In a modern world dominated by fast fashion, a minimalist wardrobe offers a way for individuals to ensure their style has a minimal impact on the environment. The fast fashion industry’s goal is to produce as much as possible, with as short-lived products as possible, while a minimalist wardrobe built from sustainable clothing is built to last for years.
Today, 80 billion pieces of clothing are produced and purchased each year, earning the global fashion industry approximately $1.2 trillion annually.3 That’s a lot of materials and money.
But with a closet picked for its sustainability, how do you retain the versatility to wear clothes in situations like work and travel, especially when trying to stay under 15 items of clothing?
This checklist can help…
Minimalist Wardrobe Must Haves for Essentials, Work, Travel
Example Minimalist Wardrobe for Women in Less Than 15 Items
A minimalist wardrobe for women looks very similar to that for men, but due to society’s gender norms, women get a few more options to add to the mix. Again, a good formula to work with is to choose a variety of neutrals, just as white, black, grey, and brown, and then choose 2-3 of your favorite colors to get some essentials in as well. Then, you can mix and match with ease. Get enough to cover a week’s worth of clothing, as well as outfit options for work, going out, and athletic wear… but even all of this can be covered by 15 items or less (not including undergarments).
Check out these essentials:
1Three Basic Shirts
3Good Sweater or Blazer
4Quality Pair of Sustainable Jeans
5Two Pairs of Shorts
6Solid-Colored A-Line or Pencil Skirt
7Essential Black Dress
Example Minimalist Wardrobe for Men in Less Than 15 Item
Men’s fashion is notorious for being limited already, especially when compared to the plethora of options and styles available to women. While this norm is slowly being expanded, limited items and colors to choose from makes choosing a minimalist wardrobe that has 15 items or less (not including undergarments) even easier.
Choose either brown or black as your main neutral color… This refers mainly to your belt and shoes. As a general rule of fashion (which can absolutely be broken if you want to break it), especially in formal settings, men should pair a brown belt with brown shoes, or a black belt with black shoes. So instead of purchasing one of each, choose which color you prefer and make sure the other items in your wardrobe can coordinate well with it.
To put together a good wardrobe for men with minimalist values, consider these suggestions:
10Jacket or Blazer
11Good Pair of Dress Shoes
12Two-Three Plain White or Colored Tees
14Two-Three Collared Button Ups
15A Pair of Khakis and a Pair of Jeans
16A Pair of Sweatpants or Shorts
17Underwear and Accessories
Minimalist Wardrobe Essentials: What To Look For
A good minimalist wardrobe is built with basics, solid colors, and neutral tones. By choosing items with this criteria, you can put together a small wardrobe with endless possibilities. However, there are some other factors to consider when building the ultimate minimalist closet.
Versatile and Interchangeable Clothes
One of the cornerstones of a successful minimalist wardrobe is the versatility of the garments you own. Ideally, you’d want to choose items that can be paired together in a multitude of ways. For example, a plain white tee can be paired with nearly any pants, skirts, or jackets, making it a valuable, versatile addition to your wardrobe. In a different sense, a multicolored pair of pants can be valuable as well, because you can then pair it with a top in any of the colors that occur in the pants. For example, a pair of red, green, white, and orange plaid trousers could be paired with any other item of clothing that’s red, green, white, or orange… resulting in plenty of possibilities.
This being said, minimalist wardrobes are often presented as being mostly neutral colors: white, black, tan, and maybe some navy or olive green clothing items. Choosing neutrals is always a good idea, since these can all be paired with each other interchangeably, avoiding any clashing colors or patterns. This definitely helps to maximize the potential of your closet, but it’s okay to include colors and patterns as well… It’s all a matter of personal taste and style at the end of the day.
An interchangeable and minimalist wardrobe also holds the advantage of less clutter and money spent, and no worry about putting together outfits because everything already matches.
Well-Made and Durable Materials
Another crucial component to a minimalist wardrobe is choosing clothing that will last. While fast fashion garments are poorly-stitched and made of materials that wear out within a year or two, choosing well-made and durable items will ensure that your closet can withstand the test of time, maybe decades.
Some good things to look for in a durable fabric are:
- Stain and odor-resistant
- Moisture absorbent, and breathable
- Good stretch, but resilient and won’t lose its shape
- Not prone to pilling or shedding
For the best combination of all of these, consider the following best fabrics for sustainability and longevity.
Linen is one of the oldest, and timeless, fabrics out there. That’s likely because it’s also the longest-lasting, made from the strongest natural fiber in the world: the bast, or skin, of the flax plant. It’s usually a bit thicker than cotton, but super breathable, and has antibacterial properties, meaning your garments won’t get smelly no matter how often you wear them.
All of this means that there is actually less of a need to wash linen clothing, since they won’t get worn or dirty as quickly as other materials. It also gets softer over time with washes, but it’s still better to wash sparingly, because no matter what the fabric is…. Washing simply wears down fibers over time.
Linen also is comfortable, and will retain its shape and color over time, which is not the case for materials such as cotton. Whereas many fabrics lose their look over time, linen truly does stand the test of time.6
Hemp is a very similar clothing material to linen, but has only just begun to enter the market. They are both made from bast fibers, but while linen comes from flax plants, hemp comes from… you guessed it, the hemp plant.
This is one of the other strongest natural fibers in the world, and has a bit of stretch so it can maintain its shape for years to come. It’s breathable and antifungal, keeping warm weather and bad smells away. Also like linen, this fabric gets softer with each wash, but should still be washed sparingly to prevent it from losing its durability.6
The last two materials are excellent options to wear during the summer because they are so light, but what about warm materials to wear in the winter? That’s where alpaca wool comes in.
Wool in general is an excellent choice of material because of its easy renew-ability, and durability. Alpaca wool in particular, though, is extra strong. In fact, it’s the strongest mammal fiber in the world! These fibers are also very unique, in that they have small scales which give it an interesting texture, as well as make it highly resistant to rain, fire, wind, and just general wear and tear.
Alpaca wool clothing also maintains their appearance for a long period of time, which is nice because this wool is naturally very shiny and soft. Most wool fibers are prone to pilling and felting, but alpaca fibers actually are a lot more resilient and will jump back to their original shape and size, even after being worn often or getting stretched out.
This type of wool is still capable of pilling or felting, but this only occurs with improper care for the garments. The easiest way to avoid this from happening is to simply not wash your alpaca wool clothes. This is the number one thing you can do to decrease its looks and longevity, and in most cases, you’d be wearing it as a sweater or other outerwear, so there is less reason to need to wash it. If you do happen to spill on it, or it’s been worn enough to be ready for a wash, take it to a dry cleaner where they have the means to cleanse the wool without causing damage that a washing machine would.6
Silk is another old fabric, used for centuries. It’s said to be the strongest animal fiber, though it’s been argued that spider silk or a certain snail’s is actually the rightful winner of this title. Regardless, this material is strong.
Although silk clothing is normally made with very thin yarn, the yarn can be made so finely because the fibers are so strong. Unlike other fibers, which are bundled together into yarn strong enough to use, the thin piece of silk is already very strong and therefore needs less to make the fabric. So though it may be a bit more vulnerable to rips and tears, silk is extremely soft and delicate to the touch.
It’s also extremely breathable and light, and will not absorb smells or sweat like materials such as cotton.6
Clothing Made Locally
As already noted, a large amount of the fashion industry’s emissions come from the transportation of materials and garments, sometimes across multiple countries before ending up in the store. All of this transportation comes with hefty amounts of energy use and CO2 production, but this can be avoided by buying items that were made as close to home as possible.
So, if you are located in the United States, look for USA made clothing. Even better, finding a local seamstress or clothing brand ensures as little emissions as possible. Clothing made locally may come with a higher price tag, but remember this is because it is made with better materials, and not in unethical, outsourced sweatshops. Buying locally ensures that not only is your purchasing power helping the surrounding economy, but results in a closet that you can be proud of, with a clear conscience.
Choose Clothes that Fit, and Match Your Style
Although it seems obvious, choosing clothes that you like and fit well will make all the difference in how you use your wardrobe. Because of fast fashion, many people will purchase items of clothing that are a short fad, don’t fit well, or are uncomfortable. This results in a large percentage of your closet never even getting worn.
To prevent this from happening with your new minimalist wardrobe, be sure to choose styles and colors that you will enjoy wearing, as well as be comfortable in. This means that even if a certain item of clothing is praised as a holy grail for minimalists, you shouldn’t invest in it if you don’t truly love it. The same goes for styles. For example, many times throughout this article white t-shirts have been mentioned as a good option. If you would be bored wearing this, you likely will avoid it in your closet, which defeats the purpose of a good minimalist wardrobe. Instead, you can choose a similar garment that’s more true to you, such as a white shirt with an interesting cut, embroidery, or underlying pattern.
As for fit, being comfortable is crucial to putting your wardrobe to good use. You don’t want to force yourself to wear things that make you itch, hot, or feel confined. Research and learn about your body type, or take measurements of your body and compare them with the measurements of the clothing item. Almost every clothing brand will list their dimensions online, and this is a much more accurate way to determine how a garment will fit than standard letter sizing (small, medium, large).
Keep in mind that accessories can add a lot of purpose or personality to your outfits, so feel free to invest in some minimalist jewelry, basic colored scarves, some headbands or scrunchies, and various styles of socks. By altering which accessories you choose, you can either dress up or dress down nearly anything you wear.
Minimalist Wardrobe for Travel and Work
With travel or work essentials, choose items that complement your minimalist wardrobe, including basic colors and quality garments. For travel, ideally, you should be able to fit everything you need in a carry-on, and avoid any luggage fees while carrying a lighter load.
To do this, a minimalist wardrobe actually helps a lot. Because most of your clothing already works together well and is made of materials that don’t need washing after every use, you can get away with packing much less than the average person.
Unfortunately, many people can not choose what they wear to work. Some may even wear a uniform, and usually the company will supply the uniform and you have no choice in the matter. However, if you do have options, always consider items that merge with your basic wardrobe.
Find a plain white, silk dress shirt and you can use it with just about anything. The same goes for a good pair of black slacks. The key here is to choose items that look professional, but that you can wear in other aspects of your life as well. In the case of these two garments, you could easily dress the shirt down with jeans, or dress the pants up with a spunky top for a night out.
Some great essentials to include are:
20Flannel Shirt, Sweatshirt or Jacket
21Basic Solid Color Tops
22Two Pairs of Shoes
Traveling with a minimalist wardrobe doesn’t have to be boring. Again, you can opt for a color scheme instead of neutrals, such as choosing clothing all in jewel tones, or all in primary colors. Bringing along light and small accessories can also help you dress a clothing item up or down. For example, adding some delicate gold jewelry to a plain white tee and your leather jacket can transform a simple shirt into a classic look.
Another tip for traveling as a minimalist is to wear all of your bulkiest items while traveling, whether that’s by plane, train, car, or bus. By wearing your heaviest items or items that take up the most room — such as sneakers, a jacket, jeans, or a sweater — you can save a lot of space in your backpack or luggage. This also will help reduce the weight of your luggage, which can save you a lot of money if you are flying on small planes or with certain airlines.
What’s The Problem With Fast Fashion?
Fast fashion refers to inexpensive, readily available clothing that follows short-lived fashion trends. The qualifier, “fast,” refers to how quickly these retailers will take a style or design from the drawing table, to factories, to stores, matching the fast pace of changing fashion trends.
The fashion industry in general is now producing nearly twice as much clothing today, as compared to before the year 2000.3
In the age of increasing globalization, the supply chains for these fashion brands have become largely international, with not just the factories being outsourced. The various parts of the supply chain could all be based in different countries, from the growth of the fibers to make the material, the manufacturing of said material, and the assembly of the clothing, to the packaging and distributing. Because the demand and consumption is so high, all of these processes are outsourced to low and middle income countries (LMICs) to keep costs of production down.2
All of this fast-paced, large-scale production isn’t completed without non-monetary costs as well. This new fashion industry brings up a multitude of social and ethical issues, and wreaks havoc on the environment. The current clothing industry is depleting non-renewable resources at a rapid rate, emitting large amounts of greenhouse gasses (GHGs) such as carbon dioxide (CO2), and using huge levels of energy, water, and chemicals.3,4
Fast Fashion Costs the Planet
To put a number on it, the fashion industry produces a whopping 101 million tons of waste and uses 21 trillion gallons of water every year. It’s estimated that it takes 220.5 tons of water to produce just one ton of clothing.3 This industry is now the second largest polluting industry in the world, after the oil and gas industry. As a whole, the world goes through around 80 billion pieces of clothing every year… which is more than a billion clothing items per person, per year. This is up by 400 percent, compared to the amount of clothing consumption as a globe just 20 years ago.4
The massive scale of this production and waste doesn’t do much to change people’s behaviors, though. The average UK consumer actually wears only 70 percent of what’s in their closet, and then tosses out more than 154 pounds of clothing each year.4
The consumer’s clothing waste isn’t the only waste coming from the industry, though. Fast fashion has brought about a new occurrence: deadstock. Deadstock is new, never-worn clothing stock that was simply never purchased, so is thrown away or incinerated. In 2015, 21 million garments, 6.5% of the garments produced that year, went unsold. Swedish brand H&M has been known to store $4.3 billion worth of unsold clothing in warehouses, and British brand Burberry was reported as incinerating 124 million dollars worth of deadstock from 2013-2018. This burning generates even more GHG emissions and air pollutants.3
The rest of this textile waste ends up either in landfills, or in the post-consumer supply chain as secondhand clothing. A majority of the clothing waste ends up in LMICs, because these countries often lack the resources and infrastructure needed to develop or enforce occupational and environmental safeguards in the industry.2
However, as the amount of waste continues to rise, these countries cannot support that large of a secondhand market, and many are beginning to ban the import of textile waste, to protect local manufacturing.3
Problems with Low Quality Clothes
Part of the reason that all of this clothing ending up in landfills is bad, is the materials used in fast fashion. These brands prefer materials such as polyester, nylon, and acrylic, which are cheap to make and are not-high quality, ensuring the clothing item will be tossed and the consumer will be ready to replace it with new items within a year or so.
These materials are basically plastic… they’re made from petroleum, and can take a thousand years to decompose in a landfill. These fossil-fuel based clothing materials also shed plastic waste everywhere they go. In one study, they found that even washing these types of clothes is harmful, with a single synthetic clothing item generating 1900+ microplastic particles in just one laundry cycle.4
More than 60 percent of clothing today is now made from these harmful synthetic materials, and with 85 percent of clothing in the US ending up in landfills or incinerated, it sticks around.3 So do the microplastics, which end up in the oceans, freshwater, and even in our drinking water.
Synthetic Dyes, Chemicals in Fast Fashion
These materials are made even worse for the environment, and even human health, by the use of harmful synthetic dyes. Textile dyes cause additional issues, such as contaminating local water systems with untreated wastewater, releasing toxins and heavy metals that can harm animals and nearby residents.2
What’s more, there are over 15,000 different chemicals that are used during the textile manufacturing process. Studies suggest that 6 percent of the world’s pesticide production goes to cotton crops, including insecticide, herbicide, fungicides, and growth regulators. The heavy and widespread use of these agrochemicals causes a multitude of health issues, including nausea, diarrhea, respiratory problems, and even cancer. Shockingly, pesticide poisoning is responsible for 1,000 deaths a day, and causes infertility, birth defects, and miscarriages. As for the environment, these chemicals leach into the soil and ruin the fertility and nutrients, kill crucial microorganisms, as well as other beneficial plants and insects.3
Aside from the excessive waste and water and chemical use, clothing emits a surprising amount of climate change-causing emissions. Textiles rival only with aluminum when looking at what material generates the most GHGs per unit. In fact, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has determined that the textile industry is responsible for 10% of all global GHG emissions. It produces 2.9 gigatons (Gt) of CO2 emissions, with 66 percent of these coming from the synthetic materials, their manufacturing, and the garment construction.3
This massive carbon footprint is a result of high energy use, which is determined by the type of energy use. For instance, in China, the manufacturing companies rely on coal-based energy, giving them a 40 percent larger carbon footprint than materials made in Europe.3
Regarding the entire life cycle of a garment, the highest energy use and CO2 emissions occur during the initial fiber extraction process, particularly for synthetic fibers. This also varies depending on what the fiber is, and how it is extracted. For example, conventional cotton fiber produces 3.5x more CO2 than organic cotton. Location also plays a role here, with organic cotton cultivation in India producing twice as much CO2 than organic cotton in the US.3
How Does A Minimalist Wardrobe Help The Environment?
A minimalist wardrobe acts as the antithesis to fast fashion. This type of clothing choice sometimes means owning various ‘basics,’ like plain colored tees and pants, but it doesn’t have to be limited or boring. In actuality, a minimalist wardrobe is one that maximizes fashion possibilities with as few garments as possible, from sustainable materials, and does not distract or frustrate you in the morning when choosing your outfit. It is built from clothing items that can easily mix and match, are versatile, and will last a long time… both style-wise, and literally.
A minimalist wardrobe works against fast fashion, because the items of clothing are timeless and made to last, meaning you will not have to succumb to fashion trends or replace items every couple years. Because these minimalist garments are made to last, they are usually made with more durable, natural fibers as well, resulting in much less CO2 emissions.
Plant-based fibers go even further, since the plant sources sequester carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, helping to mitigate climate change. For example, one ton of dry jute, a plant fiber used for making cloth, can absorb 2.6 tons of CO2. Other natural fibers share a similar sequestering ability, and their manufacturing involves much lower carbon emissions.3
To reduce the carbon footprint of the fashion industry, production volumes must decrease, energy use should move to renewable sources, and synthetic fossil-fuel based materials should be substituted with renewable, natural alternatives. Additionally, sustainable shipping takes a large part of fashion’s CO2 emissions out of the equation. Using your garments wisely and caring for them with minimal washes also helps, as 52 percent of CO2 emissions occur during the use phase of a clothing item, mostly from laundry energy use.3
If the industry continues to prioritize fast fashion, it’s expected to have a 50 percent increase in GHG emissions over the next decade.5 So, choosing a minimalist wardrobe and doing research on the brands you choose can help you make informed consumer choices, and make sure your purchases align with your environmental values.
Using Minimalism to Fight Fast Fashion for a Greener Future
Minimalism is a conscious act of changing your lifestyle to use as few products as possible. Extending this mentality to your wardrobe can be very freeing, as you will no longer have to think much when putting together outfits, and there is no reason to have to keep up with current fads that will go out of style soon anyway.
By freeing yourself of the fast fashion mentality, you can make sure your purchasing power goes to brands that actually care about their clothing, and also do a lot to save the Earth. By minimizing your wardrobe, you can immensely reduce the amount of CO2 emissions in your carbon footprint from fashion. What’s more, by choosing pieces that last and work together well, you are helping to turn the tide against fast fashion, reducing their revenue. This, in turn, will eventually reduce the amount of waste and negative environmental effects they produce.
You may not be able to shut down sweat shops or bring down unethical brands all by yourself, but you can choose what you include in your wardrobe. Even with a minimalist wardrobe, you can be comfy and stylish in any setting, during travel, or at work.
The fashion industry has done a lot of damage, but it’s never too late to start taking steps towards becoming an environmentally-friendly consumer, and thus slowing down climate change. By choosing around 15 items of clothing that will last, you will have plenty of outfit options to wear throughout the week.
Plus, you can use tree planting offsets to make your minimalist wardrobe completely carbon neutral by using a ecological footprint calculator then partnering with one of the best carbon offset providers to erase the emissions.
Creating a minimalist wardrobe involves a little planning, but by choosing strong, quality made garments and accessories, you can reduce your impact on the planet by eliminating the need for fast fashion… and look fabulous doing it!
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1How Fast Fashion Is Destroying the Planet (Published 2019). (2019, September 3). Retrieved September 7, 2021, from https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/03/books/review/how-fast-fashion-is-destroying-the-planet.html
2Bick, R., Halsey, E. & Ekenga, C.C. The global environmental injustice of fast fashion. Environ Health 17, 92 (2018). Retrieved September 7, 2021, from https://doi.org/10.1186/s12940-018-0433-7
3Niinimäki, K., Peters, G., Dahlbo, H. et al. The environmental price of fast fashion. Nat Rev Earth Environ 1, 189–200 (2020). Retrieved September 7, 2021, from https://doi.org/10.1038/s43017-020-0039-9
4Fast fashion quick to cause environmental havoc. (2018, March 21). Retrieved September 7, 2021, from https://sustainability.uq.edu.au/projects/recycling-and-waste-minimisation/fast-fashion-quick-cause-environmental-havoc
5(2020, July 20). The Impact of Fast Fashion On the Environment — PSCI. Retrieved September 7, 2021, from https://psci.princeton.edu/tips/2020/7/20/the-impact-of-fast-fashion-on-the-environment
6Eveline, W. (2020, October 27). 10 Durable Fabrics: Strong Fibers For a Lasting Wardrobe! | Yanantin Alpaca. Retrieved September 7, 2021, from https://www.yanantin-alpaca.com/10-durable-fabrics-strong-fibers-for-a-lasting-wardrobe/