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Fashion Sense: How to Keep our Clothing from Going to Waste

Updated: Feb 21

It's not a dress designed for tango. The emerald sheath's slim cut and meager leg slit doesn't allow much room for dramatic steps, but it makes me feel good—which always helps one's dancing.

After a lifetime of indulging in this fashion trend or that, and then having most of it hang unused in my closet throughout the pandemic, I thought I was done with shopping for clothes. Since I have always cared about sustainability, I figured if I were a better person, I would buy less. So that was it, I owned everything that I would ever need. I only expected to shop to replace worn-out items.

Dressed for dance at the Philadelphia Argentine Tango School's Milonga Quilombo.

But then I took up Argentine tango, taking classes by Zoom through most of the pandemic. When Covid vaccines helped the world open up again, I found myself standing in front of my closet thinking none of it would do. 

I try to shop sustainably. The green sheath dress was second-hand from Poshmark, but sometimes the clothing I purchase on the site isn't a perfect fit, and sometimes it comes in plastic packaging. (I've since learned to request sustainable packaging, and I'm happy to report that most sellers comply.)

I still felt a little guilty about shopping.

Then I met the folks at The Wardrobe, a second-chance clothing retailer whose mission is to end clothing insecurity in the Philadelphia region. I have donated to them in the past, but I just wasn't sure if my donations really helped anyone. After interviewing their executive director, Sheri K. Cole, for a Grid magazine article, I better understand the full scope of their work.

There are many things that make The Wardrobe special. Firstly, it provides free clothing to folks in need. It manages government grants and holds fundraisers. It sells clothing to those who can afford it, so they can give clothing to those who can't. If a person is experiencing homelessness, recovering from addiction, returning to work, or transitioning in their gender identity, The Wardrobe welcomes them. 

The Wardrobe stores are also a place for people looking to shop more sustainably. I'm eager to try the Wardrobe Boxes service. For $220 a year, or $65 a season, one can fill out a size and style profile to have their stylists curate a box to suit containing four seasonal clothing items and an accessory. And since they ship, you don't have to live in the Philadelphia region to participate. I recently signed up, and I cannot wait to get my first box.

If you suffer from clothing insecurity and are referred by a community partner, you will receive your wardrobe box free of charge. The Wardrobe has partnered with more than 150 community organizations to ensure that no one suffers from an inability to buy the clothing they need.

My self-imposed clothing rule has been that if an article of clothing or a pair of shoes comes in, then another must go out. It means that when I receive my style box, I will organize some donations to go back to The Wardrobe.

And what if something is too worn out to donate? Coles says donate it anyway. One of its partners, Helpsy, a certified B Corp, works to provide positive, well-paid employment and to keep our shoes and garments out of the trash. They pick up donated clothing in surrounding counties to benefit The Wardrobe.

The partnership with Helpsy means that The Wardrobe can accept large quantities of donated items, sort through it to find what is needed for their clients, and then pass the balance to Helpsy knowing that it will be resold or recycled responsibly.

Helpsy partners with municipalities, non-profits, and clothing resellers in ten states, mostly on the East Coast, to reduce the environmental impact of the fashion industry. Their objective isn't only to sell clothes, but to keep it out of the trash. In 2023 alone, Helpsy diverted 31 million pounds of clothing out of landfills.

Cole says that for those buying new clothing, they can have confidence that when an item no longer serves, The Wardrobe will give it a second life with someone new or send it to be repurposed as another type of product.

While I am not encouraging nonstop clothes shopping, it is nice to know that there are ways we can replace things and seasonally refresh our closets without feeling like we're wrecking the planet. And when we make those donations, we are helping someone else make a fresh start in style.

Do you have ideas for sustainably managing your clothing purchases? Please share!


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