Giving up Fast Fashion for a year taught me how to shop again

Sweaters are seen on a rack at H&M on Thanksgiving Day in New York November 28, 2013.

I’m not sure if it was the crowds, the harsh lighting, the cheap fabric, or the overwhelming choices sprawled before me. But last December, staring at rows of scarves in an H&M in London, I decided I was fed up.

I was in the city temporarily, and I’d gone into the store to buy a few items that I had forgotten to pack. What I would have once taken as a simple sign of disorganization—the fact that I was spending money on clothing I already had—now felt like wastefulness, and left me feeling slightly ill. With New Year’s Day around the corner, I decided to give up fast fashion for a year.

Fast fashion, a $2.5 trillion industry, has completely reshaped the way we shop. Brands like H&M, Zara, and Forever 21, with their lightening quick responses to trends, speedy deliveries to stores, and ridiculously low prices, have outpaced competitors for years. But fast fashion is also a dirty industry, consuming massive amounts of natural resources and rife with unsafe labor conditions and exploitative practices.

Still, giving up fast fashion isn’t the easiest choice. I was addicted to what our fashion reporter Marc Bain calls the “sad cycle of compulsive shopping, guilt, and regret” brought about by shopping at places like these. But somewhere along the line, browsing for clothes had stopped being fun and started feeling mindless. I wasn’t prioritizing finding items I really liked, and I was getting rid of clothes as quickly as I was acquiring them. This was partly the result of mistrusting my own fashion sense, but it was also about the way I shopped. Why care about how well-made or good-looking a garment is if you can just replace it at minimal cost to yourself?

And so I resolved to ignore the bright shop windows and glittery mannequins and bring some “mindfulness” to my wardrobe. My resolution was in part inspired by author Ann Patchett, who wrote a popular New York Times article (paywall) laying out her decision to try out a complete shopping ban. “The unspoken question of shopping is ‘What do I need?,” Patchett writes. “What I needed was less.”

My attempt was imperfect, and at times involved some sneaky strategies. I hadn’t considered that I might need new underwear, so a very strong hint of a Victoria Secret sale to the husband for Valentine’s Day helped in that regard. When a friend texted asking for suggestions about places where she could donate clothes, I asked if she’d let me look through her castoffs first, scoring a winter wardrobe refresh on the way. I frequented multiple clothing swaps, and asked for a gift card to Buffalo Exchange for my birthday. Toward the end of the year, I relaxed my rules and let myself buy a few secondhand fast fashion duds at charity shops.

My attempt was imperfect, and at times involved some sneaky strategies. I hadn’t considered that I might need new underwear, so a very strong hint of a Victoria Secret sale to the husband for Valentine’s Day helped in that regard. When a friend texted asking for suggestions about places where she could donate clothes, I asked if she’d let me look through her castoffs first, scoring a winter wardrobe refresh on the way. I frequented multiple clothing swaps, and asked for a gift card to Buffalo Exchange for my birthday. Toward the end of the year, I relaxed my rules and let myself buy a few secondhand fast fashion duds at charity shops.

Image result for fast fashion

But my fast fashion-less year also made me realize how ubiquitous these stores are, and how difficult it is to avoid them. Doing so requires effort at every turn: you have to buy fewer things of higher quality and price, take better care of your clothes, repair them instead of throwing them away, and think carefully before purchasing an item. I also recognize that it’s a position of privilege to even think about spending more to have less.

My year off taught me how to pause before buying. My resolution for 2019 is to learn how to shop better. Marc’s suggestion is to buy a piece of clothing “so expensive it hurts,” a guideline he follows to try reduce his contribution to the wastefulness of fast fashion. “The point is to make you pause and ask yourself, “How much do I really want this?” he writes.

What I really want at the moment is a classic, long-lasting swimsuit that looks good and makes me feel even better. I think I’ll start there.

Originally featured on Quartzy by Jackie Bischof

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