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What I Learned When I Gave Up Fast Fashion

Photo: Photo Illustration by Stevie Remsberg/Photo Getty

Back in March, I found myself running around the city commando in a pair of mom jeans. My New Year’s resolution to give up fast fashion had driven me to this absurd place. After a workout, I realized I’d forgotten to bring fresh underwear, and, well, I couldn’t exactly buy another pair. But I did not cave, and looking back, I’ve come to see this moment as emblematic of my year without Zara, Topshop, and other affordable-but-exploitative brands. There was some in-the-moment discomfort. But in the end, it was worth it.

My year of sustainable fashion was essentially a quest to find light in the fashion industry after a year of feeling disillusioned. Of all things, what catalyzed me was all the feminist slogan T-shirts that appeared after the 2016 election. I found them so hollow, with their empty message of “empowerment” tied to a disposable product that was probably made by young women being paid very little money in a factory on the other side of the world. To me, the shirts summed up the worst inclinations of the industry. I don’t think fashion is frivolous, but those were, and I wanted to find something sartorial that had an actual, concrete impact.

So, I gave myself a challenge to learn about sustainable and ethical fashion. I wasn’t just interested in capital-F Fashion, but also brands like Nike and Target — stuff that pretty much everyone buys. I decided the best way to learn was to quit fast-fashion cold turkey in January 2018. My boundaries were flexible: I could buy anything secondhand, or from companies that try to be good to people and the environment, and that show receipts.

I started off with boundless energy. I was ready! I kept all my old clothes (obviously) but bought a hemp T-shirt from Jungmaven via the eco-luxury shop Kindred Black. It came with a nice note from the founders, who remembered me from an interview I’d done. Outfitted in hemp, I felt like an eco-warrior.

But I quickly learned this was going to be harder than buying one good T-shirt. Companies are just barely making baby steps to become transparent. They’re toddling toward sustainable practices, but often they are unwilling or unable to effectively communicate to consumers what they’re doing.

Even the phrase sustainability, when it comes to fashion, isn’t all that useful. It can mean too much and too little at the same time. The technical definition of sustainable is something that can be done over and over again at the same rate. On the part of clothing companies, this can mean low-water production, nontoxic dye processes, paying workers fairly, using only organic cotton, or offering transparency about where and how the clothes are made. On the part of consumers, it can mean renting clothes instead of buying, or shopping at consignment stores or Goodwill.

But often sustainable practices create more problems. Vegan leather and faux fur are good if you want to be less cruel to animals, but they’re made of plastic and we have too much of that. Even if a product is environmentally friendly, that doesn’t mean it’s not made using neocolonial practices. Sustainability is a useful phrase when you’re writing, but not so useful when you’re trying to figure out what you want to buy that aligns with your values.

To help become a more discerning shopper, I used the Good on You app, which rates brands on several different metrics to give you an idea of how ethical they are. The reviews helped me separate what was a genuine effort toward an ethical industry and what was bullshit.

After my hemp shirt, my first major purchase was a dress for my birthday in May. I like to celebrate my birthday in excess, and I was in love with this dress. It came from Reformation and had a blue-and-white print of naked women on it — like porcelain or a Pissarro painting. Buying it felt good, but more important than what I did purchase was what I didn’t. I white-knuckled through Fashion Week past giant bags, feeling grateful that cowboy boots were in style, since I already owned them.

My eureka moment came when I bought a tiny, Jacquemus-esque bag at a consignment store in Dallas, along with some crocodile-effect boots to go with my cropped, wide-leg pants. I had spent months deliberating which new items would replace some of my worn-out fast-fashion finds that couldn’t be repaired anymore. It wasn’t just that I was excited about getting new stuff. After 11 months, I felt like I had made buying less and buying well a habit. Okay, I got this, I told myself.

But by the third quarter of the year, I was out of gas. What does it even matter? I want a pretty beaded handbag, dammit! The one I saw on Instagram!! I had gained weight, and was craving a dopamine hit that getting a statement piece gives you. Instead, I bought a pair of Spanx (not sustainable). I felt like a fraud for spending time and energy doing something that seemed so small in the face of massive climate crisis.

It helped to read and follow activists and writers who cover sustainable fashion, like Clare Press, Céline Semaan, Dominique Drakeford, Whitney Bauck, and Alden Wicker. They kept me energized and convinced that what I was doing was worthwhile, even if it was small. Eventually, I started to unlearn bad habits and think more along the lines of, “If I buy this, I’m responsible for where it ends up. Do I want that responsibility?”

I know the sustainable shopping world isn’t perfect. It’s expensive. It’s filled with white people and size twos. Even thrift stores have a dearth of plus-size clothing. It’s also hard to know which brands are telling the truth about their sustainable practices and which are greenwashing (falsely presenting themselves as eco-friendly or ethical). Still, I am a size 8 person who will always spend disposable income on beautiful clothes and I also have access to amazing sustainable designers and activists through my job. I have no excuse!

Now that it’s January, I’m going to treat myself to a Rachel Comey jumpsuit that I’m confident I’ll wear at least 30 times, as advised by Livia Firth. But my resolution isn’t over just because the year ended. The decision to cut out fast fashion fundamentally changed not only how I shopped, but how I eat, how much plastic I use, and where I direct the bulk of my charity.

I was reared on brisket, but I don’t eat meat anymore. I buy less now, I wear things I love more, and I have a much stronger sense of my own taste. I clean out my closet and give it to Goodwill. I donate to nonprofits and conservationist groups. As my colleague Edith Zimmerman would say, I replaced one belief with another. For me it was taking away, “I want this because buying it will make me happy for a month,” and putting, “This will be something I can use for years” in its place. (If you want to shop, here’s a list of brands I love that are sustainable in some way or another.)

Of course, I’m not prescribing this as a lifestyle for everybody: I know it can be expensive, not to mention time-consuming. But for those of us who can, don’t we have a responsibility to make sure we promote the good in this industry rather than the cheap thrills? I think so. At least, until the companies create widescale change that makes sustainability accessible to all.

I continually come back to Semaan, who told me in an interview, “When you are purchasing [something], think about the end life.” She was talking about jeans, but it applies to any other garment. I’ve thought much more about the afterlife of clothes in the past year. Once I started learning, I couldn’t look away. And I think I’m better for it. At least I’m shopping in a way that aligns with my dream of what fashion could be.

What I Learned When I Gave Up Fast Fashion