In an age of revolving trends where news, fashion, and everything else can change in a blink of an eye, we want our clothing to last. This desire isn’t just for the purpose of fashion but also for reasons of sustainability. Fast fashion has led to mass-produced, cheaply made products that do not last. For that reason, this results in an outsized environmental cost for the gear you might not even be able to wear a few years from now.
In this article, we are going to explore how to figure out if clothing was made to last and what to look out for when shopping.
Fast and Slow Fashion
Something fundamental to look out for when it comes to finding clothes that last is whether or not the brand you’re looking at falls under fast or slow fashion.
Fast fashion refers to mass-produced items of low-to-middling quality, which either go out of style quickly or deteriorate quickly. Slow fashion subverts these qualities by focusing on the sustainability and longevity of their offerings.
Fast fashion brands change with the season, with new items forming an ever-revolving churn of styles fit to meet the latest trends. It has the benefit of being affordable and usually being on-trend. On the other hand, the downsides of fast fashion are business practices that may be unethical or environmentally unsustainable. From a financial perspective, individual garments may be cheap, but they might not last as much as compared to slow fashion.
Slow fashion brands, by comparison, are focused less on maximizing their pure output of goods. Slow fashion is more centered on producing a stream of low-batch, high-quality garments with sustainability and local impact in mind.
While slow fashion brands often feature higher price points, this comes with increased worker wages, locally sourced materials which in some cases may be recycled. Additionally, these prices allow for environmentally safer production processes and small batch sizes. This ensures a degree of exclusivity and uniqueness in your gear.
Because slow fashion brands often align with local producers and smaller fashion houses wherever they are headquartered, you also get the added benefit that you will be supporting individuals directly, rather than massive, overarching corporations.
What Makes Clothing Sustainable
A lot goes into making clothing sustainable. Sustainability refers to the ability of a garment's production to be repeated, from an environmental and economic aspect, in an ethical manner.
In order to see if your clothing was made with sustainability in mind, look to the following:
Local Production: For U.S.-based companies, look for a sign that the garment was made in the USA. This isn’t just for patriotism:
Many companies take advantage of international labor to cut costs while exploiting workers. By producing in the US, it’s more likely that companies are using fair labor practices and paying individual attention to each garment made.
Natural Fibers: Cotton, wool, and silk are all natural fibers that can be produced with less environmental impact than synthetics such as spandex. Many synthetic fabrics see use in athletic apparel due to their exceptional capabilities to stretch and wick moisture.
Aside from these practical contexts, it may be better to focus on natural materials. It should be noted that some materials like denim, which will be discussed later, results in a negative environmental impact from the production of low-quality garments.
The Company: When you try to look into the company, assuming they are large enough to have an online presence, are you able to find a compelling story?
Is the company mainly run by a few real-feeling people, or does it present a more general corporate image based around a mythical founder from generations ago? When you look into a brand, it should be easy to see whether they are personal and locally focused. This way, you can see if they are practicing positive manufacturing practices.
These aren’t the only ways to tell that a specific garment is sustainable, but it is an easy indication as to the general morality of a company.
The Denim Issue
While buying sustainably is the goal, the fact remains that all clothing production results in some sort of environmental impact. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the creation of denim.
When it comes to major dangers to our environment, we often think of large factories and toxic pollutants. Though the end result is an unassuming product, denim is one of the worst materials when it comes to the environmental impact its production has.
Denim is made from cotton twill. Cotton, in general, requires a lot of water to harvest, with 2.2 pounds of the crop requiring up to 7,660 gallons of water to produce. Conversely, that same quantity of tomatoes requires a little over one percent of that amount. However, the amount of water it takes to produce denim is only a small part of the controversial garment.
Much of the world’s denim production, prior to increased government oversight, was outsourced to the Chinese town of Xintang. In this town, unsafe chemicals resulting from denim production were dumped into local waterways. This tainted the drinking and bathing water, produced a foul smell and deep blue chemical tint. Toxic metals (like mercury and lead) contaminated and poisoned the water supply.
You shouldn’t go throwing out your old denim, nor is it necessary to swear off all denim forever. The best way to encourage ethical practices in denim production is to only source from companies you factually know to employ safe production methods.
You can also limit your denim purchases and wear the denim articles you have for as long as possible. Because of the thickness of the material, denim is easy and stylish to repair when holes appear in garments.
How To Tell if Clothing was Made to Last
We’ve explained how to identify sustainable brands and certain items to be especially careful of. However, knowing how to check an individual garment physically to see if it was made to last is essential.
Below are some core steps you can take in figuring out the longevity of a garment before you buy it:
Check the Label: Before you do anything else, you should check the label of the garment. This will reveal the materials of the article, any special qualities that the materials may have, or the sourcing location.
The label will also list where the garment was assembled. The companies that practice safe production methods are the ones most likely to have their headquarters near their manufacturing centers.
Check Thickness: Some fabrics are designed to be sheer or partially see-through, but for others seeing your hand through the fabric may be a sign it won’t last terribly long. Generally speaking, thicker fabrics are more durable, hence the bulkiness and associated longevity of winter coats.
To check the thickness of an article in the store, put your hands under the fabric, one layer at a time, and see how well you can see them.
Check the Little Details: When you examine pockets on a garment, the material should line up with the rest of it. If it doesn’t, it can be a sign of cheap manufacturing.
Similarly, if a garment comes with a little bit of extra fabric along the seams, in the case of formal wear additional buttons, it can be a sign that the piece was designed with longevity and future repair in mind.
There are also some additional considerations with major implications for clothing involving the materials. The fabric a garment is made from and the quality of fabric both influence the final design.
The type of material your clothing is made from is everything. Material affects the way your clothing feels because if you don’t like the way a garment feels, it’s doubtful you’ll wear it much or often. Consider the way the piece looks as well as the way it reacts under a variety of elements: these factors are critical.
We’ve briefly gone into the benefits of natural fibers, the practical applications of synthetic ones, and why certain fibers like denim have global consequences if not ethically produced. Now, we’re going to do a deep dive into why material is everything when it comes to clothing.
Some materials require a lot of upkeep. Delicate materials ranging from silk to elastic to leather (more on that in a bit) require more upkeep than traditional cotton, wool, or polyester garments. Even among clothing made from these materials, the difference in quality is apparent. Low-quality cotton is prone to pilling, and low-quality wool often causes a scratchy sensation that gives wool an unfair reputation. Beyond that, certain items require highly specific cleaning methods, be it dry cleaning or hand washing.
Before you buy anything, ask yourself: Do I like the material? Do I love the way it feels? Am I willing to go the extra mile to take care of it and ensure it lasts? If the answer to all three is a resounding “Yes,” then you’ve found the next perfect addition to your wardrobe. Otherwise, it may belong back on the rack.
Additional Concern: Thrifting
Thrift shopping and vintage stores can be an additional way to shop sustainably. Keep in mind that thrifting can make it difficult to guarantee the highest quality of products. Many stores have some form of standard or curation when it comes to intake. This means that especially in metropolitan areas with a larger population to source from, you might be able to discover some unique finds you wouldn’t be able to get elsewhere.
Thrifting can be cheaper than buying directly from other retailers, and because it repurposes pre-worn clothes, it has a lesser environmental impact compared to new clothes. If thrifting isn’t quite your style, plenty of modern brands put an emphasis on ethicality and sustainability that makes them just as serviceable as thrifting while offering top-of-the-minute style.
Shoes are a somewhat different beast from regular apparel.
With sneakerhead culture now decades into prominence, there’s a massive proliferation of high-quality running gear that’s easy to find. When it comes to running shoes, your biggest consideration should be the natural shape of your own foot.
If you have flat feet, you have a broader range of motion in your foot and are going to want extra arch support because of that. High arches, on the other hand, demand a lot of arch support along the middle of the foot to support the body’s natural gait. Neutral feet with a medium arch don’t require specialized footwear.
Leather shoes, whether they be boots, oxfords, loafers, or running shoes with leather uppers, demand a bit more precision when it comes to selection. Stitched uppers are preferable over glued for durability. In order to tell if a shoe is stitched or glued, look around the base of the upper to see any sign of stitching connecting it to the sole of the shoe.
While price is never a good pure indicator of quality in a shoe, there’s a reason why cheap shoes are cheap and expensive shoes are expensive. Low costs can sometimes come as a result of inferior materials and abusive cost-cutting practices. When you get beyond the hundred-dollar range for footwear, the price point and quality standard of a brand can reveal the practices behind the manufacture of the product.
While choosing the right pair of shoes is a highly personal choice, needing to care for your shoes is a universal one. We’ll next be discussing the best way to take care of various types of shoes. Plus, we’ll go over how to evaluate when it’s time to trade them in for a new one.
Caring For Your Shoes
Shoes see a lot more wear and tear than regular articles of clothing, especially if you only have a few. Compounding the difficulty of judging your shoes is the fact that, unlike with clothing, where rips and tears are obvious, it can be difficult to judge when you should throw them away or replace them.
Consider the following for each type of shoe:
- Athletic Shoes: Running shoes, as popular wisdom states, need to be replaced after 300-500 miles. If the sole of the shoe over time starts to severely wrinkle, it’s a sign that the cushioning is giving out. You could be exposing yourself to injury if you are strenuously active. Athletic shoes usually can’t be repaired, so at this point, it may be time to throw them out or donate them so that the rubber can be repurposed.
Leather Shoes: A good pair of well-maintained leather shoes can easily last for several years. If you wear them daily or don’t take care of them, this lifespan will be shortened. The key to keeping them going is to properly maintain them.
Regular leather needs to be polished periodically to keep the shoe shiny and protected, and some forms of leather, like suede, are extremely vulnerable to water and need to be waterproofed. If a shoe is an extremely high-quality piece, you can also invest in repair in the event that the sole gives out while the rest of the shoe is looking fine.
- Sandals: Sandals undergo a lot of stress because of their minimal designs. If the straps are beginning to bend or break, it’s a sign that repair or replacement may be in the shoes' future.
Once your shoes have seen their best days, plenty of organizations exist to either reuse or recycle old shoes if you would rather donate them than throw them away.
Making Your Clothing Last
Just as there are plenty of ways to tell if your clothing was made to last, there are also plenty of ways to make your existing clothing last. Whether it be the way you wash them or the way you take care of them while wearing, it’s to extend the lifespan of lesser garments and maintain the survivability of quality ones.
What’s more useful, a couple of cheap pieces of clothing that need to be replaced after a year or two, or one expensive article that will last you the next several years? Because of the fact that it will save closet space, may result in less money spent on clothes over time, and can reduce an environmental footprint, we’re inclined to say the latter is the definitively better option.
Above, we explained how to identify clothing that was built to last an extended period of time. Investing in quality from the start is essential when it comes to creating a wardrobe that’s built to survive the test of time.
Learn To Sew
It’s inevitable when you try to make an article of clothing last for years that something will crop up to tarnish what was otherwise a perfect piece. This could be a small hole, loose thread, or a missing button. When occurrences like this happen, it comes in handy to know how to sew.
Sewing is an essential skill that can stop you from going to the tailor whenever anything has a rip and can also prevent minor cosmetic issues from becoming major functional ones. You don’t need to be able to knit a scarf from scratch, but you do need to be able to knit a scratched scarf.
If you’d rather not risk damaging your clothes through lack of experience, it’s easy to grab a piece of scrap fabric from a store and practice using online tutorials while you work yourself up to operating on your own wardrobe.
Learn How To Treat Stains
There are numerous guides on how to treat stains ranging from ink to grease to chocolate to anything else that finds itself embedded in a piece of clothing. It’s essential you act properly on these occasions to preserve your gear. You don’t have to drop everything and run the moment a single spot drips onto your clothes, but looking up how to properly take care of a stain and doing so in a timely fashion can prevent it from setting.
Many home remedies involve handwashing. Some could rely on a stain removal pen that, depending on the material, may not require a wash exclusively to clean off one article of clothing. Regardless of how you go about cleaning the stain, beware of drying your clothes under high heat. Doing so may cause the stain to set permanently if it is not completely removed.
One of the most taxing events that your clothing goes through isn’t daily wear and tear but the act of washing. Improperly done washing can lead to shrinkage, color imperfections, and numerous other issues that result in a shortened lifespan for your clothes.
Wash Less: We don’t think you should be going around in dirty clothes. However, if you’re putting your entire outfit in your dirty clothes hamper every single day, you are probably washing too frequently. This hinders the lifespan of your gear as well as eating up your own time in loading and folding laundry.
The further away an article of clothing is from your body, the less frequently it needs to be washed. Thus, shirts and underwear should be cleaned the most, followed by pants, with jackets, and suits. Other outer layers need to be washed on far fewer occasions than the previous articles.
- Don’t Overload: While it may be tempting to pack your washing machine as full as you can to save on the number of loads, stuffing your washer too full of clothing can result in articles not being thoroughly washed. It could also damage clothing from the amount of friction they are exposed to.
Separate Your Laundry: We aren’t merely suggesting you split your reds from your other colors to avoid color leaking. We are also suggesting that you consider doing loads by fabric type.
Cotton, wool, and nylon all dry at different speeds. So, splitting your loads by material once they go in the dryer means that you won’t be over-drying one garment while another one is still damp.
Store Each Piece of Clothing as it Deserves
It’s simple enough to state that you should store your clothing in a cool, dry place to avoid bacteria and mold. Note that there’s far more to keeping your wardrobe in tip-top condition. Plastic and wire coat hangers, over time, can stretch out heavier garments. Wooden coat hangers, while more effective, can take up more space than plastic hangers. Ideally, a mix of wooden coat hangers for heavier garments like suits and coats, with plastic coat hangers for lightweight clothing offers a good balance of protection and storage convenience.
If you’re storing items like sweaters or sweatshirts but don’t wish to or can’t use coat hangers, folding them rather than hanging them up can be a way to protect them from unseemly stretching.
Assess Where it Fits
When picking up new articles of clothing, you need to ask yourself how often you’re going to wear them. Not everything you wear is going to be appropriate for every occasion. However, if you find it’s something that always gets pushed aside for a few base favorites, then it’s time to reappraise whether or not you need it.
After all, the point of shopping sustainably and making your clothing last is that it reduces the need to fill out your wardrobe with new clothing every season. By maintaining a close wardrobe of essentials, you’ll also reduce laundry and the need to make a choice when it comes to pairing your outfits together.
Also of note, mentioning occasions is what your usual wardrobe is like. If you’re an athlete or are otherwise exceptionally active, it’ll behoove you to have a wardrobe full of athletic apparel. If you find you’re usually dressed closer to business casual, then button-downs, slacks, and dress jackets might be more your style.
Striking the right balance is different for each person’s closet. As old clothes cycle out and new clothes cycle in, it becomes obvious over time what matters most.
How Does Sustainability Address the Fashion Industry?
The fashion industry has a problem. In a bid to clothe the world, many companies make way more products than they could ever hope to sell. These fast fashion companies offer their clothes at dirt cheap rates to undercut the competition. They cut costs every step of the way in practices that harm the environment and the workers who make the clothing.
In doing so, the clothing produced deteriorates in the blink of an eye, features mass-produced designs with little personal attention, and forces people to constantly cycle new articles in and out of their wardrobes.
Slow fashion seeks to remedy this. By returning fashion manufacturing to its roots, it has created a new evolution in fashion itself. It’s no longer enough for a piece of apparel to look good.
Now, people are able to expect that the clothes they wear will last longer, make less of an environmental impact, and be produced ethically from the design process to the initial manufacturing to their closet.
Slow fashion isn’t universal, and it is something you have to look for. With the above information, it’s easy to identify what makes a truly enduring product and to understand how to make clothing last. In the end, fashion isn’t just about how it looks: It’s the whole story of how it got there.