The Conscious Closet: The Revolutionary Guide to Looking Good While Doing Good

The Conscious Closet: The Revolutionary Guide to Looking Good While Doing Good

by Elizabeth L. Cline


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From journalist, fashionista, and clothing resale expert Elizabeth L. Cline, “the Michael Pollan of fashion,”* comes the definitive guide to building an ethical, sustainable wardrobe you'll love.

Clothing is one of the most personal expressions of who we are. In her landmark investigation Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, Elizabeth L. Cline first revealed fast fashion’s hidden toll on the environment, garment workers, and even our own satisfaction with our clothes. The Conscious Closet shows exactly what we can do about it.

Whether your goal is to build an effortless capsule wardrobe, keep up with trends without harming the environment, buy better quality, seek out ethical brands, or all of the above, The Conscious Closet is packed with the vital tools you need. Elizabeth delves into fresh research on fashion’s impacts and shows how we can leverage our everyday fashion choices to change the world through style. Inspired by her own revelatory journey getting off the fast-fashion treadmill, Elizabeth shares exactly how to build a more ethical wardrobe, starting with a mindful closet clean-out and donating, swapping, or selling the clothes you don't love to make way for the closet of your dreams.

The Conscious Closet is not just a style guide. It is a call to action to transform one of the most polluting industries on earth—fashion—into a force for good. Readers will learn where our clothes are made and how they’re made, before connecting to a global and impassioned community of stylish fashion revolutionaries. In The Conscious Closet, Elizabeth shows us how we can start to truly love and understand our clothes again—without sacrificing the environment, our morals, or our style in the process.

*Michelle Goldberg, Newsweek/The Daily Beast

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781524744304
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 08/20/2019
Pages: 368
Sales rank: 107,602
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Elizabeth L. Cline is a journalist, public speaker, and the author of Overdressed. Her writing has appeared in The Los Angeles Times, The Atlantic, The Nation, and The New Yorker, among others. She is an expert on fashion industry waste, runs a clothing resale business, and is the director of research and reuse at Wearable Collections, one of New York City's largest used-clothing collectors. She lives in Brooklyn with her partner, Joseph D. Rowland, of the band Pallbearer, and their cat Lily.

Read an Excerpt

If you want to change the world, there's no better place to start than with the clothes on your back and the shoes on your feet. I'm not being dramatic. I believe it to my core. A look at the facts: Apparel is a 2.5-trillion-dollar business that holds up 3 percent of the global economy and employs hundreds of millions of people around the world, mostly young women.


Clothes are our most personal and universal possession. I bet you're wearing the stuff right now.


And yet the clothing industry is a far cry from the empowering, innovative, and uplifting force it should be. It is instead among the world's largest carbon emitters, water polluters, and users of toxic chemicals. As much as 8 percent of carbon emissions are caused by fashion. A third of the microplastic pollution junking up our oceans is coming from what we wear. A garbage truck's worth of unwanted fashion is landfilled in the United States every two minutes. And in an industry that makes some people so fantastically rich and famous, there are somehow only a handful of garment workers earning a living wage anywhere.


More people than ever are aware of clothing's negative social and environmental impacts and want no part of them. No one wants to feel guilty when they get dressed in the morning. We want and expect to feel good in our clothes.


As I've learned, building a more conscious closet takes effort. Anything worth doing does. But it isn't hard or unstylish or expensive. It can be easy and beautiful and accessible to anyone, including you. Beyond that, it will help you get off the fast-fashion treadmill, regain your shopping sanity, and uncover your personal style. All while saving you money. It can change the world. And it will change your life.


I know because all of this happened to me.


Eight years ago, I set out to write my first book, Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion. As I boarded a plane to investigate the sweatshops in Bangladesh and China, my closet was overflowing with clothes that I didn't like or care about. I recycled, shopped for organic food, used reusable shopping bags, and yet I was ignoring the enormous environmental crisis lurking in my closet. I rarely felt confident or happy in what I wore, despite owning 354 items of clothes. I was trapped in a sad clothing cycle, and I was eager to find a way out of it.


Overdressed was one of the first investigations to draw a straight line between our increasing consumption of fashion and the critical problems of climate change, pollution, and poor working conditions. Driving it all was the meteoric rise of "fast fashion," a hyperaccelerated cycle of making, consuming, and trashing clothes that is wrecking our environment and keeping workers locked in poverty. After the book came out, countless people turned to me wanting to know how to dress with their values. They asked, "How should I shop? What's okay to wear?" The truth is, I was often asking myself the same questions.


I struggled at first to build a conscious closet. I bought rainbow-colored eco-shoes and sewed a homemade lavender mesh top so amateurish it would have gotten me kicked out of home economics class. I stood up at a gathering of other conscious-fashion experts one winter's night after my first book's release and pleaded, "Please, someone just tell me what to wear!"


In recent years, struggle has become progress. Before my eyes, sustainable and ethical fashion has transformed from a niche cause to a worldwide movement (you'll hear plenty from and about those movement leaders in this book). New reports and fresh research, which I've drawn from, have outlined exactly where the environmental and social impacts of fashion happen, giving us a precise road map to how we can make changes on a personal, societal, and industry-wide level. There are new brands, retailers, and business models, which you'll learn about, making conscious fashion more accessible. We are on the cusp of an entirely new way of producing, selling, and consuming clothing that is already changing the world-and not a moment too soon.


But my philosophy of conscious dressing, the one you'll find in this book, crystalized after three life-changing experiences. The first happened as I hit the road to promote Overdressed, sharing my research at schools and in communities far and wide, from Milan, Italy, to Walla Walla, Washington. I've had hundreds of conversations and been asked hundreds of questions by all kinds of people about their clothes. Here are some of the queries I've heard time and time again:


"How do I know if my clothes were made in a sweatshop?"


"How can I tell if my clothes are good quality?"


"Is polyester or cotton worse for the planet?"


"How do I afford ethical fashion?"


"Can I shop ethically at X/Y/Z brand?"


These chats always mix an interest in sustainable and ethical consumption with a thirst for more practical knowledge about clothes. Many people are seeking information about how to consume clothes responsibly, but they also want to know how to consume them well! Fast fashion swept away a certain kind of commonsense know-how and respect surrounding our clothing, from how to recognize a good buy and shop for quality to how to sew on a button and mend a hole in a favorite pair of jeans. I aim to do my part to resurrect these time-tested life skills. Not coincidentally, choosing well for our wardrobes and doing our part to extend the life of clothing is not only sustainable but these are some of the most emotionally rewarding habits we can cultivate in our everyday lives.


The Conscious Closet is also inspired by my experience digging through old clothes. For the past three years, I have collaborated with Wearable Collections, a New York City-based company that collects more than 2 million pounds of worn clothing and shoes each year for reuse and recycling. Founder Adam Baruchowitz is an open-minded guy with a passion for reuse, and thus I found myself sorting through a portion of his collections (which adds up to about a thousand pounds per week) with the goals of studying what's in New York's clothing waste stream and exploring solutions to our disposable clothing culture. I eventually spun part of this project into a small resale enterprise and even found myself traveling to Nairobi, Kenya, in 2016 to document where our used clothes end up.


You might imagine that New Yorkers have lavish garbage. That's what I thought, too. But alongside the small sliver of designer handbags and gowns, I saw enough fashion waste to scare me straight: dog-hair-covered jackets, gobs of T-shirts, "ugly Christmas sweaters," trendy dresses and tops, clearance items with the tags still on, and, yes, soiled socks and underwear. I came face-to-face with our unbelievable, catastrophic, and ecologically disastrous consumption of clothes. After having a front-row seat to how people buy, treat, and toss clothing, I learned just where we're going wrong and what we can do about it. My time working with Wearable Collections and in the secondhand industry not only gave me the conviction to keep fighting fast fashion, it earned me a veritable master's degree in both clothing quality and craftsmanship, and mending and repair, which informs The Conscious Closet.


Last but not least, The Conscious Closet is motivated by my own transformation from a life as an impulse shopper and fast-fashion addict to that of a conscious consumer of clothing. When I first considered the prospect of giving up my mindless deal-hunting habits, I could only think about what I would miss out on-the thrill of a shopping bag of new clothes, a half-off sale, or clicking Buy Now whenever I wanted. But, if I was honest with myself, the way I shopped wasn't bringing me any closer to a wardrobe I could feel good in. Once I tuned into my fashion choices and learned the full story behind what we wear, I was able to put together a wardrobe that I cherish and feel amazing in for the first time in my life. It feels better and can even look better to be a more mindful consumer of clothes. I discovered that conscious fashion is the secret-not just to avoiding harm toward other people and the planet-but to loving, truly loving, and feeling good in your clothes, and I simply had to share what I've learned with others.


So what is a conscious closet? A conscious closet is a wardrobe built with greater intention and awareness of our clothes, where they come from, what they're made out of, and why they matter. The Conscious Closet, which you're reading, will help you transform your wardrobe and layer more ethical and sustainable clothing choices into your life with ease. Whether you're looking to find out about eco-friendly fibers, conscious brands, shopping for quality, green laundry habits, or how to pass on what you're not wearing in the best possible condition, this is the A-to-Z handbook that will help you look good, feel good, and do good through what you wear.


And by the final pages, you'll join the fashion revolution for change. In truth, conscious fashion isn't a product or a thing you have to buy. Conscious fashion is a mind-set, a movement, and a way of life. It is a manifesto and a call to action. Let's use the awesome power of fashion to change fashion itself and in turn we just might save the world!




How to Use This Book


The Conscious Closet is organized around strategies that fit a multitude of lifestyles and personalities. The reason for this is simple: Clothes are personal. We all have very different attitudes and needs when it comes to what we wear. Age, career, income, personal style, regional style, and our unique perspectives on life combine to shape how we feel about our clothes. Some of us love fashion and trends, and plenty of others just want to get dressed and get on with our day. No matter where you are on the fashion spectrum, this book is for you.


Your Fashion Personality Type


Your approach to building a conscious closet can be tailored around what I call the three Fashion Personality Types: the Minimalists, the Style Seekers, and the Traditionalists. Choosing a personality type will help you get the most out of your read and shift your consumption habits in a way that fits your lifestyle. The Fashion Personality Types are a loose framework that will help you dial in to your conscious-closet strategy, so don't overthink them.


The Minimalists. At one end of the spectrum are the Minimalists. These personalities crave a finish line in fashion, buy for keeps, and tend to prefer a more timeless look. They want to cut the clutter out of their lives and build a tightly edited and attractive wardrobe.


The Style Seekers. At the other end of the spectrum are the Style Seekers, also known as Maximalists. These personalities love fashion, trends, and expressing themselves through what they wear. Some people are Style Seekers by trade, like those in entertainment or fashion. Most Style Seekers would wither if their wardrobes weren't full of statement-making pieces and lots of change.


The Traditionalists. The Traditionalists are the halfway point between the two fashion personality extremes. They don't crave fashion quite as much as a Style Seeker and prefer more novelty than a Minimalist; they want a stylish but versatile wardrobe and to update it each season with a few new looks.


What personality type speaks to you? I'm a Traditionalist with Style Seeker tendencies. Some of you might be Minimalists at the office and Style Seekers by night. Your personality type is also likely to change over time. Many of us are more trend-driven when we're young and get more traditional as we settle on a career and a personal style. Adjusting your Fashion Personality Type can be a fun exploration in fashion and a chance to embark on new conscious-closet strategies. So just revise and update your type as needed.


The Conscious Closet's Six Parts


You'll start to put together your conscious closet over the book's first five sections, starting with a closet cleanout and ending with learning how to care for and maintain your clothes. The sixth and final section of the book will teach you how to join a wider movement for change. It's important to read the entire book, as each section reveals something new about fashion's impacts and what we can each do about them. But some sections will be better suited to your Fashion Personality Type than others.


Part One: "Goodbye, Fast Fashion!" is your launching pad to a conscious-closet journey. It's dedicated to helping you reset your shopping and fashion habits by first paring down and clearing away clothes you don't like and that don't work. You'll learn to sustainably and ethically donate, swap, recycle, and sell your pieces to help tackle the problem of textile waste.


Part Two: "The Art of Less" digs into wardrobe building and the timeless art of buying less by buying better clothes. Minimalists and Traditionalists will be most inspired by the conscious-closet strategies laid out in this section, but all readers will get a lot out of Part Two's tips on investing in quality and shopping with savvy.


Part Three: "The Art of More" shares how to consume clothing and follow style consciously. If you're a Style Seeker, the chapters on resale and renting will be transformative, as they're all about how to keep up with trends and rotate your closet without harming the planet. All readers should pay close attention to the chapter on fashion finances and affording a conscious closet!


Part Four: "The Sustainable Fashion Handbook" shows exactly how to choose more eco-friendly fibers, kick toxic chemicals out of your wardrobe, and find and support brands on the cutting edge of sustainability. The materials we wear have a tremendous environmental impact, and all readers will benefit from learning more about our clothes on a micro and macro level.


Part Five: "Make It Last" is back-to-basics training on how to care for what you wear, including sustainable laundry habits that are dramatically better for your clothes, easy and satisfying mending techniques, and advice on hiring professionals to make repairs and alterations.


In the book's final part, Part Six: "The Fashion Revolution," you'll link up with like-minded others and join the movement to collectively change the fashion industry. Here you'll learn about working conditions for garment workers, the fight for living wages, and how to hold brands accountable and join a fashion activism organization.


Your Conscious-Closet Components


There are many ways to build a more conscious closet, from supporting conscious brands and choosing more sustainable fibers to rediscovering, reimagining, and mending the clothes you already own. How you build your conscious closet will be unique to you. Gabby, a twenty-five-year-old friend from Atlanta, is a Style Seeker. She has a small, interchangeable collection of high-quality core pieces at the heart of her wardrobe, what's known as a "capsule wardrobe" (more on this in Chapter 11). And her statement pieces are purchased vintage and secondhand. Blake Smith, founder of the wardrobe-organizing app Cladwell, is a Minimalist with a small but versatile wardrobe of just thirty-five items. You'll hear more from Blake at the end of Chapter 11. Emily, a close friend and Manhattan editor, is a Traditionalist who rents a stylish wardrobe for work. You'll hear more about Emily in Chapter 16. My own conscious-closet strategy is changing all the time, but I mostly shop for quality, buy my core pieces from Conscious Superstars (brands and retailers with the most sustainable and ethical business models), and fill in the gaps with lots of affordable secondhand pieces. Activism, community building, and social change, while not on the components list, are also a huge part of the conscious closet equation, as we'll discuss in Part Six. I've watched conscious fashion help every single person it touches look and feel better, but one of conscious fashion's selling points is that it can and does look so many different ways.

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