I’ve never watched the TLC reality TV show Say Yes to the Dress, but I did say “yes” to the same dress for one hundred days in a row. What a journey it has brought me on. I have never felt very confident when it comes to clothing purchases, so I felt trepidation this past summer when I bought an expensive and relatively plain dress. Several times I wondered to myself, “What am I doing?” In mid-September, I started a 100 Day Challenge during which I wore that same dress every single day.
The dress I wore is made of merino wool, a wonderful fiber for many reasons. It is natural, renewable, and biodegradable. It is comfortable—the fabric breathes, wicks moisture away from the skin, and regulates temperature in both hot and cold weather. It resists wrinkles and odors, meaning it doesn’t need to be washed as often as most articles of clothing.
Early in my challenge, I didn’t talk much about my wardrobe goal. While teaching an environmental education course twice weekly for six weeks, I was curious to know if any of my students would realize that I wore the same dress every class. I was finally able to ask them at the end of the fifth week, when we talked about clothing and the environment. Not one of the 13 students realized what I had done until I pointed it out to them.
Most of us have heard of huge human rights issues related to many (most?) overseas clothing factories, including dangerous working conditions and minimal pay. This detail alone is enough to make the topic of clothing an uncomfortable one to talk about. The environmental impact of clothing is also significant, yet can be easy to overlook, since we rarely see the production or disposal processes. Fiber production (growing cotton, raising sheep for wool, harvesting trees for cellulosic fibers, forming plastic into polyester) is hard on the environment when the processes are carelessly—and most inexpensively—done. Fabric production and clothes-making are also problematic for workers, for the environment, and for consumers.
“The environmental impact of clothing is also significant, yet can be easy to overlook, since we rarely see the production or disposal processes.”
Clothing Production and Disposal
During my challenge, I decided to learn about different kinds of fabric, to determine which was best and most sustainable. I was quickly sold on merino wool, but I learned that there are pros and cons with any kind of fabric, and that production practices matter greatly. For example, cotton is a natural fiber, so it is biodegradable. Fabric made from cotton is cool and comfortable. But conventional cotton requires 20,000 liters of water to produce just 1 kg of cotton, and cotton tends to be grown in dry areas where water is already scarce. Conventional cotton is also grown with a staggering amount of chemicals. According to one website, “Cotton production uses 24% of the insecticides and 11% of the pesticides produced globally.” 1 These toxic chemicals enter the bodies of the cotton farmers, the factory workers who make cloth and sew garments, and the people who wear the garments. 2 By contrast, organic cotton production uses less water and omits harmful pesticides. It is better for the farmer, the textile worker, the consumer, and the earth. It also costs more.
I learned about many other kinds of fabrics, including polyester, linen, leather, rayon and more. 3 I also learned that clothing disposal is a huge issue, especially in our age of fast fashion, where clothes are cheap and cheaply made, and produced faster and in ever larger quantities. Clothing that is badly torn and/or worn out gets thrown into the garbage and carted to a landfill. Often still-usable clothing is brought to a thrift store in the hopes that someone else will buy and wear it. But in the book Overdressed, author Elizabeth Cline wrote, “Most Americans are thoroughly convinced there is another person in their direct vicinity who truly needs and wants all of our unwanted clothes. This couldn’t be further from the truth.” 4 She investigated and learned that less than 20% of donated clothing gets sold through thrift stores. Half of it almost immediately enters the “postconsumer waste stream.” Textile recyclers handle most donated clothing. Of the huge quantity of used clothing handled by textile recyclers, less than half is good enough quality to be resold as clothing or to become new clothing. Around 20% of the remainder is sold to fiber buyers to be used in insulation, to pad carpets, or for building materials; about 30% is sold to make industrial wiping rags; and roughly 5% is thrown away. Of the clothing that is not sold for fiber or for wiping rags, the vast majority is sorted, baled, and sold overseas, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa. This effectively makes our waste problem into their waste problem, since “the African used clothing market is very particular and is demanding higher quality and more fashion-forward styles.” 5
I came to several conclusions through my research and through the experience of my dress challenge. Buying clothes from thrift stores (my usual practice) continues to be satisfying and economical, and it helps keep items out of landfills. However, good quality, ethically made clothing, though expensive and difficult to find, is worth paying for. It is also worth learning how to properly care for clothing; once you know this, the idea of buying and owning an expensive garment becomes less daunting. 6 A friend reminded me that “clothing used to be an investment…items were mended and re-mended and passed down. Now, if something is worn or torn it usually isn’t worth the time to mend it. Or the fabrics won’t hold up to mending at all.”
“The most sustainable article of clothing is the one that is already in your closet or dresser drawers, the one you love and wear regularly.”
The most sustainable article of clothing is the one that is already in your closet or dresser drawers, the one you love and wear regularly. 7 It was already produced, and the resources used to make it have already been spent. It is not yet in a landfill. By wearing that item, and by taking proper care of it, you are using it for its intended purpose. Items you own that don’t fit can often be altered—sewing is a very practical skill that can enable you to mend or repurpose clothes.
We would also do well to learn about clothing companies’ sourcing and production practices before purchasing from them. For example, is the company certified by an outside, reputable organization? (GOTS and OEKO-TEXⓇ are two kinds of certification to look for. 8 )
Perhaps we would all be better off owning fewer items of clothing, but ones of better quality. Today, creation groans under the weight of North American consumption, while we are weighed down by all of our stuff; at the same time, too many people in this world lack even basic necessities. Fewer but better clothes used to be the norm in the first half of the 20th century. For example, Cline shared that in 1929, “the average middle-class man owned six work outfits, and the average middle-class woman nine.” 9 Of course, examples of owning less go back much further. When John the Baptizer preached “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” and was asked by the crowd what they should do, he told them that the person “with two tunics should share with him who has none, and the one who has food should do the same.” 10 Later, Jesus warned his followers, “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” 11 What might the world look like if we all heeded their words? 12
Owning a small wardrobe might seem restrictive, but limits can often spark a new level of creativity. I found that wearing a basic uniform—like my dress—reduced the number of decisions around what to wear, leaving me with enough creativity to come up with new looks using layers and accessories.
As convinced as I am that less is more when it comes to clothing, I know that choice is critical. I chose to wear one dress for 100 days, and I found it freeing in many ways. It would be a very different experience if I were forced to wear just one dress, or if I only had one dress to wear. No one can, or should, tell people how many items to own, or what kind of items they should be.
“Owning a small wardrobe might seem restrictive, but limits can often spark a new level of creativity.”
Clothed to Care
At the same time, we are all called to care about the environmental and social ethics of how clothing is made and disposed of. In Matthew 6, we read Jesus’ words about clothing: “do not worry…about your body, what you will wear.” As I learned about the largely unseen business of clothing production and clothing disposal, I thought about these words, and about Jesus’ reminder that God is the one who cares for and meets our needs. I also thought about the overarching concern expressed in the Bible for humans’ wellbeing, and about warnings for when we fail to care for the nonhuman creation. For example, in Ezekiel 34, in which the Lord told Ezekiel to prophesy against the leaders of Israel, we find a call to care for the people of Israel (the sheep) but also a warning against careless overuse of resources. “Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture? Must you also trample the rest of your pasture with your feet? Is it not enough for you to drink clear water? Must you also muddy the rest with your feet? Must my flock feed on what you have trampled and drink what you have muddied with your feet?” 13 We are definitely meant to care about justice—or the lack of it—for workers and for the environment.
My 100 Day Challenge ended on December 21, the first day of winter. I wore long johns and jeans on December 22, but by the following day, I was happily back in my dress. I am thankful to be wearing a quality garment that is ethically made. I am comfortable in my temperature-regulating wool, I do a lot less laundry, and I have a very different perspective on what it means to be well-dressed. Perfect is not possible—when it comes to clothing or to anything else—but better is. Finding the better options will require time, money, and (perhaps most of all) a reframing of priorities. Let’s pursue more just living and working conditions for those who make clothes, more sustainable practices to protect the soil, water, and air, more quality in the clothes we wear, and more health for all. Let’s learn to recognize the beauty and freedom in owning less. I’m thankful that my dress challenge helped me start to see a better way.
This article is part of our ongoing series: Living with Intentionality. Our lives are a series of decisions of how best to love others, care for our creation, seek good, prevent harm, and glorify God. We will highlight these articles where fellow believers make very intentional choices that can expand our imagination for what the Christian life—and the life of the mind—can accomplish.
“Some studies show that certain chemical substances contained in pajamas can be found in a child’s urine 5 days after wearing those pajamas for one night.” And “27% of the weight of a ‘100% natural’ fabric is made of chemicals.” https://www.sustainyourstyle.org/en/whats-wrong-with-the-fashion-industry#anchor-environmental-impact ↩
For details about the environmental pros and cons of these fabrics, see posts from my 100 Day Challenge at https://www.instagram.com/drberkelaar/ Polyester, a synthetic fiber found in the majority of clothing today, is especially problematic. It is basically a type of plastic made from petroleum, thus not biodegradable. Production of polyester requires much more energy than the production of cotton. During all stages of polyester production, dangerous chemicals are used. Many less toxic dyes do not work on polyester, so more harmful dyes are used and then dumped into nearby waterways. When we wear clothes made from polyester, the fabric releases chemicals such as phthalates. When we wash polyester clothing, tiny microparticles of plastic come off and are piped away with our wash and rinse water. These eventually end up in the ocean, where they are ingested by small aquatic creatures and enter the food chain. As far as comfort, polyester is not typically a fabric that breathes, so when you wear polyester clothing, moisture next to your skin often stays there instead of being wicked away. I cannot think of many positives of polyester, except that it is inexpensive and that the material lasts a very long time (though this becomes a negative when the garment is eventually discarded). ↩
Elizabeth L. Cline, Overdressed, p. 127. ↩
Cline, p. 135. ↩
Reading a book about laundry (Laundry Love by Patric Richardson and Karin B. Miller) is what started this whole clothing adventure for me. ↩
Signe Hansen Glud makes this point several times on her blog called “Use Less” https://www.uselesswardrobe.dk/1-year-shop-your-wardrobe-nothingnew22/ ↩
GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard) certification is given to companies when their products are made with at least 70% organic fibers (but at least 95% organic fibers if they are to be labeled ‘organic’), and if they meet specific environmental criteria (e.g. avoidance of dangerous chemicals) and social criteria (e.g. making sure workers are treated ethically). GOTS certification means that care has been taken to meet all social and environmental criteria from fiber processing through clothing distribution. OEKO-TEXⓇ, another testing and certification group that includes 18 partner institutes in Europe and Japan, offers several different kinds of certification. OEKO-TEXⓇ STANDARD 100 certification can be given to organic or non-organic textiles; it means that the item has been “tested for harmful substances, from yarns to the finished product,” and deemed not harmful to human health. ↩
Cline, p. 21. ↩
Luke 3:11. ↩
Luke 12:15. ↩
Also consider these words from Nilus of Ancyra, a monk who lived in the 5th century: “We should remain within the limits imposed by our basic needs and strive with all our power not to exceed them. For once we are carried a little beyond these limits in our desire for the pleasures of life, there is then no criterion by which to check our onward movement, since no bounds can be set to that which exceeds the necessary.” Quoted in Common Prayer: A liturgy for ordinary radicals by Shane Claiborne, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, and Enuma Okoro. ↩
Ezekiel 34:18,19. ↩
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So happy to hear more people are trying this out. I started my 100 days on Memorial Day weekend and finished a couple weeks into fall semester. I had the same experience in regards to no one really noticing, including my students. I had already converted to a much smaller “capsule” wardrobe, but being limited to one thing was both freeing and (perhaps counter to what you’d think) inspired my creativity in using what I already had to make the dress work for different situations.
–And my 100-day dress is still one of the things I wear regularly, also, even post-100 days. Thanks for sharing your experience here.