Q. What is the most eco-friendly type of clothing? Organic cotton clothing, organic bamboo clothing, clothing made from recycled materials, or used clothing?

Mark G.
Pittsburgh, Pa.

A. Dearest Mark,

The correct answer is E) none of the above. True, the other options are good choices when it comes to bundling up. But as my 10th-grade social studies teacher used to remind us on his tricky multiple-choice tests, we’re looking for the best choice here. And the best clothing is the clothing you don’t have.

Allow me to explain, Mark. Obviously, we all need clothes to protect our tender hides from the elements, not to mention the social benefits that come with wearing pants when we leave the house. And for most of us, clothes do a lot more than that: Fashion allows us to express ourselves and look our best, and hey, it’s fun. Anyone whose closet holds more than identical utilitarian jumpsuits must agree, at least a little bit.

Let it be said: There’s nothing wrong with any of that. Long live clothes! But where so many of us run into trouble is with how many clothes we have. As we move into this season of conspicuous consumption — kicking off tomorrow with the shopping orgy known as Black Friday — this is the perfect time to think hard about how many cute sweaters we really need. I am confident that one can fulfill all one’s sartorial needs without overflowing the dresser.

All this prudence stems from the simple fact that all clothing has some impact on the environment. Textile production requires tons of water, often uses harmful chemical treatments, and sucks up energy. Organic cotton may skip the pesticide bath that conventional cotton gets, but that green T-shirt still comes from a very water-intensive crop, and it may be grown far away. Recycled clothing gets points for reusing source materials, but some of it (like polyester) still can’t escape its petroleum-based roots. Organic bamboo is pretty green on the agricultural side, but requires extensive chemical treatment in processing. And we haven’t even started talking about the human cost of producing quick, cheap textiles. There may be no perfect fabric, except maybe wool you weave yourself from your own pet sheep. (But can you imagine how long it would take to spin enough for just one jumpsuit? Sheesh.)

Of all the options you lay out, Mark, buying secondhand clothing is the next best thing to buying nothing at all. That sharp vintage jacket and perfectly distressed jeans already had their impact on the environment the first time around, so by reviving them in your collection, you’re essentially getting a sustainability freebie — or at least, diluting their impact by extending their useful lives. In many cases, people’s enthusiasm for their old threads wears out a lot faster than the clothes themselves do, so used clothing stores can be a veritable gold mine of good stuff.

And when you decide it’s time for a new garment or two? Here are a few ways to shop thoughtfully:

  • Look for the best combination of local, organic, Fair Trade, and/or recycled clothing you can find. You won’t be able to tick off all these boxes in one article of clothing, but it’s worth shopping around to see how many you can get.
  • Think classic over trendy: Several carefully curated, stylish basics that can be mixed and matched a bunch of ways will serve you well through years of fashion crazes. Nobody regrets holding on to a well-tailored jacket or crisp button-down shirt; the same cannot be said for neon leggings.
  • Invest in quality attire. It’ll be more expensive in the short term, but it’ll last years longer than throwaway cheapies.
  • For every new item you buy, considering donating at least one older item. It will clear space in your closet, help short-circuit the desire to stockpile clothes, and keep your local secondhand scene vibrant.

Finally, happy Thanksgiving to all, dear readers. In the spirit of the holiday and this column, this year I’m giving thanks for my trusty LGD (little green dress). I daresay it has served me better than even the most utilitarian jumpsuit ever could.

Gratefully,
Umbra