If there was ever a year in which we were prodded to re-evaluate our clothing consumption, it was probably from spring 2020 until now. This may have been the easiest year to not buy clothes. Why is that? And why would one not buy clothes? Read on to find out.
Clothing changes that happened in 2020 & 2021
As you know, we’ve experienced several drastic changes since the pandemic hit. Here I name a few.
What we’ve experienced personally
Obviously, we’ve collectively been stuck in our homes a lot more than before. Subsequently many of us have lowered our expectations on how much we do for our appearance, ’cause why would you care if you’re not actually appearing anywhere else than in your own home?
Many of us also experienced some bodily changes due to the covid measures; we may have gained some ‘corona kilos’ because we couldn’t move as much as we normally did. This can change our relationship to our bodies, self-image and our clothes. Even if it’s just a slight doubt about which size of clothing you’re going to need. Therefore, you may decide to postpone buying new items all together. At least, for me this plays a role.
Also, until now this spring’s weather has reminded more of autumn than of spring, so there was no need to wear or buy any summery clothes either. You could just keep wearing the items you’ve been wearing for months already.
Most stores have also been closed for long periods of time, including clothing stores, so it wasn’t even possible to go shopping for clothes in actual stores. We’ve experienced loss of income too, for ourselves and/or people around us (including the people working in those clothing stores!), which can lead to you questioning whether spending money on clothing is a wise thing to do right now.
What happened in the fashion industry
The loss of income in our Western stores lead to losses of income in the regions where our clothes are being produced. We’ve seen fast fashion brands cancel their orders even though the clothes of new collections were already in production. We’ve read that the women producing our clothes lost their jobs and incomes, their livelihoods. Mostly women indeed; so the fashion industry is certainly a feminist issue too. (If you want to learn more, check out this live blog on How the Coronavirus affects garment workers in supply chains.)
We’ve also recently found out about forced Uighur labor in the cotton industry in China in the Xinjiang region; this region’s produced yarn ends up in one in five cotton clothes sold globally. (In this region no organic cotton is produced, so choosing organic cotton is the better option here!)
And do you remember the Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh in 2013? After that, the legally binding Bangladesh Accord came to be, which is found to be successful in improving working conditions for factory workers in the fashion industry. However, this accord expired this week, on the 31st of May 2021, and many involved companies don’t want to renew it, which means that safety of the workers is at stake. You can read more here on the website of Clean Clothes Campaign.
So there certainly have been some changes, and/or more of the same (system).
The different roles of clothes
For me, I’ve been considering this clothing thing for years. The troubles aren’t new.
The fashion industry has huge environmental and societal impacts: it produces 10% of all humanity’s carbon emissions and is the second-largest consumer of the world’s water supply. It knows unsafe working conditions, in which the factory workers don’t even get paid a living wage. Clothes can be made of different fibers with different problems: they can be made of animal products from animals that are treated unethically, of non-organic cotton that’s grown using a lot of pesticides, of synthetic fibers like polyester which lead to microplastic polluting our oceans. To name a few things. Generally, it’s not a pretty industry. And this has become even more clear during the pandemic.
At the same time, clothes have become a huge player in how we express our identity, our individuality, or our belonging to a certain group. It’s also a way to express creativity. You get to wear clothes, so why not pour some creativity in the process of dressing yourself? And also build on the creativity of the designers that designed your clothes. You can read more on the identity aspect of clothes in my earlier post Express and expand yourself through clothing.
It’s so interesting, isn’t it? I personally find it extremely interesting. It’s one of my favorite sustainability topics, probably because it feels so close to me myself, which makes it very relatable, and it’s a great area for improvement because it’s impact is so big.
Too many clothes
So why am I suggesting that not buying clothes is an option? Well, the reason is that we in western countries collectively buy too much clothing. Too much because of the environmental and societal impacts. Too much because right now fast fashion brands are deliberately producing and selling (relatively cheap) clothes that are of bad quality (and cheap to make), that won’t last long and that you won’t wear for long so that you will come back soon to buy even more from these same brands. Too much for ourselves too because we have so many clothes that it confuses us when we open our closet in the morning.
Of course don’t have to stop buying clothes all together; we still get to wear clothes and these should be produced and obtained somehow. I am saying obtained, because buying clothes is something that is already being re-considered too. Instead of buying, why not starting to swap clothes with friends? Or not just friends, but whole communities of swappers? Why not borrowing or renting clothes? These models are being explored and build right now.
Customers decide how the future looks
However, as long as you do buy clothes, as I do too, you do get to realize that every time you buy something you financially support the business (model) behind it. You support the whole supply chain, from factory worker to the store where it’s been sold or the trucks and cardboard boxes that are used to deliver it to your doorstep. Including the trees that are used to produce the cardboard boxes, and the fuel that’s used to fuel the trucks and all the machinery and electronics in the chain. You support the way the money you spend it divided among the people in the chain and how well they are treated. Do the factory workers have good working conditions and do they earn a living wage?
That’s quite a responsibility for you as a customer! Luckily you don’t have to figure it all out alone, and you don’t necessarily have to change your clothing habits all at once. You can also implement changes gradually.
You can also decide that you don’t care, but I am strongly arguing for the ‘do care’ option. Because through your purchases you decide how the future world is going to look and function. You decide how sustainable and how ethical the future world is going to be. We have to decide for a sustainable and fair future, otherwise there won’t be any.
We have to decide for a sustainable and fair future, otherwise there won’t be any.
Of course there are limits to how much information one can process and how many sustainable choices one can make, that’s why I want to tell you to not be too hard on yourself. You can start small, with small changes, small decisions. And you don’t have to do everything yourself, instead you can trust on other people’s work and guidance concerning sustainable consumption. (As long as they are indeed trustworthy of course!)
A good start: take a break from buying
I still didn’t give my full answer to why I suggest to not buy clothes. The reason is that to stop buying clothes may be the easiest first step in changing your clothing habits. I personally find it easier to stop with things that I don’t want to do because of my values, than to implement new things that I would want to do instead. So, for me it is relatively easy to decide to stop supporting fast fashion brands, especially if it’s just for a certain amount of time. And stopping with doing one thing automatically opens up space for something else in your life.
It may be easiest to stop buying (unethical) clothes for a certain amount of time, which automatically opens up space for something else in your life.
Therefore, if you want to, you may start with a challenge of not buying new clothes for a few months or even a year. During this time you can observe yourself, how you relate to clothes, to both the ones you already have and the ones that are displayed on websites and in stores.
Do you really need more clothes to be able to dress yourself properly and nicely, or to make yourself feel good about yourself and how you look, and then, do new clothes really help you with that? What happened to the clothes you bought last year, do they still make you happy or did something change in your relationship? Or isn’t it even about a relationship but more about a rush, about longing for something new, is it the longing that makes you feel a certain way and that has you captivated? Is it about the stories that you can tell yourself?
It’s a fun ride, to explore these feelings and relationships, and it can allow you to create space for how you really want to relate to clothes, for the items that you really want instead of the ones you crave out of habit. You can make space for the items that will tie your wardrobe together, like the rug in your living room. The pieces that will feel like you, that will breath and move like you. The pieces that you’ll want to wear again and again. The ones you wouldn’t want to replace with the next best thing.
Not buying fast fashion & supporting ethical clothing
I can hear some of you wonder what it would mean to not buy clothing at all. What would all the factory workers end up doing? The answer is that we cannot answer that right now, because that future will be a result of the actions that we decide to take now and later. The best way to influence the future of the factory workers that are now producing fast fashion under unethical circumstances, is by committing to only buy ethically produced clothes (and other products in so far you can discern what’s ethical or not).
And of course by pressuring fashion brands to improve their supply chains. However, choosing to buy from brands that do already produce ethically gives other brands a direct financial incentive to change too. When enough people make this decision, fast fashion brands will notice that they have to change to stay relevant.
If we would collectively stop buying clothes all together, the factory workers may end up being worse off. But the more people switch to buying ethically produced clothing, the more people could work in those factories under good circumstances with a fair pay. The more people would be able to get out of poverty. That’s how it works. So your choice does have an impact.
I am taking a break right now
I started out by writing that this may have been the most ideal year to now buy clothes. It was for me! Earlier I already decided to buy less clothes, but I still occasionally bought some to fill in some gaps in my wardrobe and to try to express my identity. This makes sense to me, but I do have or want to take care not to buy clothes that I don’t end up wearing. At the same time, I still have a huge collection of old clothes of which I don’t wear everything. In my opinion that’s not bad (because throwing it out isn’t necessarily better), as long as I don’t add new items to the collection I’m not wearing.
This year I am finally and proudly not buying new clothes! Well, I am not committing to a whole year yet. I am not sure whether that’s doable with my wardrobe and whatever I’m going to be doing, but I am guessing it is, so I may! Thus far I haven’t bought clothes this year and I am committing to continuing to do so until the end of June. That’s half a year.
Admittedly, I did buy shoes in January, I received a sweater that I had already pre-ordered in December, and I got two secondhand pairs of jeans as a present (that were bought secondhand for someone else but didn’t fit them). I also ordered some underwear, mostly to support the small vegan shop. I am pretty fine with those things; most happened before I committed to the no-buy and I think they don’t really change anything, at least not the intention. It weren’t impulse buys. For me shoes may even be quite different than clothes, and I’d been wanting them for a long time (vegan barefoot winter shoes!).
The very first time I fully committed to a clothing challenge
And you know, this is the first time I’m doing this no-buy (for such a long period), even though I’ve been considering the impact of clothes for years. I am not stating this ‘achievement’ to brag, but mostly to show it as an example, a possibility. Before I didn’t want to limit myself as such. I was a little insecure as to how wearing only items from my current wardrobe would affect my sense of well-being. Not because I need new clothes per se, but because I don’t feel completely confident about wearing the same clothes for years (even though I do do that). It may be that I choose slightly odd clothes that I like in the beginning, but I can’t guarantee that I will continue to like them for long. It may also be that I am particular in how I develop my sense of self; it’s a slow ongoing process (of self development) for me in which clothes certainly play a role, and changes may occur. You know?
You choose your way to be a more conscious consumer
Like me, you can have reasons to have doubt about this. Committing to not buy clothes for a year is quite a commitment. Luckily, you can start smaller too.
Your perfect time to make a change
If you have missed this wonderful opportunity to not buy clothes for (half) a year, not to worry! The good news is that you get to choose your way of becoming a more conscious consumer, your way of building a sustainable wardrobe! At any time you want too. Maybe for your the easiest year to change your clothing consumption starts right now. Or you pick the second half a year of 2021, from July on. Or you may join capsule-wardrobers and use one or two weeks in June to prep your summer capsule wardrobe.
Suggestions to try out
Here follow some more suggestions for changes you may make or see.
You may like the capsule wardrobe idea and try it out, you may not fully commit to it but learn to be more conscious in your own way, you may realize that conscious consumption is more important than throwing old clothes ‘away’. You may decide to more actively experiment with the clothes you already have instead of looking for new clothes to add, you may commit to only buying from small, local and/or ethical stores, or focus on swapping clothes and getting clothes secondhand.
You may start by searching for specific ‘challenges’ others have thought of that you can commit to for a certain amount of time. You can look for a community that’s already doing such challenges, or you may mobilize a group of friends to try it out together. You may organize a clothing swap with friends.
You may also just start by boycotting the brands that score the worst on rankings such as the ones of Good On You. You may contact your favorite brands to let them know that you as a customer care about their impact and to ask them to improve. You may even do so through social media so others can see. You may start by avoiding certain fabrics like polyester.
You may start to prefer small independent shops over international fashion chains. You may support independent artists by buying straight from them, even if it’s just every once in a while. You may ask them to (custom) print their designs on ethically made organic cotton tees if they don’t already.
What you may experience
Through these actions and your involvement, you may start to discern when you really want something and can love it for a long time or when it’s more of a rush, a hype, a fantasy, the result of a habit of looking for clothes to make you feel better. You may start keeping a long-term wish list of clothes that you’d like to have one day, so you can observe what happens there. You may do so on a platform like Pinterest.
You may become less susceptible to sales and discounts, because you found out that what really matters is that you absolutely love the items you buy so that you will wear them often. You may also become less susceptible to specific trends and new collections, and come to love timeless items more since you can generally love and wear these for longer time periods. Or you just decide that trends don’t matter and you’ll wear whatever you want whenever you want. You may start to shift towards more comfortable, simple clothes.
You may as well conclude that which clothes you wear doesn’t matter so much as you thought and were taught by the extended fashion industry.
You may also look on other websites than mine for information and inspiration. 😉
In this post I already linked to many articles by Clean Clothes Campaign. I have the impression that they are the number one source concerning the ethics of the clothing industry.
I also recommend checking out the first online vegan warehouse Shop like you give a Damn. They write excellent articles, in both English and Dutch, including the Sustainable, Ethical, Vegan & Fair Fashion Glossary, Ethical & Sustainable Certifications, Explained, and Why Your Feminist T-shirt Might Not Be Feminist After All. I’m a fan.
Also, be sure to check out (and possibly follow!) Mumster, the sustainable fashion movement, a conscious campaign agency. As far as I’ve seen, they do various things, and I believe they have a lot more coming up. I for sure like following them on the social media platform for smartphones, the one with pictures and all that. 😉
Have you found your way yet?
So that’s it! What do you think? Have you found your way yet? Or a direction? Do you like this theme as much as I do? Let me know!
By the way, I wasn’t planning for this to be a long read, but it just so happened. It’s a big topic! Maybe next time I write about it, it can be shorter. Also, I purposefully didn’t use the typical fashion industry pictures, because these make me cringe. They present the idea that we need to buy clothes regularly to be ‘fashionable’ and even ‘likable’, right? Well, that may be for another piece of writing. 😉
Lastly, if you know of great additional information or resources, be sure to link them below! That way we can learn together. In this post I just made a start and tried to lay out some basic principles, but I’m sure there’s a lot more to talk about.