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As disposable clothing clogs our waste systems and muddies our decision-making, a new app teaches us to love
what’s already in our closets.

In a game divided into seller and buyers, Blake Smith wanted to play a different position. “I got excited about the rebel nature of being in an industry known for consumerism, and telling people not to buy things,” the Cladwell CEO tells me from his Cincinnati office. “I want to help people be content with what they have, versus what the [fashion] industry does, which is a withholding of approval — ‘you’re not ok until you buy this’.”

Once, a new dress was a careful investment. Now it’s cheap entertainment or a mood-booster known as retail therapy.

As I log on to Cladwell’s interface, known as Outfits, I can almost see my grandmother’s eyes rolling. “You need an app to help you get dressed in the morning?” Not that the word “app” would have rolled off her tongue. These ubiquitous bits of downloadable software, which streamline our lives (or distract us endlessly) were only a sci-fi fantasy when my grandmother was buttoning her blouses, blazers, and pencil skirts for her civil service job in the 1940s.

But Grandma, look at us now. Back then, a new dress was a careful investment. Now, it’s cheap entertainment, or a mood-booster known as retail therapy. In most malls, I can buy that dress for the same price as a sandwich. Grandma’s neighborhood tailor is now only a character of legend, and a home sewing machine a quaint relic. Why would we learn to sew when we could suffocate under the weight of our own wardrobes?

I can’t argue when Cladwell points out that the average American woman now owns 150 items of clothing, compared with just 36 in 1930. Guilty as charged. The thought of paring down to 36 items made me almost giddy with anxiety — and relief. To easily see everything I have without rummaging! Never to struggle to find drawer space for clean laundry! To end the constant clutter of my family’s clothing littered about the house! OK, I’m listening, Cladwell.

We Can’t Afford All These Cheap Clothes

The numbers are damning. The cotton for a single pair of jeans requires 1800 gallons of water to grow. That’s my drinking water for nine years. We’re destroying life-sustaining aquifers in the name of clearance-rack impulse buys: Central Asia’s Aral Sea is now a desert, because its feeding rivers are diverted to vast, heavily sprayed cotton farms. Pollution-related health problems in that region are spiking, and mothers are warned that pesticide contamination makes their breast milk toxic to their babies.

It’s painful to face, but worse to look away. North American consumers are playing into the hands of fashion’s profit machine, driving the devastation happening in overseas production regions where regulations are lax. According to the World Resources Institute, each of us buys around 60% more clothing each year than we did in 2000. Careless in our excess, we discard each garment in half the time. The average US citizen throws away 70 pounds of clothing and other textiles annually. Cheaply made clothes are built to fall apart after a brief season, and often have no second life as a hand-me-down or charitable donation. The sheer volume of unwanted used clothing makes repairs pointless, so into the landfill it goes.

The average US citizen throws away 70 pounds of clothing annually. Cheaply made clothes are built to fall apart after a brief season, and often have no second life as a hand-me-down or charitable donation.

Online shopping makes it easier than ever to succumb to those impulses to acquire more, more, more. It’s hard to stop and think “do I really need this?” when the sale price is less than a Frappuccino. Puzzling over all of our unworn and often useless clothing purchases, noted consumer researcher Kit Yarrow found that impulse shopping is often driven by a fantasy of an idealized self: the person we wish we were. Smart marketers know this. They fan the flames of our insecurities and daydreams with relentless ads that follow us into the privacy of our own homes. This is where Cladwell steps in.

The app works quickly and easily. Tell Cladwell about your closet and receive personalized outfit ideas suited to your weather, style, and occasion. Log what you wear over time, and Cladwell will use this information to help you understand what you love and what you can think about passing on. If you get the urge to go shopping, ask Cladwell for new outfit recommendations and see what you can create with what you already have.

CEO Blake Smith describes how Cladwell was born out of frustration with “the perpetual treadmill of fashion.” He offers a ray of hope, both for our shopping addictions and our abused planet. An optimist by nature, he tells me, “I don’t think it’s a losing battle. I think it’s a polarization. There are two viable strategies in the industry: one going after fast fashion, one going for quality basics that you’re going to love. I think our customers grow up out of fast fashion — they get tired of it.”

Being Green is a Fringe Benefit

“Our typical user is not coming to us because of the eco-friendly nature of what we do,” admits Smith. “We take one decision out of a busy day, making life easier.” Cladwell’s app fills a niche by combining two key features: effortless outfit creation and ethical purchasing. Previous apps, such as Closet, for putting together your look, and Good on You, for buying sustainably, focused on one or the other.

Whereas other closet organizing apps make their money from affiliate kickbacks when you buy more stuff on their recommendation, Cladwell takes the high road. Abstaining from making money off the consumer treadmill is essential to their mission: “Everybody else tries to monetize with ads, affiliates, drop shipping, or wholesale,” says Smith. “Because of that, there are certain problems they cannot solve, most importantly, the problem of ‘I have way too much clothing and nothing to wear.’ They can’t solve that because you can’t shop your way out of that problem.”

Though Cladwell’s app is all about looking and feeling well-styled, the philosophy is trend-agnostic. A good shirt should be timeless.

Who stands to benefit most from Cladwell’s app? Shopaholics and clothing-hoarders like myself who are fed up with the drain of time and money, the disorder of our closets, and having “nothing to wear.” If you approach dressing yourself each morning as a joyful art form, friends ask you for style advice, and all your pants are hanging in color-sorted rows next to your shoe organizer, you probably don’t need this app. But if you’re spending half an hour digging through your crumpled sweater drawer, trying one after another, and you still feel frumpy when you walk out the door… well, have we got an app for you!

Though Cladwell’s app is all about looking and feeling well-styled, the philosophy is trend-agnostic. A good shirt should be timeless, says the minimalist capsule wardrobe doctrine, in more than one way: it must look as right for the moment in ten years as it does today, and last that long, too.

Blake Smith describes himself as clueless about fashion and averse to the work of keeping up — he just wanted someone to tell him what to wear, and his more fashion-savvy friend was happy to oblige. Cladwell’s Outfits app is that fashion-savvy friend, tasteful and tactful, who is already patiently waiting in your closet (but not in a creepy way).

Young, Hip, and Carbon-Neutral?

“I don’t have time in my life to waste shopping and trying on clothes that don’t fit me right or that I don’t love,” says a loyal Cladwell user. “That’s all time I can spend earning more at my career or [with] family and friends. Cladwell helps me be intentional about my wardrobe and style.”

Intentional, time-saving, minimalist. These buzzwords strike a deep chord among everyone’s favorite (and elusive) target market: the millennials. Coming of age among a historically unprecedented glut of cheaply made consumer junk, the younger generation are increasingly opting out. Retailers are nervous, but some environmentalists see a glimmer of hope. Have we finally hit Peak Stuff?

Though Smith acknowledges that most customers come to Cladwell seeking simply to save time and “take one decision out of a busy day,” eco-consciousness is always under the surface for his generation: “We grew up watching Captain Planet.”

Even though they may be strapped for cash, more than 75% of millennials are willing to pay more for a sustainable purchase, according to a 2015 Nielsen study. Only half of baby boomers share the same commitment. This makes environmentalism a smart marketing choice, and Cladwell hits the right notes: “Consuming things will consume us,” intones the company’s Mission page. “Being sustainable and responsible is not about getting more, it’s about getting smarter about what we have. Cladwell believes that cheap clothes hurts our wallets, the environment, and the workers who make them.”

The Capsule Wardrobe Comes of Age

Disillusioned, introspective, and tired of being in debt, millennials are ready to spend their money on technology and other “quality of life” markets such as high-quality food and wine, as well as experiences (skiing, paragliding, ecotourism). An app doesn’t take up any space in a minimalist apartment, and integrates seamlessly into the routine of someone already in an intimate relationship with their iPhone. In an age when “conscious consumerism” is no longer enough, is useful software the ultimate eco-product?

In 2014, Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up hit the shelves, sparking widespread vows of simplicity as well as countless spoofs and jokes, and making KonMari a household term. The capsule wardrobe has emerged as a symbol of the new cool: to have as little as possible, but still look effortlessly great. I couldn’t help thinking of Kondo’s work while viewing the strikingly clean, neutral-tones of Cladwell’s app, and sure enough, their blog wasn’t shy about sharing Kondo’s endorsement and affiliation with Cladwell. Read the book first and declutter to wipe the slate clean, suggests Kondo, then subscribe to Outfits to look great and keep your wardrobe on track. But you don’t have to strip down to bare white walls and a neutral-toned 10-piece wardrobe: “We got a lot of traction with the minimalist community, but we’re actually “reasonable-ist”, that’s the term we’ve coined,” says Smith.

The New Retail Therapy

Looking deeper than the eye-catching frenzy of cheap throwaway clothing, there is a quiet new movement emerging. Online clothing stores such as Everlane put ethical production in the foreground. They call their approach “Radical Transparency,” showing photographs of all their factories worldwide (we see videos of happy-looking workers seated at sewing machines listening to iPods), and sharing the “true cost” of each item, broken down into materials, labor, transport, and import duties. The consumer sees the exact markup for each item. It does feel radical. As industrial horror stories have emerged from the clothing industry — catastrophic factory collapses, child labor, exploitive wages, ruthless dumping of toxic dyes — we’re ready for a company who does more than hit the right talking points. In the age of information, seeing is believing. The “reasonable-ists” are paying attention, and voting with their wallets.

I’m no fashionista, and I thought I might be out of my depth talking about style with a man who tells people what to wear for a living (through a robot, that is). Instead I found myself nodding in affirmation as I listened to Smith wax lyrical about opting off of the trend treadmill. Wear the same outfit to every wedding if you want! Forget about which tone of denim is “in” this season. Don’t take yourself too seriously.

“You are OK and capable of beauty,” Smith says, “…the clothes you already have are likely great, and we’ll help you make the most of what you have.” Come to think of it, my grandmother might have loved this nice young man and his app. What’s more grandmotherly than the thrift of having a few nice things and taking good care of them, so they will last for years?

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