Building an Ethical Closet

Thanks to COVID19 you may be cooped up at home for a little while. I found this post buried in my drafts and thought it was the perfect time to post for anyone looking for some inspiration to organize.

I don’t have the wildest style when it comes to clothes but I do have some wild ethical dilemmas when I happen to browse a shopping mall. Since learning about how many clothes are produced and more recently learning about textile waste and water pollution, I’ve been increasingly aware that clothes communicate. They often form first impressions and they help define our roles, from uniforms to our faith. The money we spend communicates our priorities. What we wear and how we wear it is never neutral.

(If you have Netflix, you can watch a handful of documentaries on clothing production. Personally, I loved this episode of Patriot Act.)


What are you communicating?

My body is created as an imago dei. Clothing in scripture is used to express mourning, worship, and celebration as well as status and inheritance. God clothes Adam and Eve as they leave the garden. Exodus takes time to describe the intricate details of the priests’ clothes. In Luke, the prodigal son was immediately given the best robes and a ring upon his return. I don’t think this is an excuse to break the bank on the “best robes,” instead it means my clothing can be a reflection of a larger story.

My personal style is not formed in a vacuum. There are real people behind the jeans I pull on to my body and the shirts I reach my arms through. The patterns, fabrics, and details are designed and constructed by fellow image bearers. What I choose to purchase and wear either supports or exploits them. Ads or influencers will try to tell me what I need, but am I aware of the impact these fads have on the individuals and families working to produce these items?

When possible, I want to enjoy the clothes I wear, from the feel of the fabric, to fit, and to the ease of movement. Simply because something is on sale or in everyone else’s closet does not require me to go after it. Historically, impulse purchases have not been my friend. And quite honestly, those items wear out or get thrown out pretty quickly. Part of the fun in building a closet is the hunt! (Or the creativity to find new combinations of what you already own!) This requires some confidence and self-control to survive the waves of trendy styles. Did I mention patience?

What makes the cut?

Will I be able to wear this piece with other items I already own? Does the quality and style of this item allow me to wear it over time? For example, I’ve looked at the quality of shoes – sustainable materials, well-crafted design, and classic looks help avoid high turnover.

For what purpose does this item serve? Perhaps I need slacks for my job or a coat for the cold weather. You might even say that the accessory inspires beauty or flatters your shape in a unique way. There’s no immediate harm in a large wardrobe, but you might be surprised how satisfied you could be with a selective wardrobe. (Less to wash, less to fold?)

Am I willing and able to care properly for this item? Does this item require tailoring? Cashmere, wool, leather and other fabrics or other details may require special care that will impact your use and your budget.

Does this fit in my budget? Some pieces are investments. Some pieces are steals. (Just because the item is expensive does not mean its quality.)

What does my purchase mean for those who made this piece? Is my purchase complicit in exploitation? Or am I supporting a legitimate, ethical business or artisan? In an effort to reduce textile waste and support local businesses or charities, purchasing brand new clothes may come as plan b, if possible. If you do decide to shop brand new, look for an ethics/sourcing policy on the brand’s website. (Often located in the fine print at the bottom of the home page.) Beware of fast fashion.


Notes for the road.

  • Organize what you have. How you organize and display your clothes will also determine what you use. Use shoeboxes, hangers, shoe racks, and other household items to keep your items visible and ready. You might find something you forgot about or you might realize you have more than you need.
  • Accessories bring new life. Scarves, jewelry, bags, belts, even sunglasses (in moderation) can be a breath of fresh air for a beloved (old) cotton t-shirt and jeans. Don’t rush out to buy something else, when the solution may be right under your nose.
  • Try second hand first. I’ve had great experiences shopping for second hand items online on sites like eBay, ThredUp, and Poshmark. Shopping ethically doesn’t mean breaking the bank. Also, know your stores. You might find a better selection outside your normal commute. Consignment doesn’t always mean better, but there’s certainly a good chance you’ll find better quality more easily than your average church thrift store.
  • Know your measurements. Sizes will vary from brand to brand so don’t stick to a certain size section or rule out smaller/larger sizes simply because you’re a “6”.
  • Don’t be scared of a little maintenance. Jeans, sweaters, wool socks, oh my! Wear and tear happens and mending is a good skill to have in your back pocket to help you save a little money and avoid throwing out a perfectly good pair of jeans. A good tailor or cobbler can also make your clothes last through the years and fit properly.

Try this on.

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