Sustainable Closet

Do This Before You Shop: Shop Your Closet

I try not to buy clothes that I don't need, and I try not to buy clothes that are made in unhealthy working conditions and/or of environmentally-suspect materials.  But I love clothing...messing around with it...using it to feel great...attempting to make garments I love.  These two diametrically opposed positions can lead to a strange feast-famine shopping cycle, and have in the past also led not only to budget disaster, but also to spending money on clothes that disappoint or frustrate me.  In the last few years, I have been fighting that powerful feast-force, using a few simple pre-shopping habits.  

When one of those powerful shopping urges strikes, I first try to ease it by shopping in my closet.  This is a good time for some closet organization.  Don't be scared, it doesn't need to take hours.  Just start with one pile or one shelf, and then stop if necessary.  The simple act of re-sorting what is there can expose items which may have fallen to the back or gotten lost in the shuffle.  Reuniting with a forgotten sweater can do wardrobe wonders in the middle of a long winter.

This is also a good time to rotate items, much like food in a refrigerator.  If sweaters have been hanging for a while, it's a good time to fold them.  If shirts are all jumbled in the folded pile, it's a good time to hang them. Doing this helps keep them from getting damaged by hangers or becoming excessively wrinkled, while also allowing for a way to see new outfit possibilities.  

Items that are no longer enjoyed should be removed.  Maybe those don't get worn because they don't look that great on you, but they would look nice on a close friend, or maybe they can be donated and enjoyed by others.  The less jumble in your closet, the more easily you can see both what you have and what might truly be missing.  

It should be noted here, however, that only twenty-five percent of what is donated to charities is sold in a second-hand retail store.  The rest is sold to rag dealers in bundles, to be sorted and then recycled, sent overseas, or disposed of in a landfill.  It is useful to picture this when you are about to make an unplanned and possibly impractical clothing purchase; the mental picture of your new on-sale date-night ruffle top going into the landfill when you tire of it might slow you down a bit, as it sometimes does me.

Another key closet technique is to place the most frequently-used items in the easiest-to-reach spaces, in order to facilitate a smooth morning routine.  The urge to buy things sometimes stems from the feeling that getting dressed is not working very well.  Smart closet set-up can prevent speed bumps in this process.  Some people group by color, but I prefer to group by function (pants, skirts, dressy tops vs. toddler-proof  tops, workout gear, etc).  Crucial to the success of this technique is to be honest about what you actually wear a lot, not what you think you should be wearing a lot.  When I started doing this, I realized how rarely I wear blouses and button-downs and I have largely stopped buying them as a result.  Organizing by category is also a powerful exhibit of how few clothing items are in our day-to-day rotation, which can be liberating if it feels scary to get rid of things.

While you are organizing and rotating, anticipate the coming season, even if it seems impossible that the snow will ever melt, or that it should ever finally cool off after a long summer.  Maybe there will be a change of season soon and your urge to spend can be aimed at freshening up last year's spring lineup. Or maybe there is a possible pregnancy in the future, meaning that it might not be a great time to buy fitted pants.

This is also the time to look for multiples or wardrobe gaps; if you still feel the pull of retail therapy after the reorganization, splurge energy can now be directed specifically at items that make getting dressed more fun and more efficient.  Maybe you already have a ton of pants but not enough shirts?  Good, then you might allow yourself to purchase a great new shirt if you still feel like shopping, instead of getting tempted by everything in the store.

Sometimes the reorganizing project is enough to kill the shopping urge, especially as it often prompts me to notice that I'm already content with what I have and rarely have time to wear it all as it is.  However, if the splurge urge persists, next I challenge myself to wear the last item that was an unplanned purchase, or something that I thought I needed but which has not yet been worn.  This is nice because it can be a reminder that we often don't need the things that tempt us, and then we are left with a budget hangover and an over-stuffed closet. This trick can also expose a habit of say, buying ruffled shirts, but not actually wearing them.  That little nugget of fresh knowledge can help you resist the next ruffled shirt, even if it is 50% off.

A final useful note on taming your closets is one regarding space...use your space, don't let it be the boss of you.  You probably don't need a bigger closet or a second dresser if you are actually removing things that you no longer wear.  Once the closet is fairly organized, it is often apparent that only four or five items get worn most of the time, no matter the size of the space.  My two guiding principles are to not let hangers be crowded, and to not allow myself a second closet in another room.  These work for me because they exploit my obsession with an easy morning routine; when I have to get dressed in two different rooms, I go nuts, and if my hangers are jammed together too closely,  that means I can't easily remove or replace an item, and resulting in things going on the floor.  Piles on the floor are a red flag, indicating a broken system.  In a high-functioning closet, it is just as fast to put the unworn item back, as it is to put it on the floor in a pile.  I also insist on storing a stool inside the closet, so that, I can easily access all items.  

Culturally, we have a bad habit of creating excessive additional storage instead of being honest about how much of our stuff we reasonably need and use.  I have used these techniques in eight closets, large and small, in the last seven years and they work every time.  They are not, however, the only weapons I have for fighting shopping temptations.  When you have completed these steps, you are ready for the next step: Before You Shop, Pt. II: Make a Wish List.