I can’t remember a new year when I haven’t made a resolution. Get more sleep, drink more water, drink less booze, eat more fruit, learn Spanish. But there was only one pledge I’ve ever managed to stick to for longer than a few weeks, and possibly the only one that made me feel better about myself instead of worse – I broke up with fast fashion.
No new clothes (or at least no “new-new” clothes) for a year. No more payday hauls or bad day pick-me-ups. No more casual flirtation with one of the most exploitative and wasteful industries on the planet. Goodbye, my problematic friend.
Before you say it, I know. Swearing off shopping shouldn’t be a hardship. For plenty of people it’s a default state, through lack of funds, lack of choice or just lack of interest. As a sometime-fashion journalist working in the fickle world of women’s media, with trends that rise and fall on the back of a hot-or-not barometer, I know clothes take up a larger space in my life and brain than they do for the average person. But I also know so many people who feel shackled by fashion without the professional pressure; so many other women who shop as if it’s a side hustle they’re obliged to keep afloat. And if not buying, then browsing, scrolling, trying on, returning, thinking, thinking, always thinking about shopping.
That said, it’s remarkable how many times this year men have fallen over themselves to tell me, proudly, that they never buy clothes. Never! Hate shopping! As though it’s pure coincidence I picked up the message that as a woman, my clothes matter more than theirs do. Like there’s no patriarchal whiff to the whole situation. Like simply opting out might not have occurred to me.
Of course it’s occurred to me. On all those harried shopping missions, every time the Asos scroll threatened to give me carpal tunnel syndrome, the thought would always be there in the back of my mind: why do I even care? Why does anyone?
But what the Jeremys with their homogenous, wife-bought wardrobes fail to recognise is that loving clothes isn’t a character weakness to be stamped out like smoking. Clothes can be cultural currency, tribal identity and a precious tool of self-expression. An outfit can set you apart from one crowd, and win you a place in another. Virginia Woolf got it: “Vain trifles as they seem, clothes have, they say, more important offices than to merely keep us warm. They change our view of the world and the world’s view of us.”
Over the years, clothes have been my comfort blanket and confidence boost. They’ve been a recreational hobby, a competitive sport and a way to bond with people in pub toilets. I’ve hunted for those holy grail garments the way a hardcore collector might hunt out rare stamps or action figures (then, to my shame, kept them nearly as boxfresh). I’ve used clothes to draw attention to myself and I’ve used them as camouflage, buying the illusion of grown-up professionalism in weekly instalments at Zara at a time when my salary barely covered my bus pass. Like Cher from Clueless, I too have a “most capable-looking outfit”.
But, of course, once you invest a thing with so much potential to make you feel good, it has equal potential to make you feel bad. Each outfit an exam, to be passed or failed. At least once a week I would have a wardrobe crisis before leaving the house; standing in my pants and flinging clothes around my bedroom, believing I had nothing to wear even as I was elbow-deep in evidence to the contrary. On those days, I would plan emergency trips to H&M at lunchtime, the way you might nip into Boots for painkillers to ease a headache. Somewhere along the way, I think I gave clothes too much power.
I know I gave them too much time. And money. Once I stopped shopping, spare cash appeared in my account and periods of free time began to appear in my week. It’s incredible, the things you can get done when you’re not forever standing in a Post Office queue with an armful of Asos returns. I’m not saying I’ve launched a startup or finally learned Spanish, but I’ve read a lot more books and had precisely zero existential crises in the changing rooms at & Other Stories. I’ve watched myself rise, incrementally, out of the depths of my overdraft, with each dress and bag I haven’t bought. It’s progress.
To be clear: I haven’t stopped shopping entirely. Charity shops have filled the gap left by the high street, along with the occasional preowned gem from eBay and Depop. But secondhand shopping is a very different beast; it’s the slow-release energy to fast fashion’s sugar rush. While the high street sells the idea that every shopping trip should end in a purchase, thrift stores manage your expectations. You learn to appreciate the trawl as much as the haul, getting gooey-eyed about the history stitched into each seam. Going home empty-handed feels less like defeat. You’ve saved the money and still had a nice day out.
Of course, it’s important to acknowledge that second- hand shopping isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. It’s harder to find larger clothes in thrift shops, and the sustainable fashion world in general has a long way to go before it caters for all bodies equally. But then, so does the high street.
I always knew I hated changing rooms, but it wasn’t until I quit shopping that I realised just how much self-loathing lurked behind those curtains. Fast fashion made me feel as though I was failing it, every time the zip didn’t do up, or the buttons gaped, or the outfit that looked chic and insouciant on the mannequin looked strange and lumpen on me. I blamed myself, my body, when in fact – and I’m furious it took me 31 years to grasp this – it’s the clothes that should be auditioning for you. Not the other way round.
I’d love to say that breaking up with fast fashion has cured the morning meltdowns. They’re certainly less frequent, but the wrong recipe of weather, schedule and hormones can still tip me into sartorial crisis. And I still get struck down by “trend flu” – that feverish, all-consuming need to buy some viral item you hadn’t even liked the week before. This year: giant pearl hairclips, puffer jackets and the Zara dress. I went to bed and rode them all out.
I also learned new tricks to eke more wear out of my existing wardrobe: like layering – an artform I’d previously believed you could only do if you were Scandinavian or owned your own kiln. Turns out no! You simply take your clothes and… put them on top of other clothes. Slimfit polonecks under summery slips, shirts under short-sleeved sweaters, jumpers over dresses over jeans. Aside from one mishap with a mustard tank top and a white shirt that can only be described as “Disney woodcutter”, I’ve had a surprisingly good success rate.
Somewhere along the way, I gave clothes too much power
As so many business gurus will tell you, constraints force creativity. And when you limit your shopping options, you find yourself getting inventive with new tools instead. Sometimes superglue, sometimes scissors. My sewing skills have rusted since their GCSE Textiles heyday but since I stopped shopping, I’ve started tinkering more. I’ll take up a hem, change a neckline. Put press studs between the gaping buttons. When a hankering for new jeans hit last month, I unearthed an ancient pair of mid-rise stretch bootcuts – bootcut! – and chopped them into ankle-length flares. They’re not exactly the jeans of my dreams, but they’re close enough. And I’m old enough to know by now that the jeans of my dreams don’t exist.
I also know I’m not a “capsule wardrobe” person. Even so, a good wardrobe cull can be cathartic, and there’s a strong argument for stripping back your wardrobe to an edited selection of reliable, high-quality pieces (I can see clearly now the rayon is gone, as Johnny Nash almost sang). But it can also be counterintuitive, especially if you’re not ready to swear off trends entirely. Not yet.
Ignore anyone who tells you to get rid of everything you haven’t worn in a year. Fashion is cyclical – come on, we know this – and no sooner have you sent a tired old trend off to the charity shop than Vogue will suddenly declare it hot again. “The most sustainable item is the one you already own,” says Fashion Revolution (the global movement that scrutinises industry practices). It’s amazing how often you can medicate trend flu with something that’s already in your wardrobe.
And if not yours, someone else’s. Peer-to-peer rental platforms such as HURR Collective and My Wardrobe have arrived on the scene to formalise and monetise the process, the latter even hiring former Whistles CEO Jane Shepherdson as chairman. Meanwhile, groups like Swap Rebellion and Swapaholics UK are hosting good old-fashioned clothes swaps on a grand scale. Sharing and borrowing from friends is a secret weapon that most of us don’t take nearly enough advantage of. The wardrobe of the future is open-source; I really believe that. Especially if your Rixo dress is my size.
Meanwhile, social media has taken on a new role in my life. I’ve unfollowed every brand and influencer that might have led me into temptation, and let slow fashion advocates like Jade Doherty (@notbuyingnew) and Hannah Rochell (@EnBrogue) set a new pace on my feed. In a galaxy of #gifted single-wear wardrobes, their willingness to show off the same items again and again feels gently subversive.
Following their example, I’ve become a serial outfit repeater – and proud of it. I’ve started to dress like a toddler who has to have their favourite jumper wrestled off them for washing. And since over-washing is another sustainability no-no (all those plastic microfibres leaching into the waterways, not to mention the ageing and fading effect), I’ve shrugged off the shame along with the odd gravy stain. Nobody has said anything.
In fact, one of the more ego-bruising but ultimately liberating parts of the whole process has been realising just how little anybody cares what I’m wearing – be it at a work meeting, a party or, because apparently I am this shallow, a funeral. Every time I’ve pulled on the same old outfit I’ve braced myself for pointed fingers, covert sniggers or disapproving scowls that haven’t come. Because, and I really can’t stress this enough: people do not care what you wear. Most won’t even remember.
I can’t imagine ever going back to the high street
You will, but in a good way. Those much-loved, time-worn outfits become part of the memories; dependable series regulars rather than novelty guest stars. And that, really, is the mindset that carries you through a year without shopping. Instead of pining over my break-up with fast fashion, I’m trying to focus on my relationship with the clothes I already own. Romancing them, looking after them, taking them out dancing. Reminding myself why I fell for them in the first place.
If received wisdom is to be believed, it takes half the length of a relationship to move on after a break-up. Which means I could have nearly a decade ahead of me before the thrill of a DPD delivery has completely left my system; before each invite and mood swing and season-change triggers a flashing light in my brain that reads “SHOP!”
Unpicking the seams that bind my clothes so tightly to my self-esteem is going to take longer than a year on the wagon, but already I’m at a point where I can’t imagine ever going back to the high street – for all the urgently important reasons, of which there are millions, multiplying with each painful crank of the production line. But for a selfish one, too: I just don’t have the energy. Not any more.
Now, I’m the kind of person who goes around warning others off their toxic ex. Babe, you can do so much better than fast fashion. The planet can. We all can.
Go slow with fast fashion
Try these top tips to kick your habit and take back control
1. Detox your inbox Unsubscribe from every brand email that might lead you into temptation, and unfollow every influencer who gives you click-to-buy urges.
2. Follow the leaders Scroll slow fashion influencers, such as @uncomplicatedspaces and @notbuyingnew, who delight in outfit-repeating and clever styling tricks.
3. Know your triggers Think about the reasons you buy clothes you don’t need and how you could change those behaviours – whether it’s avoiding spendy friends or finding a route home from work that doesn’t take you past your favourite shop.
4. Have a dress-up session Get out everything you own, marvel at how many clothes you already have, and spend an evening trying on new combinations. It’s amazing how old clothes can feel fresh again with a bit of imagination.
5. Become a borrower When the urge to shop strikes, try raiding someone else’s wardrobe instead. Forage from friends, go to a clothes-swapping event, or try rental platforms like HURR, NuWardrobe and Onloan.
How to Break Up with Fast Fashion by Lauren Bravo (£12.99, Headline) is published on 9 January. Buy a copy for £11.43 at guardianbookshop.com