It’s the toxic relationship too many of us can’t quit. An impulse purchase here, a pick-me-up there. A quick scroll, a flirty click, a casual add-to-basket. Who are we hurting?
Recent news linking the budget fashion giant Boohoo (which also owns Coast, Karen Millen, and now Oasis and Warehouse) to claims of “modern slavery” in one of Leicester’s garment factories has served to remind us of the sobering answer to this question. Not only is fashion one of the world’s most wasteful and polluting industries, but it’s also one of the most exploitative. Less than 2% of clothing workers globally earn a fair living wage, with most trapped in systemic poverty at almost every stage of the long and shadowy supply chains. While we enjoy the ease, speed and abundance, it’s they who are paying the price.
Although that word, “enjoy”, is debatable, let’s be honest. The past few months have given us pause to take stock, literally in the case of many overflowing wardrobes, and confront our consumerist urges. Do high street hauls make us happy any more? Did they ever? Life on the neverending treadmill of trends is a tiring one, and there’s nothing like a pandemic to shift your priorities.
But as lockdown eases how do we walk away? There’s no one-size-fits-all solution – we’re each working with different lifestyles, different tastes and different levels of privilege. And while some people would have you believe that the only way to dress ethically is to spend £500 on a linen boilersuit and wear it every single day, there are plenty of other solutions.
As Paul Simon sang, there must be 50 ways to leave your lover. Here are 20 ways to ditch fast fashion for a slower, fairer style.
1. Have a clearout
This might sound counterintuitive, but nobody can make the most of their clothes if they have to wade through a sea of crumpled polyester each morning. It pays to do a regular audit of everything you have, so you know exactly what you need – and what you don’t. Plus, you’ll find treasures; clothes you’ve forgotten you have and clothes you don’t (hello, post-cocktails Zara trip) remember buying. As the global campaign group Fashion Revolution likes to remind us, the most sustainable garment is the one already in your wardrobe.
2. Play dress-up
Who says the makeover montage is just for teen romcoms? A good old-fashioned dressing-up session is one of the best ways to tackle wardrobe ennui, and remind yourself just how many options you have. Most people wear 20% of their wardrobe 80% of the time, and the waste charity Wrap says that extending the active lifespan of a garment just by nine months could reduce its carbon, water and waste footprints by as much as 30%. So dedicate an evening to experimenting with different combinations and mastering new styling tricks. Try dresses over jeans, shirts under dresses, vests over shirts, scarfs as belts. Put a jumper on over that sundress, and congrats! A new skirt.
3. Learn from your mistakes
Go through each item in your wardrobe and ask: “How many times have I worn this?” If the answer is in single digits, ask why. Interrogate those unloved garms, and be honest. Is it the colour? The shape? The length? A fabric that has you sweating like old lettuce by lunchtime? Did you buy it for an invitation that never arrived, or a lifestyle you don’t lead? Is it emotional collateral, bought out of insecurity, sadness, hunger or boredom? Learn to identify your most common shopping triggers and it becomes so much easier to resist the lure of the quick-fix purchase.
4. Wear and repeat with pride
Wearing the same outfit to two different parties should not be a revolutionary act, and yet a Barnardo’s study found that 33% of women now consider clothes “old” after wearing them three times. In 2019, UK shoppers spent an estimated £2.7bn on clothes we wore only once. We have confused clothes with disposable items. Let’s stage an amnesty and make outfit-repeating a source of celebration, not shame. I like to think of it as “playing our greatest hits”. If Paul McCartney still gets a standing ovation for Hey Jude, then your three-year-old dress deserves a few more nights out.
5. Aim for #30Wears
In the immortal words of Dua Lipa, you need new rules. The #30Wears rule coined by Livia Firth, founder of sustainability consultancy Eco-Age, is a benchmark to help you make savvier choices and give your clothes the lifespan they deserve. Before buying anything, ask: will I wear this at least 30 times? If the answer is no, don’t buy.
6. Order, order
As Joan Crawford once advised: “Care for your clothes like the good friends they are.” Something’s gone wrong when buying a new outfit in your lunch hour feels like an easier fix than trawling through your floordrobe for something that isn’t covered in creases, food stains or both. So take more time to organise your clothes, hang them up at the end of the day (Crawford also condemned wire hangers), and if ironing is your bete noire, consider investing in a handheld steamer. I also swear by storing winter and summer clothes separately, if you have space. It helps calm the “new season, must shop!” panic and feels exciting every time those old friends reappear.
7. Become a borrower
If you know you’re unlikely to wear an item more than once, don’t buy it – borrow it, whether that’s from a generous friend or a fashion rental service such as Hurr, ByRotation, My Wardrobe HQ or Rotaro. Some specialise in statement pieces for special occasions, while others, such as Onloan and The Devout, run a subscription model that refreshes your wardrobe with trend items for a month at a time. Ideal for the conscious commitment-phobe.
If a total ban on shopping is too big a leap, try this gentler approach. Before buying anything new, endeavour to find it secondhand first. This could mean rummaging in a charity or vintage shop, buying a preloved version from a resale platform, or even just borrowing something similar from a friend. If we all #chooseused more often (there’s no end to the pithy hashtags), it could reduce the demand for new manufacture and landfill.
9. Get stitching
The best way to understand how much work goes into one garment? Make it yourself. The Great British Sewing Bee has helped to herald a new generation of home-stitchers over the past few years, while John Lewis and Hobbycraft both reported surges in sewing machine sales during lockdown. If you haven’t threaded a bobbin since school, I recommend seeking the tutelage of Tilly Walnes, AKA Tilly and the Buttons. Her online guides are friendly and foolproof, while her book Make It Simple is full of versatile patterns for wardrobe staples, from a jumpsuit to the perfect white tee.
10. Make new and mend
Even if you’re never going to start making dresses from scratch, you can expand your wardrobe horizons with little more than a YouTube tutorial and a hotel sewing kit. Clothes are sometimes abandoned for the tiniest of reasons, such as an awkward neckline or a scratchy label, so don’t be afraid to get the scissors out. Learn a few basic skills and you can replace buttons and zips, turn up dragging hems, patch up the worn-out crotch of your best-loved jeans and alter secondhand finds to fit you perfectly. It doesn’t even need to be neat – you can join the visible mending movement, which turns your rips and holes into beautiful design features.
11. Give vintage a chance
Vintage shopping has had a makeover, with a new generation of cool Instagram traders leading the way. While 1970s Laura Ashley is this summer’s hottest property, anything older than 20 years is considered vintage, which means 90s minimalism and minidresses from 2000 are circling back. Monthly events such as @AVirtualVintageMarket round up the very best sellers, while the Gem app allows you to sift out the best vintage treasures from across the internet – especially those elusive larger sizes.
12. Rescue the rejects
If you are squeamish about wearing a stranger’s hand-me-downs, deadstock is a sustainable compromise. Usually clothes that were never sold because of small defects or oversupply, searching “deadstock” on sites such as Etsy and eBay will return great items from across the decades that might have been destined for the bin or incinerator. Likewise, end-of-line clothes are an all too common sight in charity shops (you can spot them by the snipped-out labels). Until the brands stop producing too much, it’s better to give excess stock a loving home.
Peer-to-peer rental app Nuw launches a new swapping feature this week, allowing subscribers to list clothes in exchange for virtual credit and use it to “buy” items from other people. Swopped.co.uk works on the same principle. Or there’s always the luddite version: gather a group (at a safe social distance) and trade cast-offs. Warning: seeing your old threads on your most stylish friend may induce regret.
14. Call your agent
The UK has more than 500 dress agencies – also known as consignment stores – which sell people’s unwanted clothes, shoes and accessories in exchange for 50% of the profit. Stock is usually in pristine condition and only a few seasons old, making it a great way to save money on premium labels and shop the high street at one remove. Meanwhile, luxury resale sites such as Vestiaire Collective are overflowing with worn-once wedding-guest outfits for half the original price. If you buy new without checking online first, you’re a chump.
15. Just stop shopping
It’s the cheapest way to downsize your fashion footprint. And yet for many of us, the mere idea of going cold turkey is enough to give us the shakes. I pledged to buy nothing brand-new for 2019, and documented the results in my book How to Break Up With Fast Fashion – but if a whole year is too daunting, start smaller. Challenge yourself to three months, or even just one. It takes time for your brain to break the cycle of positive association, and your fingers to stop twitching for the Asos scroll. But after a few weeks, it gets easier. Promise.
16. Remove temptation
Just like deleting your ex’s number and blocking their Facebook profile, a fast fashion breakup involves admin. So go through your inbox and unsubscribe from all shopping emails – even those from the golfing supplies outlet you bought your uncle’s Christmas present from in 2012. Then, fillet your social media feeds. Unfollow all the influencers whose pastel-hued grids exist to seduce you into buying things, and replace them with slow fashion advocates such as @ajabarber, @venetialamanna, @theniftythrifter_, @enbrogue and @styleand.sustain. Cute baby animal accounts would work, too.
17. Shop small
If buying new is the only option, relax – the roll call of great ethical fashion brands is expanding. Where utilitarian hemp once ruled all, there’s now fairly made fashion to suit pretty much every personal style, from slick streetwear to prairie ruffles and maximalist prints. But beware brands that are all mouth and no trousers; the best ones should give details of their factories, suppliers and wage commitments online. Kemi Telford, Sika and Mary Benson are among my favourites, while Gather & See does a great job of curating the bunch.
18. Do your homework
As fashion brands cotton on to consumer demand for more ethical production, it’s getting harder to see through the greenwash and work out where we can shop with a clear conscience. Luckily, there’s an app for that. Good On You has rated more than 2,000 brands on their treatment of people, the planet and animals, providing an at-a-glance verdict from “great” to “avoid”. If only Tinder did the same.
19. Switch to pre-order
Brands such as Olivia Rose, Birdsong and By Megan Crosby prove that patience is a virtue, and made-to-order fashion is the future. By only making what customers demand, they can minimise waste and manage their labour more effectively – the antidote to fast fashion’s need for speed. Plus, it’s a good way to test your own commitment to a trend. If you can’t wait a few weeks for that new outfit, maybe it wasn’t such a must-have after all.
20. Ask #WhoMadeMyClothes?
Fashion Revolution’s rallying cry since 2013, this simple question can be a powerful weapon in the fight against exploitation. If we’re ever going to trust big brands again, we need answers. Where were our clothes made? In which factories? How much were their workers paid, and how much is lining millionaire pockets as a result? Full transparency is the only look to be wearing this year. Metaphorically, at least.