Week 1 of Slow Fashion October has been so inspiring — I’m in awe of the diversity and thoughtfulness of responses to the What’s Your Look? action item and discussion prompts that have been shared (so voluminously!) on #slowfashionoctober so far. I’ve been highlighting what I can on the @slowfashionoctober feed and Story, so make sure you’re keeping an eye on that. This week, we’re going to dig into our closets and start making sense of what’s in there as compared to how you mean to be dressing, as explored last week — again, all in pursuit of a better loved, longer lasting, slower closet. You can find this week’s Action Item and Discussion Prompts on the Slow Fashion October directory page and on @slowfashionoctober. But the short version is: It’s time to clean out our closets, responsibly. So welcome to week 2: What’s in your closet?
Today I’m happy to be able to publish this conversation with Erin Boyle about taking care and ownership of our clothes. Erin is the author of the book Simple Matters and the simple-living blog Reading My Tea Leaves, and if you follow her @readtealeaves on Instagram, you know that she’s doing her best to walk the walk every day, in every way, always thinking and learning and challenging herself and others.
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The term “slow fashion” has different meanings to different people, so let’s start with what does it mean to you?
More than anything, for me Slow Fashion has been about thinking proactively about my clothing choices rather than retroactively. Fast fashion (and the incredible quantity of clothes that the industry puts at our disposal) aside, my relationship to clothing has often been knee-jerk. Something inspires me, or it doesn’t, and I make my move accordingly. But it’s not often until after I wear it — really welcome it into the fold — that I come to love a particular piece of clothing. After thirty years of dressing myself, I’ve gotten better at identifying what I’m going to love for the long haul, but not perfect. This is the most challenging part of getting dressed for me: finding things that I genuinely love to wear every single time I put them on. For me, really loving something is always the goal because the stuff I love is the stuff I’ll wear and I think wearing your clothes — really wearing them — seems like one of the most sustainable choices we can make.
What makes me love something? The fit and look and cut, definitely. But also the story. I love knowing that something has been made with care, or loved by someone before me, or contributed positively to a community. It’s a privilege to get to take the time to bring all of that into consideration when building a wardrobe, but I think for me, that’s the beauty of it.
When did you first become aware of the trouble with fast fashion (and how), and what was the state of your wardrobe at the time? Were you ever a big shopper?
I can’t tell you with certainty what first got me thinking about fast fashion. I know it was shortly after I moved to New York City in 2011. At the time I was working for a sustainable agriculture nonprofit and I think that working in sustainability more generally got me thinking about all of the ways that we need to have conversations about our consumer choices and the impact of them on people and the planet.
I had a fairly lean wardrobe at the time — most of it purchased on sale at major retailers — but it was a real hodge-podge. I was fresh out of graduate school, I’d just moved to an expensive city, and I’d never spent a lot of money on clothes. (In fact, growing up, I got a lot of messages about the ethics of not spending a lot of money on clothes.) What’s most notable about the state of my closet at the time is that I didn’t have very much in my closet that I really liked to wear. Getting dressed felt like a slog of putting on clothes and taking them off and trying to put outfits together from components that I didn’t really like or that didn’t go together.
I’ve never been a huge shopper. I’ve always been interested in clothes and fashion, but somewhat more as an observer and admirer than a participant. As a kid, I wore mostly hand-me-downs and always felt a little wistful about it. I remember feeling a sense of excitement and freedom when I discovered fast fashion brands as a teenager and realized that there were clothes that I could buy myself with babysitting money.
As I got older, I started to think more about quality. It’s a bit of an American cliché, but I lived in France during and after college and I was really struck by the different relationship to clothes that the women in my life there had. Maybe most noticeably, their clothes were of a visibly superior quality to mine and they wore them over and over again. Teachers who I worked with would show up to teach in the same outfit for several days running. For the first time I really started to notice the difference between cheaply made clothes and sturdier, longer-lasting ones.
I think the final push for me to try to change the way I get dressed was really understanding the human and environmental cost of so much sartorial indecision. I was frustrated by a cycle of buying clothes and then feeling like I didn’t really want to be in them. And ultimately I wanted to do my best to not contribute to a wasteful and harmful system.
From first-hand experience, and through having this conversation for several years now, I know it’s common for people to feel almost in a state of shock when they find out what they’ve been unknowingly contributing to. [I should inject here, too, for anyone new to the subject: the best introduction I know of is the documentary The True Cost.] There’s a natural urge to want to empty the closet of anything questionable, but that’s not really the responsible solution, right? What’s your advice to people who are at that point and wondering where to even start?
It is shocking. I think the first natural urge for me personally was to cut a lot of shopping out of my life cold turkey. I hadn’t been a huge shopper before, but when I’d eliminated a lot of my go-to sources for clothes shopping, I was left with options that required a lot more care in terms of decision-making because the price points were so much higher. When I couldn’t afford what I most admired, I largely abstained from buying very much of anything new.
That said, I’m also a true believer in keeping only what I love and use, so I’m very familiar with the impulse to purge more generally. I don’t have a lot of space to store clothes, but more than that, if I’m hanging on to something and not wearing it, my reason for keeping it is usually negative. With a few exceptions I think if there’s something in my closet that I don’t wear, it’s because I don’t love it and I’m keeping it because I spent hard-earned money on it, or someone gave it to me, or I’m afraid of hurting feelings. It sounds a little woo-woo, but keeping things out of a sense of guilt or obligation mostly sounds like keeping around a lot of bad energy.
But for me, the biggest reason I never did a wholesale swapping of a fast-fashion wardrobe with a more sustainable one, is that it flies in the face of what for me is the best part about sustainable fashion in the first place — a relationship to clothes that means making careful, thoughtful, slow choices so that I end up with things I really cherish.
I think one of the biggest contributors to our disposable-fashion mentality has been the rise of the charity donation bin. Not only are the dropboxes seemingly on every corner now, but the messaging is that you’re doing a good deed. Speaking from personal experience, I definitely used to think “hey, it’s cheap and if I wind up not loving it, I’ll donate it and someone else will benefit.” Who knows how many purchases I justified that way. Clearly, being able to get rid of things easily makes it feel ok to acquire at a ridiculous rate, leading to the destructive churn we find ourselves in. Can you talk about why it’s not really that simple?
I think it’s fair to blame the fast fashion industry more than the drop-boxes, but I know what you mean. Donation bins make it exceedingly easy for folks to clean out their closets without thinking about the ramifications of the clothes they’re giving away. I write about this in my book, Simple Matters, and reference Naomi Klein’s work, which essentially debunks the notion that the clothes we give away are always going toward a good cause. Simply: There are more clothes produced than we have uses for. Shipping our clothes overseas disrupts local economies and craft traditions. And cheaply made clothes that degrade quickly are of very little value. We certainly shouldn’t be putting our old clothes in the landfill, but neither should we imagine that every ratty tee-shirt we give away is going to live a productive second life.
And a lot of what gets donated is barely worn — but even then, there’s too much (and often of poor quality) for the charities to be able to sell, which is why they wind up in bales on boats back across the ocean again. Once you stop thinking of clothes as easy to get rid of, I think that inherently slows down the rate of acquisition. “What will I do with this if it doesn’t work out” is a head-scratcher. So what are some ways we can responsibly find new homes for the clothes that need one?
I’ve written quite a bit about this in this post, but my favorite approach is to find a specific person to give a specific item. Just because I don’t personally value something enough to keep it, doesn’t mean that that item is valueless. Whether I resell something or give it away to a sister or a friend, I think having a specific person in mind when I separate from my clothes is the most responsible route to take.
The focus of your blog is “life in a tiny apartment,” meaning you have some built-in limits: not a lot of room for a closet to get out of control in the first place. I probably have a little more room than you do, in that I have a whole little 1953 closet to myself. I describe it as portion control, and strive not to exceed the capacity of that closet, and it makes me think hard about what I want to let in. That said, I’ve argued that “small” or “capsule” isn’t necessarily a requirement of a slow wardrobe. I think it’s about how thoughtful you are about what you acquire, from where, and then taking responsibility for it — keeping it out of the landfill. Do you think we have to think small to be responsible?
I don’t think you have to think small to be responsible, but limiting factors really help me personally to parse what’s important to me and stop me from participating in mindless accumulation. But I’d also say that the whole point of thinking more mindfully about my closet is to make getting dressed less of a chore, not more of one. I’m not here to be a killjoy. Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about how getting dressed can be and often is, a way to feel good. Finding joy in material possessions is a lovely thing. For my part, I am currently the owner of four very special sweaters. Do I need all of these sweaters? No. Do I love wearing them? Yes! Does it make me happy to spend the winter in things that are cozy and wonderful and that make me feel happy? Yes! Absolutely.
You’re very crafty, in the sense of finding furniture on the street and transforming it into something beautiful, making garlands from dried flowers, and a million other examples. But you don’t make your own clothes. The response I hear from people all the time upon learning about the issues with fast fashion is “I can’t possibly make all of my own clothes.” Which isn’t necessary! In fact, I’ve said before that I don’t want to make all of my clothes — I like being able to support brands who are doing the right thing, and there is an ever-expanding realm of clothing brands out there striving to make clothes in a more local and responsible way. But when the laborers are being paid fairly and the clothes are constructed of quality materials and made to last, the clothes often come with a higher price tag (depending on what you’re comparing against). You live in NYC, one of the most expensive places on earth. You’ve spoken recently about still having student loans you’re paying off, and you need to pay for childcare. On the other hand, you have the benefit of working with sponsors for your blog, some of whom are slow-fashion brands, and I know you only work with brands whose business and ethos you genuinely respect. So with all appropriate disclosures, what are some of the resources you’ve found for responsibly made clothing that’s not out of reach for the average working person?
Full-disclosure is that this question is tricky for me. When I decided to write my blog full-time and I had to take on the personal responsibility of figuring out how I would finance my work there, I decided that I would make it a priority to work with and direct folks to companies that I think are doing admirable work and causing minimum harm to people, to the environment, to consumers, etc. Given the opportunity between directing folks toward a shirt made by a small designer making tough decisions to preserve the integrity of her product and a fast fashion label, the choice was clear. But absolutely, many of the goods that are thoughtfully made come with a high price tag and many of them come at price points that are unattainable for me, too. (That’s part of the premise behind the Make-Believe series on my blog.)
I never want folks to feel alienated or like they can’t participate in ethical consumerism without extremely deep pockets and I do try to work with brands that have a range of price points. But we also live under capitalism and it’s inherently exploitative. A lot of sustainability measures can be co-opted as pure marketing fluff and there’s an enormous amount of greenwashing to try to wade through. I think folks are right to sometimes feel skeptical. Still, I think there are people working hard to minimize harm and produce superior products within a flawed system. Making environmentally responsible decisions and paying fair wages costs a lot of money. Beyond that, we’ve all gotten used to artificially low prices. I’m constantly asked to provide examples of less expensive clothing in the same breath that I’m asked to provide examples of clothing that’s being made sustainably in every sense of the word. That’s a really tricky task. It sounds like a bit of a cop-out, but I’m not really convinced you can have things both ways.
And this is where the subject of “privilege” comes in. Each year when we do this, I hear from quite a few people who, quite understandably, feel left out of the slow fashion movement. People might say “All of my clothes are from the thrift store because that’s all I can afford” or “I’ve never had the luxury of acquiring and discarding things at a rapid rate.” To me that suggests you’re not part of the problem, which is great in that sense. But I also 100% understand the underlying desire there to be able to afford small-batch farm yarns or handwoven fabric or beautifully made, natural-fiber, small-batch clothes from transparent companies. It feels good to support those efforts and have those things, but they do come with a higher price tag. I can honestly attest that I made my initial shift toward slow fashion during one of the leanest times of my life (a serious tight-rope-without-a-net moment) by gradually changing my mindset about how much I need in the first place. But I acknowledge that even being broke and trying to make those choices is different when, like me, you don’t have kids or debt, and you do have the ability to make some of your clothes for yourself. It’s SO complicated. What are your thoughts on that aspect of it all?
It is complicated. On the consumer level, I think people need to be given the space to make choices that reflect their values and stay within their personal constraints to the best of their ability and knowledge. We all have to compromise sometimes. And I acknowledge that having this conversation in the first place is a privilege, no scare quotes needed. I have the time and space and energy to devote to thinking about where my t-shirt came from (to say nothing of trying to decide whether or not I really love it).
I guess at the end of the day, I’m not sure if everyone wants to wear natural-fiber farm yarns or small-batch clothes — or if that should even be the goal — but I do think everyone wants basic access to fresh food and water, to clean air, to roofs over heads, to healthcare, to safe working conditions. I think at its core, shifting away from fast fashion needs to be about that. How do we find a way to hold corporations responsible for creating safe working environments? How do we value the people who make our clothes? How do we convince companies to be good stewards of the planet?
That’s a really great way of framing it, and gets at why I tend to think of it as an imperative — stopping to think about the impact of our buying habits — more than as a matter of privilege.
Another really complicated subject is kids clothes — especially given how quickly they go through them. You have two small children: What is your approach?
I follow a similar approach with my kids’ clothes as with my own. We try to keep their wardrobes lean, to buy things that are well made and sturdy enough to hold up to lots (and lots) of wear. We also tend to buy a bit big at first and to keep our kids in clothes until they’re well past snug. Right this minute, my son is dressed entirely in hand-me-downs from his big sister and my daughter is dressed in leggings that are cropped (though not by design). (Hopefully they won’t also be wistful about that one day.)
And knowing how committed you are to environmentally friendly practices in all aspects of a household, what advice do you have with regard to laundry methods that are good for both the clothes and the environment?
Laundry is a challenge for our family because we live in an apartment building in New York City that doesn’t have washing machines or dryers — not in-unit, or in the building. We send most of our laundry to the local laundromat, so we’re fairly separated from the process but I wrote a lot more about measures we take to keep our clothes in good shape in this post. I also try to remember that clothing is not a suit of armor. Clothes get stained, and ripped, and worn through.
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Amen to that — and by the way this last photo is from the night when Erin recently wore her wedding dress out for date night.
For more from Erin, do check out her blog where you’ll find an entire series of posts on Growing a minimalist wardrobe. (As I told Erin a couple of years ago, her blog is where I turn when I need a moment of calm.) And of course follow her on Instagram for lots more!
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All photos © Erin Boyle / Reading My Tea Leaves, used with permission