It’s no secret that sustainable fashion brands can have some eye-watering price tags. Sustainable and ethical brands are often more expensive than their fast fashion counterparts, and for good reason. Fast fashion is so cheap because it is mass produced by workers in low wage economies from poor quality fabrics. Those ‘cheap’ prices hide the true cost of fashion’s social and environmental impact, and ultimately lead us to spend more over our lifetimes because we can afford higher quantities of clothes. According to the BBC, British consumers buy five times as many clothing items as they did thirty years ago, and the lightning speed of trends means huge chunks of our wardrobes remain unworn.
Fortunately, transitioning to kinder ways of dressing means so much more than just switching to sustainable brands while shopping at the same speed as before. There are so many ways to engage with sustainable fashion that are not shopping. From swapping and sharing, to mending and customising, to slowing down and reconnecting with your style, it’s possible to build a sustainable wardrobe without compromising your bank balance. Trust me, as a former fast fashion addict turned sustainable fashion activist – I spend less on clothes now than I ever did when I bought £10 dresses from the high street, and my style is better off for it.
During lockdown, many of us have taken the opportunity of staying at home to slow down our consumption habits and divest from exploitative brands. But in turn, the pandemic has forced millions to reduce their spending – so how do we make sure our smaller budgets don’t lead us to the ‘bargains’ of fast fashion?
Albana Janjeva, a London-based swimwear designer, has been shifting towards more sustainable options during lockdown as a way to make her money work harder. “I have become super cautious of my spending as a whole. I would constantly purchase fast fashion, but the quality was always awful. Now, I find myself purchasing more classic staples that I know I will wear over and over again, and less of the trend pieces that would only last one season.
Chloe, a content writer from Telford, has been switching to second-hand and vintage stores this year to save cash. “I usually spend much less on second-hand items compared to fast fashion,” she tells me, emphasising the affordability of charity shops instead of online platforms, where prices can be more competitive. Most importantly though, she speaks to the significance of the switch towards more online shopping due to Covid-19, which has helped to shift shopping away from being a hobby. “I’ve been window shopping more, online primarily, and I have a very extensive watch list. But I’m actually making purchases less often compared to weekend shopping trips for the sake of shopping as an activity.”
Alongside quitting those habitual trips to high street stores (which usually lead to mindless purchasing), another positive impact of lockdown has been the spare time people now have to re-organise their wardrobes. With Marie Kondo and The Home Edit inspiring us to minimise clutter and surround ourselves only with things we love, closet clearouts have become a wildly popular weekend lockdown activity. This can be a really valuable exercise in rediscovering past fashion favourites, learning about your style and size, and creating new outfits from old clothes. Lay it all out on the floor or bed to visualise the mass you’ve accrued over the years, and more often than not, you’ll notice you’ve already got everything you need, and that the desire to shop dies down. Remember, the most sustainable item is the one you already own, not the one from an expensive sustainable fashion label.
If you want to take it a step further and really curb your spending, you can even list your clothes in a notebook or spreadsheet to make sure you don’t buy items similar to what you have. Apps like Save Your Wardrobe can help you manage the contents too, squeezing more out of your clothes with different outfit combinations.
Ethical fashion stylist Alice Cruickshank is a huge champion of ‘shopping’ your own wardrobe by experimenting with outfit styling to keep things fresh. “Often we don’t need a new outfit at all – we just need to find the spark of joy again for the clothes we already own,” she tells me. “Learning to style your clothes is one of the most freeing skills when it comes to saying goodbye to fast fashion. Not only will you gain a better understanding of what suits you, but shopping becomes so much easier when you have a clearer picture of the clothes you’ll actually benefit from buying.”
Creativity often comes from scarcity, so reducing the newness flowing into your wardrobe can lead to fun new ways of styling, says Alice. “The starting block for learning to style your wardrobe has to be layering. It really is revolutionary, as simple as it sounds! I’ve recently started wearing my favourite dresses under a jumper, and when I do, I feel the same excitement as when I’m wearing something brand new.”
You can even make money through this process of curating rather than shopping.
“I do a lot of eBay selling now for my old clothes, as opposed to throwing it away,” says Albana, who has recognised the profitable potential of her unworn purchases, many of which still retain original tags.
Another brilliant way of optimising your existing wardrobe is to get crafty. Got an old white shirt that’s looking less than dazzling? Pick up a Dylon washing machine pod and in a couple of hours, you’ll have a ‘brand new’ shirt in a fresh new colour. You could even develop interesting design effects, because dyes don’t usually stick to synthetic threads – here is a shirt I dyed which now features contrast stitching.
Try out a tie dye pattern for your tees and sweatshirts too, which is also a great activity to do with kids. Never underestimate the potential of a needle and thread either. Learning basic repairs can breathe new life into worn out clothes, and simple sewing skills can empower some creative customisations, like embroidering a denim jacket with sequins and patches, or altering a maxi dress into a midi.
Last but not least – remember that you can refresh your wardrobe if it’s feeling a little lacklustre without buying anything new. Of course, we all know the transformational power of second-hand shopping, but it’s well worth exploring other exciting and affordable avenues too. From swap shops and wardrobe sharing apps to rental services and local bartering Facebook groups, the future is all about access rather than ownership.
Ultimately, the best way to build a conscious wardrobe is to buy less, buy better and wear for longer. “When shopping now, it takes me a really long time to commit to purchasing something. I always ask myself: how many wears will I get out of it?” adds Albana, who tries to picture at least 10 different occasions to wear a garment before investing. Extending the life of our clothes by just nine months would reduce carbon, water and waste footprints by 20-30% each, so it’s not just about shopping less, but wearing more.
Once you learn about the negative impacts of fast fashion, it can be easy to throw out everything you have from those ’bad’ brands and splash the cash on fancy new eco labels. But ethical consumption will only take you so far. The change starts with what you wear, but it’s important to step back and see the positive actions you can take that don’t involve spending a penny, like standing up for the rights of the people who make our clothes, or educating others to make better choices too. Building a more sustainable wardrobe – and a more sustainable world – will take all of us to reimagine our role as global citizens, not just consumers.