Is It Possible to Overconsume Sustainably Made Clothing?

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Purchasing sustainable and ethically made clothing is a great way to build a conscious closet, but is it possible to overconsume, even when the products themselves are created with ecological integrity?

Americans are buying more and more clothing each year, with Americans today buying 5 times the amount of clothing Americans bought in 1980. In 2018, popular clothing rental site Rent the Runway shared that the average American woman purchases 68 clothing items per year, with 8 out of 10 items seldom worn. Purchasing clothing in such large numbers year after year creates the problem of overconsumption. 

What Is Overconsumption?

Overconsumption is defined by Oxford Languages as “the action or fact of consuming something to excess.” In the case of fashion, this means purchasing too many garments. 

Overconsumption looks like:

  • Buying a shirt in every available color
  • Owning dozens of pairs of shoes
  • Buying into every trend and microtrend
  • Purchasing dozens of clothing items every month
  • Buying something new when what you already own can be reused or repaired

How Overconsumption Occurs

Overconsumption often occurs when we try to keep up with the latest trends. As the trend cycle accelerates, trends have a shorter shelf life and oftentimes only remain popular for a few weeks to a year. Buying into trends every month results in purchasing a lot of unnecessary clothing items that will likely go out of style within the year. 

In this day and age, we are constantly exposed to advertising via social media and influencers. It is easy to feel pressured to shop in excess to stay “on trend” and dress like the celebrities and influencers plastered all over social media, or to fit in with your peers. This desire to dress relevantly leads to overconsumption of garments. To learn more about how to tune out these outside forces and build your unique personal style, read My Green Closet’s “How to Develop Your Personal Style in a World of Influencers and Microtrends” article. 

In addition, overconsumption commonly occurs when we believe buying an item will make us happy, fill a void, or give us a sense of control—this is why the term “retail therapy” is so well known. Shopping with friends can be fun and shopping by yourself can be relaxing, yet these activities can also lead to mindless spending. 

Fashion brands are also responsible for driving this thirst for overconsumption. Brands are profit-driven, working to sell as many garments as possible. Brands engage in excessive production of items, convincing consumers each new item is worth purchasing. Rather than producing clothing to meet consumer needs, many fashion brands push out trendy items that are only meant to be worn for a season and then replaced. 

Fast Fashion vs. Sustainable Clothing Brands

Before we delve into whether it is possible to overconsume sustainably made clothing, it is important to highlight the differences between sustainable brands and fast fashion. The main differences relate to environmental impact, worker conditions and wages, and garment quality. One of the pillars of sustainable fashion is ecological integrity, meaning sustainable fashion brands work hard to reduce waste, energy use, water use and carbon emissions; use recycled and natural materials; and avoid harmful chemicals during production. Social justice and equality are also characteristics of sustainable fashion, while fast fashion does not prioritize providing workers with living wages and safe working conditions. Lastly, the quality of sustainably made garments is typically higher quality than the fast fashion alternatives that are made with cheap materials and extremely fast production times. 

Is It Possible to Overconsume When Shopping Sustainably?

Now that we know sustainable garments are better for the environment, ethically made, and made to last, is it still possible to overconsume when purchasing from an eco-friendly source? The answer is yes

Overconsumption is buying in excess, and it is possible to buy too many sustainably made items. Going on a shopping spree and buying 20 ethically made items, for instance, is still overconsuming garments. 

Buying into every trend, even if you are investing in sustainably made garments, is also overconsumption. It is not sustainable to keep up with trends; purchasing an entirely new wardrobe each season involves shopping in excess. 

How to Prevent Overconsumption

Acknowledging overconsumption habits is the first (and an important) step in correcting this behavior. Self-awareness leads to change. One effective way to prevent overconsumption is to create a capsule wardrobe. A capsule wardrobe is a small, curated collection of clothes you mix and match to create a variety of outfits. In these wardrobes, quality trumps quantity. Explore My Green Closet’s capsule wardrobe articles to learn how to curate the perfect capsule wardrobe. 

It is important to remember that throwing out your entire current wardrobe and replacing it with newly purchased, sustainably made clothing counts as overconsumption. If some items in your closet were purchased via a fast fashion retailer, there is no reason to throw these items out simply because of their tag (it is both wasteful and unnecessary). A good way to avoid purchasing in excess is to gradually add sustainable items into your wardrobe as you need them. 

Other tips for preventing overconsumption:

  • Create a shopping list prior to going out and stick to it
  • Delete shopping apps off your phone
  • Unfollow brands on social media
  • Limit screen time and exposure to online advertisements
  • Set a goal to not buy any new clothing for a month, 3 months, etc.
  • Repair worn clothing and wear items as long as possible
  • Host clothing swaps with friends or community members to freshen up your wardrobe without buying new items
Follow Steffi Haenicke:
Steffi Haenicke is a Chicago-based writer, DePaul University graduate, and longtime fashion lover. She is passionate about sustainable fashion, with a particular interest in the accelerating trend cycle and overconsumption. In her free time, Steffi enjoys knitting, reading, sewing, and adding to her art journal.

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