MainstreamGreen.com founder Nicola Turner has four, maybe six, pairs of shoes. I have 44.
The “living lighter” advocate, whose Cambridge-based business helps companies and individuals to slow their consumption, has heels, some versatile flats, a pair of boots, trainers somewhere, and that’s it. That’s all she needs.
In fact, a comparison of our wardrobes is a study in stark contrasts: Turner’s, streamlined, co-ordinated for maximum versatility, supremely wearable. Mine, a bulging, multicoloured nightmare that cost a small fortune, seldom gets worn, and may or may not fit.
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“My wardrobe hasn’t always looked this way,” Turner says.
“I used to have a lot more. But on my journey to living lightly, I figured out that having less made life a whole lot simpler. It frees up time. You’re free of that decision fatigue. If you’ve got heaps of stuff in your wardrobe, it takes mental energy to decide on what to wear.”
That’s a claim backed up by the fact that the busy 43-year-old mum, wife and businesswoman, who lives in Cambridge with husband Mike and children Asha, 7, and Mak, 4, found the mental energy to write Living Lightly: The Busy Person’s Guide to Mindful Consumption in her spare time.
“My kids wear predominantly hand-me-downs, with a bit of second-hand, and my husband doesn’t have much but wears it a lot.”
In 2018, The Wall Street Journal estimated we regularly only wear 20-30 per cent of the clothes in our wardrobes.
Creatures of habit, we reach for the same items, the favourites that we feel excellent in – our fashion essentials.
About a decade ago, Turner started applying that lens to her own clothes, and eventually whittled her wardrobe down to the chic yet practical collection she has now, where everything gets worn, works and suits her style, and nothing goes to waste.
“The other stuff in our wardrobes just becomes noise. It’s just more stuff to look after and sift through when we’re trying to get to our favourites.
“I just had a really honest conversation with myself about what stuff I really love, what stuff I always reach for, and [what] makes me feel good. How do I just really hone in on that?”
She disposed of the 70-odd per cent of clothes that she didn’t either love or wear all the time mindfully, with next to nothing going to the tip.
It wasn’t easy to let some of those clothes go. But each time she went through the process of trying something on, analysing how it made her feel, and being honest about how much wear it would get, it got easier to let them go.
“Each time I [went through] that process, I felt more and more confident in what it is that I really love. So I could go deeper and have less again.”
If the idea of having fewer clothes than you think you need is making your palms sweat with nervousness, you might need a fashion detox, and some new fashion role models.
From Albert Einstein to Steve Jobs, men have been paring their wardrobes back to next to nothing for decades. In fact, it might even be part of what makes some of them so professionally successful.
It’s a trick picked up by United States art director Matilda Kahl, who came out in 2015 as having a “work uniform” – a white silk shirt and plain pair of black pants – that she wore every day to remove the stress of having to decide what to wear.
When British mum Sarah Robbins-Cole wanted to make a statement about fast-fashion in 2020, she put a long-sleeved merino wool dress on and wore it every day for 100 days.
Turner regularly assesses what’s in her wardrobe as when we empty our wardrobes they can start slowly filling them with new fast-fashion. She will do a cull, wear what’s left, then find herself looking at something in her closet and realise she hasn’t worn it for ages and, more importantly, that she doesn’t really love it.
It pays to acknowledge that we have an emotional attachment to things, too, and to work through that.
“I had a denim jacket that I’d had since the 1990s. I just found it really hard to part with. I never wore it because the cut didn’t suit me any more, but I just felt really connected to it. It had heaps of cool memories.
“As soon as I could articulate that, I could go, ‘OK, I get it. I feel stoked that we had all those memories, but now…’. I could rationalise it and pass it on.”
Now, she treats doing more with fewer clothes as a creative challenge.
In a recent post to Instagram, where she shares tips and aspects of her journey to live more sustainably, Turner showed how easy it is to wear less without sacrificing looking well put-together. For one week, she wore the same black top and jeans every day, changing it up with different accessories, jackets and shoes.
No-one in her office noticed she was wearing the same jeans and top each day.
Having less made her more creative with how she put outfits together. Without so many choices, she was forced to see other possibilities.
“I think a big part of that is knowing your style, and really leaning into that. I find that extremely empowering. It allows me to shut out the noise and the pressure, and the temptation of trends and new fashions, because I feel grounded in what I know are the styles and the colours that I feel good in and that I hope suit me.”
Having that self-assurance is like having a guiding “north star” when she does look for things to add to her wardrobe or to replace worn items with. Everything has to work together.
Living lighter, not just in her fashion choices, but in all aspects of her life – she freezes leftover vegetables for use in soups and curries, and blogs about the beauty of visible mending on your clothes – also saves money.
“I think there’s a version of sustainability that means you will spend money. If you’re going out and buying all the latest sustainable products, that can cost you.
“But when you really boil it down, sustainability is all about keeping things going and using things and not wasting anything. That’s not the glamorous side of sustainability, it’s just the practical side. The average age of items in my wardrobe is eight years old. Being sustainable means buying less and using it more and, absolutely, that will save you money.”
Not everyone will be happy severely curating their clothing the way Turner does, and she acknowledges that there are a lot of ways to dress consciously. Plus-size people and those with different fashion sense may not find it as simple to shop second-hand for everything they need, and that’s OK, too.
Social media has opened second-hand clothes options up for all kinds of people. There are more private pages that trade in specific brands or specific sizes. Buying online empowers everyone to shop second-hand, even if they’re not near an opportunity shop.
Clothes swaps, which can cater to specific brands, sizes, genders, or ages, have also increased in popularity.
“It’s all about finding your own approach. For me, second-hand works, it’s my priority. But, actually, the most powerful thing we can do is own less and wear it more.”
At a recent seminar Turner held online, a woman confessed to feeling guilty because she had needed a plain black jersey and couldn’t find one second-hand, so had resorted to a “big fast-fashion store”.
“I said, ‘do you love it?’. She said, ‘yep’. ‘Do you wear it all the time?’. She said, ‘yep’, and I said, ‘well that’s the most important thing’.
“The most powerful thing we can do is slow our consumption, and break up with that constant quest for more, because when we’re buying more, we’re disposing of more – that’s ultimately what it boils down to.”