by Natasha Liesner
Four years ago, I was drowning in clothing. Quite literally. I was working as a Buyer for a major South African retailer and fully submerged in clothing design, conceptualisation and production. My 1.5m long desk was draped in bits of fabric, buttons, print strike offs and zippers and you had to push through at least three rails of clothing to be able to locate my computer screen.
This clothing chaos extended into my personal life where I spent most of my salary buying clothes from fast-fashion brands, most of which I bought and wore a handful of times. The reason for this was not because I was ashamed to wear the same outfit over again, but more because I was so obsessed with whatever “trend” was being called out our trend predictors that I bought into them mindlessly and fiercely. As it turns out, these trends were often impractical (fluted sleeves on EVERYTHING), didn’t actually emerge as mainstream trends (denim button-through midi skirt anyone?) or simply didn’t fit me properly. Believing that items of clothing were “boring”, “dated”, “old-news” a mere six months after they were delivered to stores took its toll on the way I consumed fashion in a personal capacity. Let’s just say I have seen first-hand the throwaway approach some clothing retailers have towards fashion and its worse than you think.
My experience is just one example of how fast fashion retailers have made us believe in the power of a “trend”. Essentially, they make us believe we need an item today to be cool – but tomorrow, it’s another and the one we bought yesterday it was will make us look dated. If you are reading this, you know that this is not the case. The future of the fashion industry we love so dearly is in the practice of wearing and loving our clothing for years to come. It’s as simple as that. The rate of production needs to slow down dramatically and the only way to do that is to decrease demand. It’s true what they say, “the most sustainable outfit is the one already in your closet.”
Whenever we talk about changing our habits around consuming fashion, it is important to address privilege – as with everything, being of a certain socio-economic class or body type makes changing our behaviours easier or more challenging. Clothing brands that produce sustainably and ethically are often more expensive and don’t offer clothing in sizes 14 or up (there are many that do, see some great ones below). Similarly, most of the clothes found in trendy secondhand stores or at clothing swaps are in the smaller size range making buying secondhand bargains inaccessible to many. The lessons below do try to address these issues, but if you have any further insight please do leave in the comment section below.
So how did I go from weekly fast fashion hauls to buying only one item of clothing from Zara in 2019 (ironically, this was THE Zara polka dot dress that broke the internet last year. I guess if even I caved into buying it, it must have been a winner, right?).
Here is how I broke up with fast fashion
*spoiler alert, it wasn't easy
- Just don’t even go there – Unfollow & unsubscribe
I drew up a mental list of retailers I simply didn’t want to support any more. It doesn’t need to be long, start with a management two or three. I suggest doing some research into the brands you most often buy from and learn about their practices – and by practices I don’t mean, “oh, they have a “green range”, that must mean they care about the environment”. Take a look at how quickly, cheaply and in what volume they produce their clothing. Nothing good comes out of fast, cheap fashion that’s produced by the 10 000’s. As they say- someone, somewhere is paying. There were two on my list that are available here in SA, and a few overseas. My goal was to buy as little as possible, if anything from these retailers so I unfollowed them all on social media, unsubscribed from their mailing lists and did not go into their stores. In fact, I reduced my time in shopping malls overall. If I need something I try to head directly to the stand alone store and if I have to go into a mall it’s an “in and out” kind of mission. This drastically reduced the amount I consumed right off the bat because I have little self-control when a pretty thing is right in front of me (I hope I’m not the only one).
- But you don’t need to go completely cold turkey – Livia Firth’s 30-wear rule.
This “don’t even go there approach” got a little drastic, there was a period of 9 months where I literally bought nothing new. If I needed a new bra because they were all broken beyond repair, I would feel guilty buying a new one. This isn’t realistic or viable as the truth is there is nothing wrong with loving clothes and wanting to enjoy fashion. Enter Livia Firth, an advocate for slow fashion and a great resource if you want to learn more about the fashion industry’s impact on people and the planet. Firth speaks of “the 30-wear rule”, that is, before you buy anything, she asks you to pause and think, “will I wear this item more than 30 times”. I found this to be an effective prompt that made me question whether something was an impulse buy or something that I truly wanted or needed. You can also ask yourself if the item will even last more than 30 wears, as cheap fast fashion often doesn’t.
- Invest in your wardrobe (buy less, save money and invest in good pieces).
As I started to wean myself off buying hauls of cheap fast fashion, I ended up having a little more money in the bank to invest in quality pieces. I like to picture my closet goal as a pyramid with a hierarchy that dictates the volume of the type of items within it (insert pyramid below). The base is made up of well made, long lasting classics or basics. These tend to be more expensive, so the idea is to invest in these every now and then and not at the rate I was consuming fashion previously. The best way to identify these items is to look at the composition label – what is this item made out of and is it known for durability? These items are also not ultra-trendy but rather items you feel you could wear for years to come such as a good biker jacket, quality plain white tees in your favourite cut and a great fitting pair of jeans – these are your true classics.
- Mend your clothing: an obvious act of rebellion
I am ashamed to say that for a long time, mending was not my automatic reaction when an item of clothing became damaged. I fear this is a byproduct of my privilege to be able to afford new items if I needed them with a little bit of a lazy millennial mindset mixed in. Either way, it is just not on. Next time a button comes off a shirt, your jeans zipper breaks or there is a small tear in your fav tee, try not of rushing out to H&M to buy a new version. Take the time to research how to mend your item at home (googles “fixing a jammed zipper” youtube videos). Retailers want us to believe that for next to nothing we can replace “old & damaged” clothing but the truth is they can easily be mended and provide you with years more of enjoyment.
- Renting, second-hand, thrifting or clothing swaps & supporting local
As much as I harp on about loving what you already own, there is something about having something "new" to wear to a special event or a birthday dinner. That's where renting comes in and for me it has become central to solving the issue of panic-buying. I used to buy a new dress for every wedding invite I received, wear the thing once and then probably not again (ending up with a 27 dresses like sitch in my wardrobe). With renting I can get that "new" dress feeling without having to commit the money or the closet space to something I won't wear again. The shopper in me rears her head every now and then – sometimes all I really need is to spend my solo Saturday morning browsing a rail of clothing. When this urge grabs me, I head off to an overcrowded and disorganised second-hand store to spend hours going through the archives of clothing, getting a little rush whenever I uncover a gem. If my energy levels are a little low and I need a more curated experience, I head to one of my fav small business clothing brands. By shopping locally you support mothers, families and breadwinners directly, not to mention these businesses operate on minute production scales compared to fast fashion retailers.