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Now is the perfect time to rethink your wardrobe, with an eye toward sustainability

The way we dress and shop has shifted since the beginning of the pandemic. The Post's Robin Givhan and merchandise buyer Haley Cohen weigh in on what's to come. (Video: The Washington Post)

I’m going to give it to you straight: We all have too many clothes — and shoes and jackets.

We’re not only buying more clothes than people did in the past, but we’re also only keeping them half as long, according to a report from the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe. On average, people throw away 70 pounds of shoes and clothing (vs. recycling or donating them) annually, according to the World Wear Project.

These statistics don’t surprise me. I’m in clients’ homes weekly, and almost every one of them has too many clothes, the bulk of which they never wear. I understand that clothes are an expression of our personalities, and people like to wear beautiful things; clothing is an important part of our identity. However, we also must consider the impact that the constant rotation of clothes has on our planet.

Everyone has done it: You order something in several sizes, but you never return the items that don’t fit. You buy something you don’t need because it’s inexpensive, or you splurge on something you plan to wear only once. None of these decisions is monumental in itself, but the cumulative effect of millions of people repeatedly doing this for weeks, months or years is now being recognized by both consumers and the fashion industry as wasteful and in need of change.

The coronavirus pandemic has forced many of us to modify how and what we consume, and because we’re still spending so much time at home, now is an opportune time to reassess our wardrobes and consider making some important changes in how we shop for clothes.

Buy less, shop smarter

Buying less will help you streamline your closet and your morning routine. Plus, creating a wardrobe of only quality items that you like and wear translates into spending less time looking for pieces, organizing what you have and donating the items you no longer want. You also will save the time and effort of getting packages in the mail, trying pieces on and potentially having a pile of items to return. As I often say: It’s hard to keep your home organized with a constant stream of items coming in.

Fewer dresses, more sweatpants: How to organize your pandemic wardrobe

Consider creating a “capsule wardrobe,” a well-curated collection of the basics you wear regularly, in which each piece works with every other piece. This concept involves buying higher-quality, more sustainable and, yes, probably more expensive items that will last longer. Even when we’re not living through a pandemic, most people wear the same two dozen items regularly, and they rarely touch the rest.

Secondhand shopping is easy and trendy, and it’s a good way for people to reduce their carbon footprint as it relates to buying clothing. Both online and bricks-and-mortar consignment shops are increasing in popularity, as are vintage and thrift shops, which means quality, pre-owned inventory is more readily available at reasonable prices.

A growing number of companies also are focusing on creating sustainable clothing. Do some research before making a purchase to see where brands are sourcing their materials, what their suppliers are doing in terms of energy efficiency and whether they’re using local supply chains to reduce their carbon footprints. All of this information is easily found on many retailers’ websites.

Organization matters

People often buy items they don’t need, because they don’t know what they already have. If you’re looking to be a more responsible clothing consumer, start by sorting through your wardrobe. Set aside pieces you no longer want for recycling or donation, then organize the ones you’re keeping. Sort clothes into categories, and either fold and store them so you can see everything, or hang them all on the same type and color of hanger. Both practices help reduce visual clutter, so you can find items without a lot of effort. In other words: Make it easier to shop your closet instead of always buying new items.

It should be easy to find and put away your clothing. If you don’t have enough closet or drawer space to accommodate everything, you have two options: Get rid of more items, or create additional storage space.

Also consider making a list of what you need to replace, and try to stick to it. If you’re organizing a huge stack of T-shirts or yoga pants, you don’t need more of those. Be methodical about how you shop instead of adding pieces to your cart without considering whether you need them.

Donate, recycle responsibly

There are many options for responsibly getting rid of clothing you no longer want. None of them is very difficult or time-consuming, and all are preferable to throwing clothes in the trash.

If you have something that is new or in very good condition, consider consigning it online or at a local shop. There are several popular, user-friendly online consignment options, including ThredUp, the RealReal and Poshmark, but if you would like to support a local, small business, find a consignment shop in your community.

Companies are increasingly offering programs that make it easy to recycle your old clothing. Nordstrom has clothing drop-offs in some of its stores and accepts items through the mail. Madewell takes old jeans to recycle them. And Patagonia welcomes its old products that have been mailed in. Many more retailers offer similar services. Check a company’s website for additional information.

If you don’t want to consign, and the items you’re discarding can’t be recycled by a retailer — but they’re still in good condition — donate them to a community charity. Don’t let the option of donating be an excuse to keep overbuying, though. Even donation centers are overwhelmed and are struggling to process all the incoming clothing.

The fashion industry is undergoing important changes in how it manufactures clothing, and it’s making it easier for consumers to be conscientious when they shop. With just a little additional effort and focus on organizing our wardrobes, buying less, shopping smarter and discarding responsibly, we can all be part of the effort to reduce waste.

More from Lifestyle:

Do you know what’s happening to your clothing donations?

How to make sure your donated items aren’t burdening charities

The great decluttering of 2020: The pandemic has inspired a clean-out of American homes