The Wartime Wardrobe Challenge: sustainable & ethical explorations

December 20, 2012 § 17 Comments

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

Clothes Rationing 1 PDF

From: Museum without Walls*

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.

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.


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 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.

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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