How to Build an Ethical and Sustainable Wardrobe

Woman Shopping
“Despite all the shopping trips, I still felt like I had nothing to wear.”

Shop, purge, repeat. My relationship with fashion was toxic. Every other week I’d buy a dress, a sweater, a new necklace. Twenty bucks here and there added up to hundreds of dollars per month, and as a grad student I was always wondering how to pay off my credit card and get out of debt.

Despite all the shopping trips, I still felt like I had nothing to wear. I’d do my seasonal purges and find things in the closet that I bought and never wore. I would find other things that seemed trendy at the time, but months later ended up in the “I regret this purchase” pile.

I still thought I was better than my peers because I didn’t do this every week, and I wasn’t compulsively browsing through online sales and drooling over the latest fashion trends.

Before I watched The True Cost or started to question the sustainability of fast fashion, I was a couple thousand dollars in debt because of my spending habits. That’s when I had to look at myself in the mirror and ask myself if this was all worth it. How many hours did I have to work to pay off that compulsive shopping spree?

The road to an ethical and sustainable wardrobe starts with your beliefs about fashion

I only sobered up from my shopping habits when I realized that:

  • Spending my paycheck on STUFF is NOT AN INVESTMENT.
  • My mindless consumption caused nothing but stress, as it caused me to be in debt.
  • On top of spending my money on things that I did not need, I was spending it on items that had no longevity.
  • A dollar spent on clothes is a dollar that is not being spent elsewhere. I value experiences more than I value my looks, so something had to give.

Was my indebtedness worth it? Looking back on my journey, there were a couple of beliefs that needed to change before I could afford to buy ethical fashion.

“I need to have many clothes”

No, you don’t. What you need is to buy clothes that are suitable for your body shape, skin tone, and lifestyle. At some point, I had so many party dresses that I had to keep them in a suitcase. I don’t even like to go clubbing! Buy clothes that flatter you, not clothes that are in vogue. If you spend too much time staring at your closet and hating everything you own, you might suffer from this belief.

“Sticking to a color palette is restrictive!”

Not only should you figure out which colors look good on you (you’ll never see me wearing yellow near my face), you should also pair it down to 1-2 neutrals and 2-3 accent colors that can be mixed with the neutrals and with each other. I won’t lie to you, it was a bit painful to get rid of clothes that did not fit my palette, but in the end, it was worth it. Once I made that decision, it became so easy to dress up. The mix and match possibilities are so varied that I don’t repeat my outfits as often as you’d think!

Minimalism is boring

Adopting a minimalist approach to your closet is only boring if you don’t make it your own. I refuse to believe that minimalism equals dressing like the French. The idea that every woman should own a pearl necklace and a cardigan is not a rule set in stone. After my last closet purge, I realized that cardigans are not a must-have for me. Minimalism is owning things that you really want to wear, so if that includes a whacky print, GO FOR IT!

But I have so many “personalities”!

I’ve heard this one before. You can’t seem to narrow down your closet choices because one day you feel boho, the other day you feel punk, or whatever. I am calling your bluff! I bet that if you kept track of what you wear, you’d realize that you are wearing less than half of your clothes on a regular basis. I say it with conviction because I’ve been there! I recently did an inventory of what I own, and I am wearing half of my clothes (and here I was, thinking I had nailed the whole minimalism thing).

Use the regular pen and paper method, or download an app to help you keep track of what you wear. You’ll be surprised how many of your clothes are unused. I recommend the Stylebook App, it is worth the money!

Buying high-quality clothing is for the rich

Once I made a conscious decision about what belonged in my closet, it was easier to avoid overspending. Instead of going to the mall every other weekend, I avoided it like the plague and I would make a shopping list for each season (Spring/Summer and Fall/Winter). I set a realistic budget out of each paycheck and after a couple months, I was able to buy high-quality clothes and shoes that I still own and use regularly.

An ethical and sustainable consumer is not someone who just buys from brands that do good. A sustainable consumer is not easily swayed into impulsive purchases because she knows what looks good on her. She has a wardrobe that suits her lifestyle, and is not tempted by the latest trends. Because of this, she doesn’t spend her money recklessly and can afford high-quality purchases from ethical and sustainable fashion brands. Even if she buys at a thrift store, she still refuses to shop with the same beliefs as a fast fashion consumer!

It’s not an easy transition, but the results are worth it. Besides having money in the bank to create the life I want, I also have a closet with clothes that I love and that do more good than harm.


Bio: Carolina Chanis is the founder of The Conscious Fashionista, a blog about ethical fashion for women. While she loves to write about brands and share her knowledge about curating the perfect ethical capsule wardrobe, she is driven by her desire to make sustainable and ethical fashion the industry norm. She is also the co-founder of Sustainability Innovation Services Group, a consulting firm that offers life cycle assessment services to companies that wish to understand their environmental impact and bridge the gap between business goals and their sustainability strategy. You can follow Carolina on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Pinterest.

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