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How dressing for work hurts us and the planet and what can we do about it?

Working in Corporate America, I learned quickly that fashion was not only a "pass" into the inner corporate sanctum and promotion track, but was an absolutely essential part of identity and therefore acceptance both personally and professionally as a young, single, professional, living and working in the US. On many occasions, while reviewing my bank account, I reflected not only was I not "working to live," but more I was "living to work," and further to this, I seemed to be "living to work to buy work clothes." This included staple items, such as suits and shoes and also, increasingly, items considered "fast fashion" - cheaper as well as lower quality. Necessary to keep up with colleagues who looked polished and appropriate at every turn. What I didn't realize was what this practice of intense consumerism was doing to me - and to the planet.

My wardrobe became a source of pride as well as a living, breathing, organism that not only required it's own room in my apartment, but that also required many hours of special care and extra cost for item-specific wash/polishing/cleaning/storage. The precious 48 hours of "living" time I had every weekend, became occupied with searching for specifically curated pieces, as well as hours spent sorting, cleaning, organizing, folding, hanging, delivering and picking up, contemplating, styling, packing, and unpacking various items from the previous week and preparing for the week ahead.

Being an "immigrant" to America (and as a Canadian, this became much more apparent than I had imagined) I made a careful study of wardrobe appropriateness and the subtleties that either made or broke a professional fashion image. Specific brands, styles, colors, textures, and combinations specific to season and occasion slotted one in as either a "pass", "fail" on integration into corporate culture, as well as a key factor in highlighting rank. It may seem superficial, but as my TN visa depended on success at work, corporate appropriateness and acceptance became an issue of actual survival after moving to the US.

All this to say, that during six years working as a traveling management consultant, I accumulated A LOT of clothes. And by clothes I mean suits, dresses, sweaters, jackets, shoes, scarves, boots, bags, accessories, you name it. Each item carefully selected to contribute to a wardrobe that would demonstrate my success and highlight a place in the corporate mealie that was my life. It was impressive. It was expensive. It was taking over my life, wasting precious time for living, and at the same time, supporting an industry of staggering waste.

"Corporate bowling attire"

Perhaps one of the sliver linings of a global pandemic is realizing what constitutes "excess" in terms of daily living. In early 2020, having left the corporate world to stay home and raise 2 children, I began paying closer attention to the clothing we were buying and wearing as a family. I read about fast fashion, microplastic waste, and the impact of synthetic clothing on the environment. I payed more attention to what clothes are made of and how they are produced. Through this, I realized just how wasteful my previous habits were and wondered, what can be done to change fashion practices in the corporate world where the pressure to fit in is enormous and can influence getting and keeping a job?

A big question, with few simple answers. However, perhaps identifying the personal and environmental costs, as incentive to change, is a start.

1. How much of your personal time is wasted managing clothing?

For me, the answer would be measured in terms of months, rather than hours. For years, precious time away from work was spent sorting, cleaning, organizing, etc. the many items in my wardrobe. During this time, I forgot what it was to spend time in nature. I completely lost touch with the awe and beauty of the natural world. Remembering how amazing time spent walking, hiking, or swimming in natural areas feels, makes me regret every weekend spent shopping and managing clothing for the work week.

2. How much waste (besides time) is generated from manufacturing, shipping, retailing, and procuring clothing and what is the impact of this on the planet?

This answer is horrifying. As pointed out in an article by Keep Britain Tidy,

The continual drive of ‘fast fashion’ adds to the waste problem, amounting to a staggering 10,000 items of clothing being sent to landfill every five minutes, equivalent to £140 million in value every year.
But it’s not just the impact on landfill that’s an issue. It’s also the amount of raw materials used to produce the items that are going to waste too. To put it into perspective, it takes around 1,800 gallons of water to make a single pair of jeans.

Additionally, plastic microfiber from clothing is now everywhere - from inside our bodies to the farthest flung areas of the planet:

Brahney et al. show that even the most isolated areas in the United States—national parks and national wilderness areas—accumulate microplastic particles after they are transported there by wind and rain (see the Perspective by Rochman and Hoellein). They estimate that more than 1000 metric tons per year fall within south and central western U.S. protected areas. Most of these plastic particles are synthetic microfibers used for making clothing. These findings should underline the importance of reducing pollution from such materials.


If that is enough to convince us of the need to change, then next on the list to consider - what can be done about it?

For me, this started simply with:

  1. downsizing,

  2. buying second-hand where possible, and

  3. focusing on buying from companies using sustainable practices and materials (as much as one can tell).

It may be because I am now a stay-at-home mom, or that I wrote this after the world was hit with the covid pandemic, where mostly everyone stayed home for two years and wore whatever was most comfortable. Or, it could be that now that I have reached 40 I worry less about being "on trend," but, going from a wardrobe of hundreds of items down to one that rotates the same ~40 items comes with a lot of up side and not much down.

Upside of downsizing:

  • Cost (obvious, but still amazing). No tax, and many "like new" or entirely new items sold at 80% of original price or less.

  • Delight in finding a "treasure" that is the right colour, size, and price

  • Relief in not comparing between many choices of a particular item

  • Saved time and selectivity and ability to use specific search criteria if shopping online

  • New friends! Common interests in items leads to matching people with similar circumstances (moms with toddlers who snowshoe) leading to interesting conversations to lasting friendships in some cases (I have two mom friends I met online second-hand shopping and keep in regular touch with).

  • Satisfaction in "hunting" and "gathering" the perfect item to fill a need

  • Contactless pickup options in the covid era

  • No packaging waste

Minimal downside:

  • Time and mental energy lost to the "scroll" seeking second-hand items online, or in stores

  • Long drives to pick up "must have" items

  • The (infrequent) disappointment in an online purchased item not quite as described

  • Inability to find a specific item within a required timeframe

I am lucky, because I don't have to dress for work anymore. In that light, it was relatively easy for me to change perspective and wardrobe. But are these small steps enough for those who are still battling in corporate America?

In a download for Digital Activism for Fashion Revolution Week, issue publishes a guide for citizens:

We must rethink the nature of fashion consumption, adopting new ways of engaging with fashion, and calling on brands to rethink linear business models, honouring those who make our clothes and treasuring the clothes we own.

This might be a more helpful place for change to start on a broader scale. Thinking again of what an individual can do in this light:

  1. Normalizing the trend of "sustainable fashion" at work by:

    1. wearing second-hand items to work

    2. talking about "great second-hand finds" on social media and in the work environment

    3. supporting great second-hand stores with donations and purchases

  2. Researching the sustainability of specific brands and using the power of the wallet to vote for those with more sustainable practices

  3. Adopting a "capsule" wardrobe approach with high quality, versatile items that we see as long-term "treasures"

Join the conversation!

Do you feel pressure to "dress" for work?

What do you think can be done to change the culture of "fast fashion"?

To learn more about the sustainability of your favourite brands:

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