What’s the ideal amount of clothing in a sustainable wardrobe?

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This week:

  • A sustainable wardrobe contains this much clothing, report says
  • Speedy construction with mass timber
  • Why there’s been a drought of hydropower in Alberta

Why this group thinks you can — and should — only have 85 items of clothing

(Paula Duhatschek/CBC)

How many pieces of clothing do you think you have in your wardrobe? In today’s world of fast fashion, easy online shopping and ever-changing trends, chances are it’s way too many.

Now, a new report from a Berlin sustainability think-tank, the Hot or Cool Institute, lays out how many items of clothing the average person in a four-season G20 country such as ours really needs: 85 (keep in mind that includes coats and shoes, but not underwear and accessories). 

Going by the institute’s math, that works out to about 23 outfits total, which they say can include one to four pieces of clothing.

The report notes we need to drastically reduce our clothing consumption if we’re going to meet the 1.5 C target of the Paris Agreement.

“Current trends in fashion consumption, in particular fast fashion, cannot be maintained if we aim to achieve a fair and just transition to climate neutrality,” the authors say.

That number 85 falls within what the institute calls a “fair consumption space,” defined as “a space where consumption levels stay below environmentally unsustainable levels yet above sufficiency levels that allow individuals to fulfil their basic needs.” 

It assumes the average person needs workwear, home wear, sports and activewear, festive occasion outfits and outdoor clothing, and all 85 items are actually in use. It also requires a reduced carbon footprint — such as avoiding excessive laundry and impulse shopping, extending the life of your garments through mending and buying second-hand or swapping.

When you consider that the average person in North America purchases 37 kilograms of clothing per year, according to Katherine White, a professor of marketing and behavioural science at the University of British Columbia, it’s safe to say many of our wardrobes far exceed the recommendations.

“The average North American buys way too much clothing,” White told CBC News.

“Part of this is driven by the fact that we are constantly bombarded with advertising messages to buy more stuff. The system is set up to remind, reinforce and reward us for making repeated consumption choices with short-term hedonic payoffs.”

Advocates have been saying this needs to change for years. A recent study found that Ontarians generate 500 million kilograms of textile waste a year — and that 86 per cent of those materials have reuse or recycling potential.

The textile and clothing industry is also responsible for two to eight per cent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, according to the United Nations Alliance for Sustainable Fashion,  and textiles account for about nine per cent of annual microplastic losses to the oceans. 

So, with that in mind, how can you cut down on your own clothing consumption?

First, think of it in terms of pieces, not outfits, said Erin Polowy, the founder and editor of Canadian clothing sustainability website My Green Closet. With careful planning, you can have a diverse and fashionable wardrobe with very few pieces in it, she said — even fewer than the 85 suggested in the report.

“I can make 40 or 50 outfits from my roughly 33-item wardrobe that I do every season,” she told CBC News.

“There’s a lot of creativity that comes with constraint.”

In a recent YouTube video, for instance, Polowy shows viewers her winter capsule wardrobe — a curated collection of a limited amount of clothing that she mixes and matches — which contains just 28 items to get her through an Edmonton winter.

Pay careful attention to what you actually wear day-to-day, Polowy suggests, and build a wardrobe around a few quality, staple pieces that you love. When you are looking to add new pieces, shop second-hand, try to avoid impulse purchases and choose more sustainable clothing brands.

Natalie Stechyson

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The Big Picture: Speedy construction with mass timber

We’ve written before about the trend of building multi-storey buildings with mass timber. The wood stores carbon in the building and reduces the need for carbon-intensive steel and concrete. But another benefit touted by proponents is how fast you can build with mass timber – something many of them have demonstrated with time-lapse videos like this one. This shows part of the construction of YW Kitchener-Waterloo’s 41-unit supportive housing building for women. It was fully assembled in just 20 days, and residents were able move in last spring. You can learn more about the building and its construction in this video from Element5, the Ontario-based company that produced the prefabricated mass timber.

Emily Chung

An animated GIF shows a four-storey mass timber building being constructed.
(Element5 Limited Partnership/CBC)

Hot and bothered: Provocative ideas from around the web

Hydro used to generate half of Alberta’s power. Why is there so little now?

A dam in Kananaskis Alta. runs with the Rocky Mountains in the background.
The Kananaskis Hydro Facility was TransAlta’s second power plant built in 1913. (TransAlta)

More than half of Canada’s electricity is generated from hydro sources, with 632.2 terawatt hours produced as of 2019. That makes it the fourth-largest installed capacity of hydro power in the world. 

But in Alberta, it’s a different story.

Currently, hydro power contributes between three and five per cent of Alberta’s generation capacity, while fossil fuels make up about 89 per cent.

So why is it that a province so rich in mountains and rivers has so little hydro power?

Hydro power didn’t always make up such a small sliver of Alberta’s electricity generation. Hydro installations began in the early 20th century as the province’s population exploded. 

Grant Berg looks after engineering for hydro for TransAlta, Alberta’s largest producer of hydro power, with 17 facilities across the province.

“Our first plant was Horseshoe, which started in 1911 that we formed as Calgary Power,” he said. 

“It was really in response to the city of Calgary growing and having some power needs.”

By the 1950s, around half of the province’s installed capacity was hydro power.

“Definitely Calgary power was all hydro until the 1950s,” said Berg. 

Despite the current low numbers in hydroelectricity, Alberta does have potential. 

According to a 2010 study, there are approximately 42,000 gigawatt hours per year of remaining developable hydroelectric energy potential at identified sites. 

An average home in Alberta uses around 7,200 kilowatt hours of electricity per year, meaning that the hydro potential could power 5.8 million homes annually. 

“This volume of energy could be sufficient to serve a significant amount of Alberta’s load and therefore play a meaningful role in the decarbonization of the province’s electric system,” the Alberta Electric System Operator said in its 2022 Pathways to Net-Zero Emissions report.

Much of that potential lies in northern Alberta, in the Athabasca, Peace and Slave river basins.

The AESO report says that despite the large resource potential, Alberta’s energy-only market framework has attracted limited investment in hydroelectric generation. 

So why does Alberta leave out such a large resource potential on the path to net zero?

The government of Alberta responded to that question in a statement. 

“Hydro facilities, particularly large scale ones involving dams, are associated with high costs and logistical demands,” said the Ministry of Affordability and Utilities. 

“Downstream water rights for other uses, such as irrigation, further complicate the development of hydro projects.”

The ministry went on to say that wind and solar projects have increased far more rapidly because they can be developed at relatively lower cost and shorter timelines, and with fewer logistical demands.

Braden said hydro power still has a part to play in Alberta, even with its smaller contributions to the future grid. 

“It’s one of those things that, you know, the wind doesn’t blow or the sun doesn’t shine, this is here. The way we manage it, we can really support that supply and demand,” he said.

Christy Climenhaga

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