Some time at the beginning of last year, before the pandemic, before social distancing, before the dining room closures of my favorite restaurants and bars, I watched a segment on Hasan Minhaj’s Netflix Series Patriot Act that centered its discussion around fast fashion. Following the half hour eye-opening episode, I made a vow for 2020: do not buy any articles of clothing unless they’re secondhand. You can watch the episode here:
This episode had me reflecting on the contents of my closet. Ever since I was a teenager, I have loved clothing. I love the thrill of curating a look that’s unique to me, but I had never thought about the monetary and environmental cost of that love, or about the exploitation of the workers who are creating the garments I’m wearing, or about the millions of others who are doing what I’m doing.
The first time I heard the term fast fashion was a few years ago. I was going to my friend’s house for dinner, wearing an oversized tee from H&M, tight skinny jeans from Everlane, and thrifted Ariat Chelsea boots. My friend complimented my shirt, asking where it was from. Oh, thanks! It’s from H&M, I replied. My friend had worked in upscale fashion, so I valued her opinion on my style and was beaming when she complimented me.
“Well, I hate that,” she replied sarcastic-but-seriously, “They’re a terrible fast-fashion company.”
Her matter-of-fact, straightforwardness took me off guard. I laughed off my shock, but I didn’t dispute what she had said because of her background in fashion. She wasn’t being mean; she was being honest, and she truly cared about the effect that unethical manufacturing practices have on the world and on society. I really hadn’t understood anything about fast fashion and with her sentence, she helped me take my first step into learning about the larger effect that fashion has. I felt stupid for not realizing that, duh, my purchases have a much larger impact than developing my own personal style.
I wasn’t stupid, though. And if you’ve never stopped to think about what the impact that retailers like H&M, Zara, Forever21, Old Navy, Shein, Romwe, etc. have on the world, you’re not stupid either. These companies have entire marketing teams that are built to trick you and me into thinking we need the latest and the best, lest we be seen as untrendy or unfashionable. Their goal is ultimately to convince unknowing consumers into thinking they need to buy more things more often because that’s what makes them money, regardless of ethics and business practice and environmental impact. Can you say ‘capitalism’, baby?! They prey off of FOMO and insecurities.
These fast fashion shops are almost continuously receiving new shipments of clothing; many of them on a weekly basis. No longer do four “seasons” of fashion exist; many companies have manufactured masterfully-blended “seasons” that come and go fifty-two times a year. And you know where the past seasons end up? In landfills. According to the EPA, in 2018 over 11.3 million tons of textile waste were landfilled.
Some numbers go so far as to say the US alone deposits 21 billion tons into landfills. And then they can sit for as much as two hundred years, decomposing to produce methane, a potent greenhouse gas.
It’s also worth noting that just simply donating things to a thrift store doesn’t automatically guarantee they won’t end up in a landfill. In fact, most experts say that only 15% of donated clothing ends up in the secondhand market.
The solution? Buy less. Wear your items longer. Buy higher-quality items that are built to last a lifetime, not a year (or less).
To find a location to ethically dispose of, recycle, or donate clothing near you, click here.
To see a directory of sustainable and ethical clothing brands, compiled by ReMake, click here.
Here’s how I did it, how you can do it, and I’ll tell you right now: it was super fun.
YOU MAKE THE RULES!
My rules were:
- Do not buy anything brand new
- If I did buy brand new, it HAD to be because the item was worn out and unrepairable OR if I was supporting a friend’s business.
- I could buy new jeans when old pairs were worn beyond repair, and only to replace a pair
These sample principles can be applied to items beyond the scope of clothing, as well. For example, you could buy secondhand home decor items as well. If you wanted to go even further, you could have a year of Buy Nothing — read about my friend Liz’s journey of buying nothing in 2020 which was featured in the New York Times here.
This is, essentially, your why. Write your why down somewhere so you can refer back to it when you’re feeling weak. If you’re having a hard time figuring out a reason, let me give you a few examples:
- Saving money to pay off debt (student loan, credit card, medical bills, etc)
- Wanting to save money to buy a house/condo/land/building
- Expanding your family
- Dream vacation
- More independence; saving money that allows you to have a safety net or cushion and the freedom to quit
- To cut down on textile waste/waste in general
- To see if you are capable of doing it
Having your reason behind why you’re doing this will ultimately make it easier.
An extension of the rules. I separated my categories into three “piles,” which were No, Only If, and Yes.
No meant the hard-and-fast nos. Nothing new.
Only if meant I could buy new only if it was replacing the item that had worn out, or if I was supporting a friend’s business, or if it was undergarments/jeans. I have a really hard time finding well-made jeans, so this may seem like a weird exception. I did, within these confines, try to buy better-quality items. I purchased jeans through a brand called Universal Standard during their Black Friday Denim Drive. During the denim drive, if you purchased a pair of jeans, the company gave you a steep discount in exchange for a promise to donate old, worn-out denim to be repurposed into denim insulation.
Yes meant what I could buy. Yes I could buy clothing secondhand. It was all fair game. For me personally, I went to my local Buffalo Exchange and sold my old clothing in exchange for store credit to buy new clothing. There are online options for this as well, such as Depop, ThredUP, Poshmark, and eBay that allow you to buy and sell. I also would recommend Plato’s Closet and their other sister stores, as well as local thrift shops and consignment shops if you’re more of a shop-in-person type. For a fancy wedding in 2019, Jake and I got his entire suit at a local luxury consignment shop for a fraction of the cost brand-new for high-end items, and we both had a blast in the process.
Tell people in your corner what you’re doing and what your intentions are. The support from your community will allow you to have an outlet when things feel challenging. Maybe a friend or two will even join you; who knows!
I also found it beneficial to join my local Buy Nothing Facebook groups, which exist for people to give away and get items without paying, as well as buying and selling on Facebook Marketplace. The one thing Facebook is good for. Bleh. It goes without saying but I’ll say it anyway: be safe and careful and don’t get murdered when using these groups. Thanks.
For events, websites like Rent the Runway exist as well, where you can essentially pay to borrow high-end couture items and send them back after the event has concluded, so don’t be discouraged if you end up being able to attend a wedding in 2021 and can’t find that dream outfit on the rack at a thrift store.
If you’re new to the world of secondhand clothing, don’t worry. Almost all of my favorite articles of clothing were bought secondhand. For example:
These shorts and this shirt, both Target brands, were thrifted. More often than not, I “customize” t-shirts that I thrift by cutting off the bottom hem or dye them using Rit dye.
All of the shirts in all of these photos, including my beloved vintage acid-wash Levi’s jean jacket, were bought secondhand from thrift stores and via the app Poshmark. I feel like the style I’m able to achieve with secondhand clothing is so much more unique and fun than anything I could’ve bought from a store.
So what are my rules for Nothing New in 2021?
Well, beyond the rules from last year, I’m allowing myself to buy new if I have done my due diligence in researching the company. If they are deemed to have zero-waste goals, ethical, sustainable, etc. then I can purchase from them. Similarly, if it is a high-quality piece that is made to last a lifetime, I will allow myself to buy it. However, in both of these situations, I am only allowing myself to buy new if it is replacing an old item that has worn out beyond repair.
Are you wanting to try this in 2021? If your answer is yes: good luck with your venture! And if you’re not doing it, that’s okay too. I do implore you, however, to take a second thought at what you’re buying the next time you’re out shopping before you swipe your card.