Sustainable Vintage Style

‘One of the most important things we can all do is to love our clothes and take good care of them…mending something when it’s been damaged.’ – Lisa Heinze

Happy new year!

For the first blog of 2017 I thought I would visit one of my passions, and resolutions – to be kinder to the environment. I’m no eco angel, but I have been drawn to vintage for aesthetic and historical as well as ethical reasons. Every time I buy, trade, sell and repair or mend vintage, whether it is a 1950s dress or a 1960s caravan, I feel like I am investing not only in something built to last, as most things were in that time, but in something that has a lighter footprint on the planet because new materials have not been needed to produce it.

This matters with clothing, perhaps more than most of us realise.

In the mid century, particularly during WW2 when ‘make do and mend‘ was a national priority and strict rations impacted every day people, recycling, re-using and mending was down to an art form. There were multiple handbooks on the subject, and members of each household took time to mend and fix the family’s things, whether it was the radio or a pair of trousers. Today there are many millions – billions even – of kilos of discarded clothing on the planet. In fact, journalist Lucy Seigle points out that 80 billion new garments are produced globally every year. (You can check out my interview with Lucy here.)

Today fashion is reported to be the second-most polluting industry after oil. Clothing is so cheap it is almost considered ‘disposable’, and is commonly discarded by many after only a few wears. The industry that is often called ‘fast fashion’ produces clothing that is designed for this kind of disposability (with profits in mind, not quality and therefore longevity) and can’t withstand more than two wears, and in some cases even a single wash. As I see it, one way to counter some of this is valuing and mending previously produced goods, like antiques, vintage and retro objects, furniture and clothing, and investing in ‘slow clothes’ as I call it – carefully constructed or handmade quality items, personally tailored and intended to be worn for decades, not weeks. This doesn’t mean skimping on style, just being conscious of quality, whether the item is newly created or pre loved.

To learn more, I spoke with Lisa Heinze from the University of Sydney. Lisa is an up and coming academic in sustainability, with expertise in fashion, ethical consumption and new social movements. She is the author of Sustainability with Style, a handbook for transitioning to sustainable living and co-founder of Clean Cut, Australia’s sustainable fashion council, on the global Fashion Revolution committee. She is currently working on a PhD project examining fashion and sustainability at the University of Sydney, in the Gender and Cultural Studies Department where I am also doing my doctorate:

A lot of us love vintage clothing and style because it is stylish but built to last, and doesn’t adhere to a ‘fashion cycle’ that gives it a short life. I’m still very conscious of what I consume, however, particularly when it comes to modern vintage reproduction. What can vintage and vintage reproduction clothing consumers, like myself and those who read this blog, do to lessen negative impacts on the environment? 

One of the most important things we can all do is to love our clothes and take good care of them. Tailoring to get the perfect fit is so important in helping us love our clothes, as is mending something when it’s been damaged. I think vintage clothing consumers are already experts in this regard, and I am certain I can learn a thing or two from your readers about how best to care for and mend my special pieces.

For those who love the retro style and tend to steer towards vintage reproduction, it’s worth asking a few questions of the label or the maker to learn what you can about where the fabric originated, what types of dyes and finishes were used, and who made the garment. Also, take the time to investigate the quality of the garment – whenever I buy anything new I really investigate it to make sure it will stand the test of time. Have a look at the stitching, consider what the fabric is made of and if it will last, see if any patterns/graphics are woven into the fabric or just printed to determine the longevity, and see if the the buttons and zippers are attached properly and are of good quality. If you are buying online, make sure they have a good return policy (so important for sizing purposes anyway), so that if you’re not impressed with the quality when it arrives at your door, you can send it back.

Overall, love your clothes. Only buy pieces you really love and that are made of a durable quality so that you can love them for a long time. And then if that love eventually fades, find your garment a new home. Whether through a consignment shop, clothes swap, fashion market or Op Shop, the most important thing is to keep it out of the landfill.

Above: Lisa Heinze as part of the Fashion Revolution Day campaign. Fashion Revolution Week is 24-30 April this year.

This would also apply to the materials I use in my sewing projects. What should I look for, or avoid, when buying fabrics?

Whenever possible, choose 100% sustainable natural fabrics including organic cotton, linen, silk and hemp (good news, there are some delightful hemp-silk blends available today that create a delightfully soft fabric!). In addition, seek options that use vegetable or soy-based dyes instead of synthetic chemical dyes. Another wonderful fabric that enables excellent draping is Tencel/Lyocell. Created from wood, bark and pulp products, it feels similar to a rayon or viscose but process in which its made is guaranteed to not emit chemical waste.

If working with wool, consider alpaca as an alternative, or try for Woolmark certified options.

If you do need to choose a synthetic fabric (sometimes that’s all you can get your hands on!) aim for a fabric that is 100% polyester (or nylon, etc) and not a blend. This has more to do with the end of the garment’s useful life. Blended fabrics cannot be recycled in the same way that single fibre fabrics can. So even if you find a fabric that is 90% organic cotton and 10% lycra/spandex, it won’t be able to be recycled at the end of its useful life.

And of course keep your eye out for deals on excess, remnant or deadstock fabrics – the fabric that factories over-order when producing clothing for the major labels. Anything you can do to keep it out of landfill is fabulous! You can commonly find excess fabric at Reverse Garbage, as well as on eBay and some daily deal email lists.

Can you tell us about your blog Sustainability with Style and why you started it?

When I was first inspired to shrink my eco-footprint I didn’t feel like I ‘fit in’ with other environmentalists and I didn’t think the movement was talking to people like me. I love nature and am deeply concerned about climate change, but I also love fashion, makeup, getting dressed up, and other activities that often get written off as ‘frivolous’ (but which I feel give life extra colour!). So I started the blog, and published a book with the same title, for other people like me. Those who care about the environment and want to make sustainable lifestyle changes, but who want to look and feel like themselves while doing this planet-saving work.

Initially the blog included a wide variety of sustainable lifestyle tips – food, home, travel, fashion and beauty – but today the blog has a stronger focus on sustainable fashion because of my work as an activist and educator in that area (though you’ll still find the occasional DIY sugar scrub or muesli recipe). I share stories of incredible labels that are innovating in fabrics or production, discuss campaigns that target big fashion brands, report environmental issues of the industry, and share images of gorgeous fashion that may surprise people who have bad memories of the hessian-sack eco-clothing era. Sustainable fashion has come a long way in recent years!

As a quick aside, I know the word ‘sustainability’ can be confusing and have different meanings, but when I talk about it in terms of fashion I mean the environmental impact of making, buying and wearing clothing, as well as social issues like garment worker safety and living wage standards. Just a few quick stats:

·       Fashion is reported to be the world’s 2nd most polluting industry, behind oil, primarily due to the chemicals used in cotton cultivation and poor treatment of wastewater coming out of textile factories[i].

·       We are buying and disposing of more pieces of clothing than at any other time in history – we buy nearly 70 pieces of new clothing each year[ii], and discard 30 kgs of textiles per person each year[iii].

·       Many of the fast fashion items created today are designed to be disposable – poor quality fabrics and finishes mean that each garment has an expected lifespan of 10 wears or less[iv].

·       The Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh in April 2013, which killed over 1100 people and injured more than 2500, was a harsh wake up call to many shoppers and those in the industry to just how dangerous clothing production can be.

I hope to shed light on these issues in the blog, and also to show that it is possible to continue to love fashion and the self-expression it affords through a thoughtful, beautifully curated wardrobe. And a lot of the time this means embracing pre-loved clothing – there’s very little environmental footprint when you’re buying something secondhand – the photos I’m sharing with you feature some of my favourite pre-loved goodies.

What are your views on recycling, up-cycling and the modern vintage movement?

I have nothing but love for all of it. There is enormous creative potential when it comes to recycling and wearing pre-owned clothing, not to mention upcycling used clothing into a new piece, with the added benefit of being kind to the planet because we’re not using new resources. If I’m honest, before I became an environmentalist I tended to avoid vintage and secondhand clothing stores because I didn’t think it was my personal style (gasp!).  Now, many years later, I’ve learned that buying secondhand allows me to explore my own personal style and not just buy what the fashion magazines suggest. Today I adore secondhand shopping, and particularly love vintage dresses because I find they suit my body type better than many current labels (I’ve got a few curves happening). Though it’s not just vintage stores where I buy recycled clothing – I’m a huge fan of op shops and clothing swaps, too.

I find the modern vintage movement incredibly inspiring as it seems to embrace sustainable living quite naturally and with a beautiful aesthetic. It is a delightful expression of how people can step outside what contemporary media or fashion suggests is ‘in’, reduce our impact through pre-loved fashion and other items, and still have a lot fun with self-expression. I also love the body-positivity aspect of the movement and the idea of truly accepting that we all come in all different shapes, sizes, colours, etc.

And honestly, it all just looks like a lot of fun, too!

Thanks for those amazing tips, Lisa. 


[i] Morgan, A. (2015). The True Cost.
[iii] Council of Textiles and Fashion Industries of Australia
[iv] Fletcher, K. (2014). Sustainable Fashion and Textiles: Design Journeys. London and New York, Earthscan from Routledge.



  1. Abrinth

    I was a cloth comfort child, (and still am a textile junkie), and when I was small my mother dressed me in heavenly soft fur coats and hats. When I found out they were bits of dead animals I was completely traumatised, and I’ve had a horror of vintage, or even clothing from the time of my childhood, ever since.

    After committing to a cruelty free lifestyle I donated all our clothing or furnishings that were cashmere, alpaca, mohair, angora (horribly cruel), non-vegan silk, wool, feathers, duck and goose down, leather… Wow, the list goes on, and until I started thinking critically about everything we own I was unaware we had so many end products of exploitation around us in our home. And I certainly didn’t know how hard it would be to stay true to the cruelty free pledge, when so many products can be traced to something which negatively impacts the environment or inhabitants – including us! (Very depressing).

    However, deciding to eliminate products derived from animals has made me appreciate some wonderful natural fibres and textiles from plants. Like hemp and tencel mentioned in your article, plus bamboo, cupro, modal and banana silk. Even natural rubber comes from trees, and if you can manage to source the right rubber, you can be supporting people who are fighting deforestation. Viscose, acetate and rayon, often found in vintage clothes are also cellulose based.

    And I’m still a terribly tactile textile stroker, except now it’s bamboo velour and rayon velvet.

    Some slow fashion info that might be interesting for you:

  2. Jeannie

    Really enjoyed this post! I visited London’s Imperial War Museum a few years back and the experience provided a great understanding of life in WWII and the importance of “Make Due and Mend”. Since then, I’ve been judicious about the clothes I buy – mending and tailoring so things look great and last a long time. It has taken some work and discipline, but I’m getting away from the buy-and-purge mentality of today’s fashion industry. I look forward to more posts here on the topic of fashion sustainability.