Fighting fast fashion by auditing clothes, upcycling the ‘skinny pile’ and doing a wardrobe freeze – ABC News

In 2023, Jenna Flood challenged herself to a “wardrobe freeze”.

For 12 months, she wouldn’t buy any clothing. 

The previous year, Ms Flood believes she purchased more than 100 items and spent a little over $10,000 on clothing.

Ms Flood is a fashion stylist and retail worker — and clothing is a big part of her job.

“I thought if I can do [a wardrobe freeze], then the average person who doesn’t work in this industry can do it,” she says.

Clothes at Nagula Jarndu hang on a sales rack.

More than 200,000 tonnes of clothing is sent to landfill in Australia every year.(ABC Kimberley: Mya Kordic)

Despite avoiding fast fashion in favour of buying second-hand, mending and maintaining, and purchasing from ethical brands, Ms Flood said she often sold clothes after several wears, and her habits were becoming “too fast”.

Fast fashion — mass-produced garments in rapidly evolving styles, sold at bargain prices and designed to be replaced frequently — has become the clothing industry’s biggest environmental problem.

In Australia, the average person buys 56 items of clothing a year — mostly made from non-sustainable, non-durable materials — and contributes 23 kilograms of clothing to landfill, according to Cleap Up Australia and the Australian Fashion Council.

Globally, the clothing industry is a major contributor to emissions, more than maritime shipping and international flights combined, according to a study by the Ellen McArthur Foundation.

Learning to say no

For Ms Flood, being surrounded by clothing at work was the most challenging part of her wardrobe freeze.

“It was hard to go to work and see all these beautiful things on the counter knowing I couldn’t have them, but that kind of helped me say, ‘No thank you’ to things,” she says.

Without being able to make any impulse buys, she began to examine why she would sometimes feel the need to buy.

“When you assess what that weak moment is, you’re like, ‘I’m just hungry’,” she said.

“I found that if I went for a walk, or if I did something else creative, the feeling would go away. And then I’d be like, ‘Oh, I didn’t really need the shoes, did I?'”

This year, Ms Flood is allowing herself to go clothes shopping again, but she is buying less and thinking more about her purchases.

“I’m trying to really be aware of what comes into my wardrobe because I also have to be aware of where it goes,” she said.

A mountain of clothing in a landfill site in Ghana's capital Accra.

Many of the clothes we donate to charity end up dumped in landfill overseas, creating an environmental catastrophe in the global south.(Supplied: OR Foundation)

Despite increased interest in sustainable shopping, the fast fashion market continues to grow, according to Macquarie University professor of marketing and consumer psychology Jana Bowden.

“The neurological dopamine ‘shoppers’ high’ that we get from finding deals, the excitement of it all, keeps us on the fast fashion buying merry-go-round and makes it very hard to kick the addictive habit,” she says.

Professor Bowden cited recent research showing fast-fashion shoppers treated clothing as disposable and discarded items after an average of seven wears.

She says people who are active on social media are more likely to shop impulsively and buy fast fashion.

“The widespread promotion of micro-trends in fashion on social media like TikTok and through brand-sponsored fashion influencers only serves to make this worse,” she says.

The wardrobe audit

Over-consumption of clothing is not the only issue.

Ms Flood says over-production by fashion companies is part of a structural problem that was not the responsibility of individual consumers.

Last week, France became the first country to legislate measures to limit the fast-fashion industry, something Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek has warned could happen in Australia.

Jenna Flood, stylist,

Jenna Flood speaking on slow fashion.(Supplied: Jenna Flood)

But for those interested in curbing their own fast-fashion habit, Ms Flood says a mini wardrobe freeze for one month may help.

She suggests taking a photo each day to keep track of which items were being worn and what felt most comfortable to wear often.

“I noticed a lot of people when they go shopping, they just buy what they already have,” she says.

“Because we don’t take our wardrobes with us, we usually have no idea what’s there.”

She says knowing what you own and what gaps you need to fill can help you have a more considered wardrobe that you will wear for longer.

a woman holds a sign saying how many garments she owns

Wendy Ward has begun tracking how often she is wearing her clothes to become a more sustainable consumer.(Supplied: Wendy Ward)

Reconnecting with your clothes

UK-based fashion designer and PhD student Wendy Ward has done an audit to discover how many garments she owns and is now tracking how often she wears them.

Ms Ward says knowing what garments she wears a lot has made her love them even more.

Hand stitches in various colours are marked on a clothing tag

Wendy Ward is recording how often she wares a garment with a stitch, the change of colour signifies a different season.(Supplied: Wendy Ward)

“The kind of the pattern that is emerging … I’m finding really satisfying,” Ms Ward says.

“When we think about all the resources and materials that are in a garment, and all the hands that have passed through to make it into a garment, for them to just be discarded [is a problem].”

As part of her PhD research, Ms Ward has been experimenting with ways to encourage people to fall in love with the clothes they already own, and examining whether this could lead to more sustainable consumption.

A denim jacket with 205 red tally marks, divided into sections for worn, donated to charity and removed for repair.

Wendy Ward shared this visual wardrobe audit on social media.(Instagram: thatwendyward)

Through creative writing, drawing and photography workshops, she encourages people to “reconnect with clothes, and the stories … and the meanings that are held in them”.

“Rather than coming at it from a denial point of view — ‘I shouldn’t shop at that place, I should do this, I must consume less,’ — [this is] more of a positive celebration of what’s already there,” she says.

The clothes people already own were, after all, the most sustainable ones, she says.

Ms Ward says by understanding our wardrobes and what we like to wear, it’s possible to avoid wardrobe churn and to wear our clothes with more confidence.

“Fashion is a lot about storytelling — and brands are often very keen to do that storytelling for us, but if we are more connected to our clothes, we can use our clothes to do our own storytelling,” she says.

a smiling woman poses with a clothing rack of clothes

Wendy Ward, fashion designer and researcher.(Supplied: Wendy Ward)

Rethinking the ‘skinny pile’

Bethany Mynott used to loathe doing clothing alterations, but after discovering the impacts of fast fashion thanks to War on Waste, she has turned it into an upcycling business.

A fashion designer from regional Victoria, Ms Mynott works with women to repurpose clothes they already own.

“I really focus on solving the problem as to why that piece [of clothing] isn’t being worn, and that’s the starting point of creating the design of what it can become,” she says.

“You really want to fix why you’re not wearing it, so that you will want to wear it over and over again.”

A shirt with puffy sleeves is being modelled

A repurposed design by Bethany Mynott.(Supplied: Bethany Mynott)

Ms Mynott says the most common reason her clients have so many unworn clothes in their wardrobe is because of what she calls the “infamous skinny pile”.

She says she often starts by repurposing the items put aside for a “skinnier” future self.

Ms Mynott says she never blames people for buying new items, whether it is out of convenience or cost, as it is often cheaper to replace slightly damaged items rather than fixing them.

But she encourages people to start falling in love with the imperfections in their clothing.

A black and white photo of a woman with brown hair, in a hoodie, working at a sewing machine.

Bethany Mynott runs her own upcycling business.(Instagram: bethanyalice_fashiondesign)

“If things get stained, and they’re not sure how to wash it or clean it, they throw it out and replace it … [but] you can use the fabric to turn it into something else or put patches on it,” she says.

Ms Mynott says people sometimes believe being sustainable requires an all-or-nothing approach.

“I like to tell people that we don’t need a small amount of people doing sustainability perfectly, we need everyone doing it imperfectly,” she says.

“One choice to keep wearing that bit of clothing or to buy something from the op-shop or to not buy something that you don’t necessarily need is all a step in the right direction to a more sustainable future.”

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