As one of the most wasteful industries in the world, the fashion industry continues to respond to the increasing demands of a consumer culture with more fast, cheap, and disposable clothing. In fact, the world now consumes 80 billion new pieces of clothing each year, which is up by 400 percent from just two decades ago.
In an attempt to keep costs low, the industry has degraded environmental and social structures that support the livelihood of millions of people across the planet.
The good news is that we, as consumers, have a powerful voice to change this.
Though today I’m keenly aware of the issues created by the fashion industry, I spent my late teens and early twenties as a reckless consumer and a frequent flyer at Forever 21 and H&M. Concepts such as landfills, sweatshops, and carbon footprints were about as foreign to me as the countries that bear the brunt of our Western practices of massive and rapid consumption.
But I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how our buying patterns, our notions of self, and our recognition of value and success are all shaped by societal norms. After questioning my role in this system, I started to think up ways I could shift my own buying patterns while living in Manhattan — a city that measures success and value in incredibly materialistic terms.
One way to test whether I could shift my shopping habits in the long run was through a self-imposed ban on consumption. For 90 days, I committed to not buying any new clothes, jewelry, shoes, etc.
From January 15 to April 15 of this year, I didn’t buy a single new thing in those categories. While I encountered difficulty at times (especially when the weather started to turn a little warmer), the process eventually broke my habit of careless consumption.
Here are five takeaways from my 90-day challenge that any shopper can learn from:
1. Cutting out temptation is half the battle.
Until this challenge, I shopped to fill my time. If I didn’t have plans on a weekend or after work, I set out to Fifth Avenue or Soho to check out what was new on the shelves. By spending so much time in stores, I was constantly tempting myself to buy. By staying out of stores and off retail websites, I gradually started to think about shopping less and less, until I barely thought about it at all.
2. New experiences do NOT require new outfits.
Prior to taking a consumption hiatus, I had a nasty habit of buying occasion-specific clothes that I never wore again. A night out with friends, a weekend away, or a dinner party was an excuse to buy a new top, dress, or jewelry. When I cut out that habit, I got resourceful with what I already have and rediscovered old pieces I could resurrect. I quickly realized that nobody noticed whether my outfit was new or old, and that events are just as fun in a pre-loved dress as they are in a new one. It’s the surrounding company, not the outfit, that makes an experience meaningful.
3. Shopping isn't the best way to pass free time.
By taking away my go-to leisure activity, I was forced to find new ways to spend my downtime. I read a few great books, learned handweaving, and focused more on my schoolwork. Through the process of exploring new activities and getting back to the things I’ve always loved, like reading, I discovered new ways to view my own value. I was reminded that I’m creative and that I love to learn, and those are things that mean more to me than a new sweater.
4. Less thoughtless shopping means more money in the bank.
Prior to this exercise, I could justify just about any purchase. It wasn’t until I started saving the cash that I would have thrown away at H&M that I realized how much more valuable it is to spend money on experiences instead of things. I was able to use the money I had tucked away after the three months (around $500) for a trip to Los Angeles with a girlfriend — a trip I would not have been able to budget with my old spending habits.
The new-found intentionality infused a consciousness into my other buying decisions too. For example, I used to buy breakfast and lunch every day at work, and ordered delivery from home a few nights a week. Once I realized how great it felt to save money by cuting back on buying new clothes, I decided that I should also cut back on carry-out food. I was motivated to go to the grocery store more and pack my meals as often as possible — a habit I still maintain.
5. Fast fashion never wears as well as investment pieces.
Looking back on all of my fast-fashion purchases, I’d be hard-pressed to find one that fit me well, was well-constructed, and remained in my closet for more than one season. After a few months without new purchases, I circled back to my older, staple items that had survived the test of time.
Now that my challenge has come to a close, I still shop and enjoy it, but it’s a much more intentional process. I research brands and wait until I find exactly what I’m looking for instead of settling just for the sake of buying. I save money until I can invest in quality pieces that will last, and I steer clear of flashy trends that will go out of style before they make it through my laundry pile.