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Wartime Wardrobe Challenge

A chance remark to a fellow student prompted an informal experiment in 2012. As the year draws to a close and January – the month of good resolutions – is just around the corner, I plan to continue the experiment on a more formal level.

The background

Back in January, after a fascinating but worrying seminar on the energy and water intensity of the agricultural sector, one of my fellow student was mulling over what more she – a vegetarian – could do to lower her carbon footprint. I empathised with her personal sense of responsibility. Although structural changes are needed to abate the environmental effects of the last 100 years of human activity, I too am looking at how I can reduce my own impact and that of my household. My throw-away response to my young colleague was “buy fewer clothes”. But like many such comments, it set me thinking.

Being a foodie, I have been enquiring about the origins of my food for many years. Labelling, organic produce, cooking from scratch, portion sizes and growing some of our own vegetables help me to make informed decisions and reduce the environmental footprint of our meals. Doing the same with my clothes is a whole different challenge as sustainability and ethics in the clothing sector are an absolute minefield!

Never one to shy away from a quandary, I started tackling the environmental impact of the clothes on my back. As I had to start somewhere, I focused on three simple principles: buy fewer items; enquire into the origin of each item; and audit the impact of my laundry practices.

Self-imposed rationing 

In 2013 I plan to step up this challenge and have joined forces with Nik of Little House in Town, a fellow resource conscious blogger who has a real nose for sniffing out alternative suppliers.

Although our politicians and economists would shudder at the thought, consuming less will be the cornerstone of our efforts to reduce the footprint of our wardrobes. We have taken our inspiration from the wartime clothes rationing system that the British government developed to deal with scarcity of raw materials and production capacity (due to factories prioritising military needs and limited shipping). The modern constraints inspiring this self-imposed rationing are land use considerations and finite raw materials, water and energy resources as well as chemical pollution at different stages of the production process.

Sustainability weighting

So, in 2013 we shall be limiting ouselves to a maximum of 66 coupons’ worth of new clothes, with each garment type requiring a specific number of coupons. As clothes rationing was driven by resource scarcity, the number of coupons was linked to cloth content: e.g. 14 coupons for a long coat compared to seven for a skirt. A closer look at the original announcement also shows that woollen garments required more coupons than cotton or synthetic ones. This weighting made sense in wartime, when wool was needed for army uniforms and blankets, but is less relevant today. Nik and I have therefore decided to adopt a weighting system driven by sustainability considerations.

Clothes Rationing 1 PDF

From: Museum without Walls*

As there is no such thing as a no-impact fabric, we have decided to ‘penalise’ those with a higher environmental impact. Easier said than done, however, as scientists and commentators do not agree on which fibres are the least harmful for the environment: e.g. natural fibres or synthetics? Even within the natural fibres, there are dilemmas: organic cotton is more land-intensive but conventionally grown cotton requires more water and fertiliser. Bamboo is often cited as a sustainable crop, but depending on how it is processed, harmful chemicals are used to extract the fibres from the stalks. And not all wools are equal, environmentally speaking! Faced with such dilemmas and trade-offs, our weighting is not perfect but based on our learning to date, learning which no doubt will be refined over the coming year.

Ethical conundrums

Ethical issues also abound in the clothing sector, e.g. long hours in sweatshops, child labour, poor health and safety conditions… Furthermore, whilst buying fewer clothes is better for the environment, it does have socio-economic consequences. I am not talking about the shrinking profits of large corporates but reduced demands ultimately means fewer jobs for individuals as well as more pressure on small retailers.

My approach will therefore be to make every pound I do spend on new clothes count by sourcing items from small, independent companies that have a robust ethical policy – one which includes paying a living wage! To this end, I shall continue to be a lady of letters – well emails – engaging retailers with questions about their supply chains.

Privation or exploration?

As today’s wardrobes are more amply stocked than those of the 1930s, limiting my purchases to a few items per year should not be the major problem. Instead, I suspect the challenge will lie in navigating the environmental and ethical pitfalls. As this Wartime Wardrobe Challenge will be as much about self-education and challenging the clothing industry, as it is about making do with less, do not expect lots of posts on new frocks and shoes from me. I am more likely to share my meanderings through the life cycle of my clothes, struggles with dilemmas and trade-offs, a re-thinking of essential maintenance regimes and – in true wartime style – a rediscovery of my resourcefulness!

***

Fancy joining Nik and me as we – each in our own ways, with our own tastes, interests and priorities – explore the sustainability and ethics of our clothes? Just print off the WWC rationing announcement for womenswear and/or menswear below and pop it in your diary/wallet/purse. Feel free to add the WWC participant badge to your blog or Facebook page to encourage your friends to join in. And get set to embark on a journey that will involve a little restraint and a lot of questioning but may change your relationship with clothes and the clothing industry.

Update

New to this blog or challenge? Check out the Category “Wartime Wardrobe Challenge” to read more about the complexities and dilemmas involved in a sustainable ethical wardrobe. Throughout the twelve months the following three years I shall be looking into the trade-offs between different types of fibres (from wool to nylon, polyester to bamboo…) and therefore the ‘relative’ nature of so-called sustainable fabrics. I shall be exploring dilemmas at each stage of a garment’s life-cycle and sharing the surreal levels to which research can go.

badge
WWC (womenswear)
WWC (menswear)

*Museum without Walls is an initiative of the West Dunbartonshire Council.

Artwork by Nik of Little House in Town.

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21 comments
  • Nik December 20, 2012, 8:49 pm

    Great intro to the challenge Meg, I can’t wait to embark on this new adventure with you! x

    Reply
  • @Lavender and Lovage (@KarenBurnsBooth) January 1, 2013, 8:42 pm

    Wonderful challenge Meg! I would love to join in! Karen

    Reply
    • Meg and Gosia January 1, 2013, 10:03 pm

      Karen, please do come along on this journey of exploration! As it is not driven by necessity (yet!), I am seeing it as an opportunity to learn, be creative and enjoy “living” rather than “having”.

      Reply
  • Jenny January 3, 2013, 2:32 pm

    I came to you from Nik’s blog which I adore. Can’t wait to see how this goes in 2013!

    Reply
    • Meg and Gosia January 3, 2013, 3:43 pm

      Thanks, Jenny. I hope you enjoy our explorations in this field.

      Reply
  • EverlastingNothing January 10, 2013, 3:17 am

    I’m opting into this challenge a little bit late, I hope that’s okay. I’m a bit of a new blogger, and new to both your and Nik’s blogs, but this seems like a fantastic idea to me!
    (Cross-posted at Little House in Town)

    Reply
    • Meg and Gosia January 10, 2013, 10:27 pm

      Good to have you on board! Hope you enjoy exploring the ethical and environmental implications of the clothing industry, as well as more about your own consumption habits.

      Reply
  • jeanofalltrades January 13, 2013, 1:10 am

    I’m joining the challenge! It’s official. I love the idea and I just blogged about it.

    Reply
    • Meg and Gosia January 13, 2013, 12:24 pm

      I’m delighted this challenge has caught your imagination! I hope you have fun with it.

      Reply
  • StephannieH January 23, 2013, 1:16 pm

    I would love to join in this challenge, sounds great. It doesn’t matter that I am bit late does it?

    Reply
    • Meg and Gosia January 23, 2013, 3:31 pm

      Please do, Stephanie, just work over a calendar year from today. I hope you have fun and learn a lot about the clothing industry and your relationship with it in the coming 12 months.

      Reply
  • Sarah February 3, 2013, 6:21 pm

    Just catching up on your blog, sounds like an interesting challenge! I wonder if I’m up for it… I’m definitely aiming to buy less this year, and make more. That will mean buying some fabric, but I have enough yarn to last me the year (except for some I need to buy for gifts). Hmm.

    Reply
    • Meg and Gosia February 3, 2013, 6:31 pm

      Enough yarn to last a year…, I wish! I suspect that is an occupational hazard if you work in a gorgeous knitting Nest…

      Reply
  • Charlotte November 26, 2019, 4:31 pm

    What a great way to lower your impact, and to encourage responsible and frugal purchasing!
    I was wondering how many points you might give to denim jeans, given the amount of cotton, water and pesticides used in production?
    Similarly where do you stand on leather products given the issues you raised regarding animal agriculture?
    Can’t wait to start this as my new years resolution 🙂

    Reply
    • Mrs M December 22, 2019, 10:13 pm

      How lovely that you are inspired to try this kind of approach to tempering consumption. You could treat denim like any other category or you could choose to treat it like wool was in the wartime system. I wouldn’t get too hung up on this issue if you take the approach of having one pair of jeans in your wardrobe and treating it like a hard-wearing, durable garment. Leather is also not an environmentally neutral product. I explored some of the dilemmas around leather in one of my Wartime Wardrobe Challenge posts on shoes. There are ways to minimise harm from leather. E.g. if herds are managed with sound grazing practices and if the leather is vegetable tanned. Also, leather is a by-product of the meat industry so it makes sense for it to be used rather than wasted. Leather clothing is possibly a more tricky issue but it may depend very much on where you live and what kind of life you live. In an urban context, a leather coat or trousers would probably be a luxury so you might weight it the same way you would a silk dress. But if you have an outdoor life, exposed to the elements it may make more sense to have a good quality leather overcoat rather than a polyester kagool. I would say, use the approach in good conscience as I way to encourage conscientious frugality based on the realities of your circumstances, climatic region and balance of ethical perspectives. E.g. when I ran this challenge, one of the participant was expecting and another was a vegan so their approaches varied but they both made considered choices throughout the year.

      Reply
  • Nette March 29, 2021, 2:43 pm

    Funny to come across this as I have been mulling over my closet the last few years, wondering if I should just get rid of the things that I only wear occasionally. Every year after Christmas I tend to start spring cleaning. While putting away the presents and decor I begin going through closets and such, weeding out the old and worn items along with those I don’t wear anymore. I give them to family if they want them or run them down to Goodwill or a resale place if they are still presentable. While going through my closet I began “dating” my clothes. One sweater in particular is approximately 28 years old, a favorite fleece shirt is 20 and I have sweatshirts and shirts that are just about that old as well. Some I use all the time, others only on occasion. I still buy clothes but seems that I have them forever. Shorts I purchased when we moved to Florida 10 years ago, 2 pair in particular I wear all the time. I have recently purchased new shorts but only wear them when I’m going out somewhere. Tops are a different story. Sleeveless tank tops for summer I buy to replace the faded every few years. Then the faded become pajama tops or tops to wear at home when I know I’m not going anywhere. Others also become work clothes for yard work, painting or deep cleaning in the house (old sweat pants , shorts and jeans end up here too!) I hate spending money on clothes, plus I am fussy about what I like and what is comfortable. I recently purchased 2 Brahmin handbags, totally out of the ordinary for mr since I always refused to pay more than $35.00 for a purse! I figured they’ll last forever and I really love them. One was more than half the price on sale the other I paid full price for. I also retired a few of my other purses that I no longer liked or used. I still have 3 or 4 others that are favorites and I do still use them.
    Old towels end up as rags and old throw rugs I keep around for times when the hardwood floors need to be covered for protection to move furniture or laying on cement to work on the car or for gardening.
    Keeping stuff out of the landfill is my goal. Now, if we could only get All the states to make recycling mandatory and pickup curbside like it is where I used to live in Florida…. I’d be one happy camper!

    Reply
    • Mrs M June 5, 2021, 8:21 am

      Thank you for sharing your experience. I like the idea of ‘dating your clothes’. Recycling is not mandatory here but we do have weekly/fortnightly recycling collections, which makes it much easier for people, especially those who don’t drive and can’t get down to the municipal recycling centres which are usually on the outskirts of town. We have a couple of really good charities here, that collect things like old coats for the homeless and old suits/smart clothing that can be offered to people who are going to interviews to help them get back on their feet.

      Reply

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