade and ethical, but when in doubt, ask retailers or brands where their products are made, including information about the factories and subcontractors. Take your query public on Twitter (#whomademyclothes). This might be the start of a fashion revolution. One step at a time.

Which brings me back to my initial step: my attempt to have a clothes-free year. I didn’t quite make it. As I confessed in instalment two, I bought a pair of socks for $12.99 (for a walking tour) and, in November, I bought a beautiful bamboo scarf for $22. I bought it without even thinking that it counted. I just had to have it. It was a very good buy, because it transformed my old and familiar black wardrobe (see selfie). Later in November, when the snow seemed destined to stay, I discovered my winter walking boots (a.k.a. hikers) were cracked and leaking (salt damage); a new (and very necessary pair) cost me $132 (on sale, but exactly what I wanted).

So, I didn’t stop buying clothes entirely, but I did achieve my goal to think more carefully about the clothing I purchased. My closets are no longer jam-packed, so I can see what I own, and choosing what to wear is a lot easier. I also have more money in the bank. It’s all good.

Return to part 1, part 2, or part 3