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The Big Book

Cheap clothes aren’t disposable

Bridget Bodnar and Elizabeth L. Cline Aug 22, 2019
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A woman peruses Thrift Town in San Francisco, California.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The following is an excerpt from “The Conscious Closet: The Revolutionary Guide to Looking Good While Doing Good” by Elizabeth L. Cline. It’s a follow-up to Cline’s earlier work, “Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion,” about the real cost of fast fashion.

Once you’ve built a more conscious closet, you’ll no doubt want to make it last! Whether we paid a pittance or a small fortune or plan to wear a garment for one night or years to come, taking proper care of clothing is a must. You might come into this section with a bit of dread. No one likes laundry days or scrubbing stains, do they? You might be surprised. It is possible to love caring for clothes, as I hope to show you.

A 2014 study found that the millennial generation, raised on fast fashion, lacks mastery of basic clothing repairs and laundry skills when compared to their parents and grandparents. Another study, of UK consumers, found that a third of consumers toss out a garment if a stain doesn’t lift on the first try. A quarter admitted to not even bothering to lift a stain, if the item was cheap. The fashion industry is peddling so‑called easy‑ care clothes, while laundry detergent brands and appliance makers have automated the process of stain removal and cleaning, all with higher and higher environmental costs. We’ve adopted a disconnected, throwaway attitude that extends into the laundry room, and it has erased our knowledge of caring for clothes. I see wearable clothes in trashcans on my block on a regular basis. While sorting clothes, I see pieces tossed out with stains and small rips that, with proper know‑how, can be tackled in minutes. We’re doing laundry around the clock, calling into question the idea that washing machines are saving us time. We can do so much better.

We often have a disposable attitude and approach toward low-cost products, but it doesn’t have to be this way.

How long should clothing last? We don’t often find out. Most everyday casual clothing like jeans, T‑shirts, socks, and basic knits can and should last at the bare minimum one hundred to three hundred wears, or three years of regular wear and washing. Let’s put that in perspective. We know that some consumers wear their clothes only three times, which amounts to 3 percent of a typical garment’s useful life. More durable items like suits, blazers, jackets, coats, and tailored dresses can last even longer, five years to a decade at the least, if cared for properly. Whether you plan to wear, sell, or donate your clothes, we should each do our part to make all clothing last several years or 100 wears. Let’s get to it!

How to care for cheap clothes

I’m going to tell you a secret: Cheap clothes aren’t disposable. Most of them don’t just fall apart at the seams at the slightest provocation. We often have a disposable attitude and approach toward low-cost products, but it doesn’t have to be this way. We can change our mind-set and treat all clothing, regardless of cost, with respect and care. Here are some tips to make lower-quality pieces last longer:

 • Launder it like it’s a delicate. A bad fabric doesn’t have to doom your garment. Wash less, hand wash, or wash on the gentle cycle, regardless of what the care label says. Air-dry to lessen fading, pilling, and misshaping.

Treat it like it’s expensive. Carefully hang or fold your pieces when you’re not wearing them, remove stains with haste, and care for them like they cost ten times as much as they did.

Learn to mend. Pick up some basic mending skills! Cheap buys can suffer mechanical failures, such as loose buttons and split seams. After you learn the mending skills, use them to patch up and reinforce your lesser-made buys to keep them going longer.

Spend to fix. Don’t let the price you paid factor into your decision of whether to repair. It might cost just a few bucks to have a professional fix a broken buckle, re-glue a sole, or sew up a busted lining.

From “The Conscious Closet: The Revolutionary Guide to Looking Good While Doing Good,” published by Plume, an imprint of The Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2019 by Elizabeth L. Cline.

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