Tuesday, October 25, 2016

How Much is 30 Wears? Livia Firth's Rule of Thumb in Perspective

Laundry day is a good time to assess your weekly wears.

Livia Firth, sustainability consultant, producer of the fast-fashion documentary The True Cost, and wife of actor Colin Firth, made a splash recently--well, at least in my corner of the blogosphere--with her statement that people should only buy clothes they'll wear at least 30 times. Because of the ecological and human cost of producing clothing, she argues, it's wasteful to buy things that we won't get much use out of, or that won't last long, even if they're affordable in terms of dollars and cents. If you ask yourself if you'll get 30 wears out of an item before you buy it, "you'd be surprised how often you say no."

I like hard-numbers rules of thumb like this, but I found this one a little hard to wrap my head around. I'm a huge Excel nerd, but even I don't count how often I wear things. I know if I've only worn an item, say, three or four times, but beyond that, an item is just "something I wear a lot" or "something I don't wear much." Take something like, say, my wool suiting skirt. I like it, and I've worn it a number of times, but I couldn't tell you if that number is closer to ten or twenty or thirty.

So here are some other ways to break down that 30 wears number.

  • An item you wear every day needs to last longer than 1 month. There aren't many items I do wear daily, beyond my glasses. (Which are starting to fall apart after 3 years, or over 1,000 wears.) Maybe some of my shoes on a seasonal basis--my summer sandals, for example, I wear daily from May to September. Worn hard like this, a pair of Tevas will last me about 2 summers, so ~300 wears. It is very, very easy to get to 30+ wears when you wear something this often! 


  • An item you wear twice a week needs to last longer than 3-4 months (or approximately one season). My work pants typically fall into this category (although they may be falling more into the weekly category now that I have four pairs). It's nice to know I probably made it to 30 wears with my charcoal wool pants before I shrunk them in the wash. (I still mourn.)

    My running gear also falls into this category now that I'm running twice a week more or less regularly (at least, I have been for the last month). On the other hand, I'm only running for about 20-30 minutes at a time. How long do you have to wear it for it to count as a "wear"? I'd think that a shirt I only wear for an hour a week should last longer than one I wear 20 hours a week, even though both of those might be "twice a week." 


  • An item you wear every week needs to last longer than 7 months. If it's something you wear seasonally, e.g. "every week in the winter," than 2 seasons is probably a good approximation. There are many items I wear regularly each week (seasonally), specifically my "work uniforms." Each of my near-identical navy-blue dresses is worn weekly, like clockwork, in the summer. I've gotten between 1 and 2 seasons out of each dress and they're still going strong. I'd say I easily have 30 wears on these (or am on track, for the newer ones). 


  • An item you wear every other week needs to last over 1 year (more than 14 months), or 3-4 seasons if it's seasonal. I'd say the vast majority of my wardrobe falls into this category: things I feel I wear frequently, but maybe not every single week. I'm thinking of my fall/winter work sweaters here. I have 10, so there's no way I can wear them each weekly! I'm starting in on my second season with most of these, and some are already getting worn, but then, I did get them used, so they probably already enjoyed at least a season or two of life before I got them.


  • An item you wear once a month needs to last over 2 years or about 7 seasons. This is wear things start to look bleak. I probably have a ton of wardrobe items that, realistically, I only wear once a month. Bear in mind that an every-other-week item is only going to get worn 2-3 times per month. I don't think of many items in my wardrobe as being monthly until I realize it's an item that I might see in the laundry every third or fourth wash. Yeah, that happens. Anything that I pick up and think "huh, haven't worn this in a while." A number of my casual T-shirts, realistically (there are only so many Saturdays and Sundays per month). This is where I start to feel bad because 2 years is a long time and most of my T-shirts are newer (to me) than that. But here, again, is where buying most of my clothes used is a saving grace! 


  • An item you wear twice a year (e.g. a "special occasion" dress or suit, a seasonal holiday outfit) needs to last 15 years. Ha! I do have items like this but certainly they have not, and could not possibly, last 15 years (I mean, at the very least, I assume I'll change dress sizes in that time). I guess this is a reminder that it's probably a good idea to find ways to incorporate your "special occasion" outfits into your everyday life somehow (getting versatile items that you can "dress down" for work or other activities, and/or consolidating with "one good suit" for all necessary special occasions). That, or share special occasion wear with multiple people, by renting (e.g. Rent the Runway) or trading back and forth with friends/neighbors. 

Basically, the number of days between wears (e.g. 14 days between wears for a biweekly item) translates into a number of months that that item needs to remain in your wardrobe in order to get you to 30 wears. (No fair just letting it hang in your closet, either--it needs to remain active at the same level that whole time.)

The more frequently you wear something, the easier it is to get to 30 wears. My typical pattern has been to re-donate or replace most items every other year, which means I'm only getting my 30 wears out of items that I wear every single week (for seasonal items) or at least once a month (for items that can be worn year-round). There are, of course, exceptions in both directions: all-stars that I wear constantly all the time and definitely got more than 30 wears. And, on the other side, experiments that turned out to be "not for me;" special-occasion dresses I wore only for a handful of occasions before changing sizes or deciding I just "needed something new;" and Livia Firth's bane, Fast Fashion Items That Fell Apart.

I do feel that buying many items secondhand helps with a number of these issues. I don't feel so bad "experimenting" with clothes that have already had one life; at worst, I wear them a couple of times and return them to the thrift shop from whence they came in much the same condition. Between me, the person who had it before, and the person who has it after, we can probably get to 30 wears.

Secondhand shopping is also a great way to vaccinate against "fast fashion" fall-apart mishaps because clothes that fall apart after a couple of wears don't even make it to the thrift shop. I'm wary buying new, now, especially new discount clothing, because it so often looks great for work at first, but then it will stretch out or start pilling and immediately be unprofessional-looking. When you buy things at Goodwill, they may not be in top condition, but they'll probably plateau in the condition they are in for a while. And it's more honest than seeing them at their best if their best only lasts a couple of wears.

For special occasion items, Halloween costumes, or other things you're planning to wear once, renting and borrowing are great options. Practical Cranberry Nut Roll had a great experience with Rent the Runway, for example, and men have been renting tuxes for years. It's always struck me as odd that renting tuxes is normal but renting ballgowns is rare, but hopefully companies like Rent the Runway are changing that!

What I like about the 30-days rule is that is provides a metric of success for item of clothing. If something fails to meet that 30-wears mark (or an approximation), the, yeah, we have to wonder "what went wrong?" and how we can avoid making the same wardrobe mistake in the future. But nothing lasts forever, as Nut and I lamented recently, not even a really great pair of shoes. If we've gotten our 30 wears (or 300!) out of the item, we can count it as a positive and productive citizen of our wardrobe, for however long it worked.

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