I was very proud to be asked to take part in Sustainable Threads’ London Festival of Sustainable Fashion, which took place on 24th November 2018, in Hackney, East London. You can read more about the event on the London Community Resource Network website.
There was a repair cafe, a clothes swap, and I was very excited to take part in a roundtable discussion hosted by stylist and CEO & Founder at Fashion Roundtable, Tamara Cincik.
I also had the opportunity to speak at the festival, and share the story of my ‘No New Clothes for a Year’ challenge. I’ve blogged about this before here, but thought it’d be nice to share my festival speech with you below as well:
“Thank you so much for inviting me here today. My area of interest is usually zero waste and plastic-free living, but I’d like to talk to you today about an experiment I did in 2017, which was to buy no new clothes for a year. And I’d like to start with a little thought experiment for everyone: If you were only allowed to keep the clothes you own that you could write down in a list now, how much of your wardrobe do you think you’d get to keep? 90% 50%? Less?
Now, what I want to think about with this question is not ‘how many clothes should I have’, but ‘how many clothes do I have that I love’?
What started me on this journey was that in December 2016, I watched a film called The True Cost. It’s about the fast fashion industry, and part of it focuses on the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh in 2013. Rana Plaza was an eight storey building, and it contained a number of garment factories, where people worked making clothes for brands like Primark, Mango and Zara. The day before it collapsed, large cracks appeared in the building, but the garment workers there were ordered to go back to work regardless. On 24th April, the factory collapsed in just 90 seconds, killing 1138 people. It injured 2600 more, with some people having to amputate limbs to escape from under fallen machinery and rubble. It’s hard to find the words to describe how terrifying it must have been.
I sat in my living room and I cried. I cried because what I’d just seen was heart-breaking, but I also cried because like everyone else, in my own way, I was complicit in this. Because the truth of the matter is that these people died because of fast fashion. For my appetite for cheap clothes. For OUR clothes.
Now, even back when I watched this in 2016 I wasn’t a big consumer of fashion. But of course I’ve bought clothes from the high street, including ones I didn’t need, or even really like that much, but somehow just… did. I think we all have.
But so I wanted to do something, and with a friend, we committed to a challenge – to buy no new clothes for a year. With a few exceptions – we were allowed one second-hand purchase a month, and we could replace underwear and shoes that wore out, if we didn’t already have something suitable and it was absolutely necessary, and finally we could swap clothes.
I learned a huge amount during the course of that year – about ethical fashion, shocking stats about the sheer number of clothes thrown away (300,000 tonnes each year in the UK alone), why the second-hand market isn’t always sustainable, but I also learned a huge amount about my relationship with fashion, about my relationship with my own body and my perception of myself, about the stories we want to tell other people about ourselves through how we dress.
So when I started the experiment, I took a long, hard look at my wardrobe and wondered how many clothes I had that I could remember and write down. I could name all my favourites – the clothes I wear every day, or that dress that always makes me feel a bit more special. You know – the stuff that makes up 20% of your wardrobe but you wear 80% of the time? I happily placed these items in the ‘keep’ pile and moved on.
Next – the memorably guilty purchases. I don’t know about you, but for a long time I had a section of my wardrobe that could best be described as ‘clothes I’ve bought when shopping with fabulously-dressed friends with impeccable style, that I end up barely wearing because they’re just not “me” and I somehow got swept up in their style. Now I would definitely could list those clothes, because there’s a slight sense of guilt attached to them.
Other purchases in this area are things like dresses bought for a wedding or special event that I panic-bought and it turns out either made me look a funny shape, don’t fit properly or aren’t actually something I like that much. Then there’s the clothes I’ve bought that were perhaps the last one in a sale and are a size too small, when I was feeling good about my future exercise and lifestyle decisions that day. And I’m DEFINITELY going to lose enough weight to fit into. Some day…
And while these purchases are something I feel bad about, I DO at least remember them. But there’s also another area of guilty clothes – the ones you buy that six months later you find unworn at the bottom of the drawer, completely forgotten about. In a way, I felt worse about these – they were bought with so little thought as to have become completely unmemorable. Probably purchased without really thinking, no moment of excitement of having discovered something lovely, just sort of – accidentally consumed.
And what do all of these clothes have in common? Not only did I not wear them – therefore making them a waste – but I felt bad about them. They took up time in my thoughts, feeling bad about the money spent, about my body if I tried them on only to find that yes, they’re still too small, about making poor choices.
And then I saw that film, and the tragedy about Rana Plaza, and I realised that there are people dying for these clothes. And throughout the world, there are people working in unsafe conditions, for a pittance, in places where they aren’t allowed to unionise and cannot assert their rights as workers. Buying these clothes and not wearing them – or worse still, as some people do and chuck them in the bin – isn’t just a shame, it’s an absolute disgrace.
So the ‘No New Clothes for a Year’ experiment was born, and what did I learn? Did I rediscover a love of all of these forgotten clothes, and create a whole new wardrobe out of the one I already had?
I wasn’t wearing them because I didn’t love them, or how they made me feel about myself. So I gave everything I didn’t wear or love away right at the start – first dibs to my friend I was doing the challenge with, then other friends, and finally Freecycle and charity shops. I ended up with just enough clothes left to fill up half a standard-size wardrobe and two and a half drawers in a dresser.
Ironically, I found that getting rid of these ‘unloveables’ gave me a bigger wardrobe. Being confronted with just the clothes you want makes it much easier to work out what it is you actually like. I don’t know that I could have defined my style before this, but it was immediately apparent. I like simple lines in blacks, greys, and mainly neutral tones, and if it has a pattern, something with nature on it. I don’t like a full-length sleeve, and why on earth I had continued to buy clothes with ruffles when I’ve never worn them?
And I can honestly say that during that year, I enjoyed my wardrobe more than ever before. If all your clothes are your favourite clothes, getting ready in the morning is much easier.
I did, however, get a few second-hand clothes during the year. I bought some of my now most-worn and most-loved items during that time.
Buying second hand in theory should be harder – less choice, even items you do like only in one size. But in the context of the challenge, I learned some really useful tools.
Have you heard of the term “decision fatigue”? It describes how the decisions we make decline in quality over a period of time when we have to make lots of them. It’s been demonstrated that judges in court make poorer decisions later in the day than they do earlier on. It leaves people more susceptible to marketing and more susceptible to impulse buying.
So when I was able to only buy one item a month, it meant I could put a lot of thought into that one decision – what did I want, how well would it work with my existing – now fairly sparse – wardrobe?
Now I’d suggest that this was good for me and my wallet, but as I’ve learned from my wider interest in sustainability, it’s actually better for all of us. For example, did you know that cotton uses more chemical pesticides than any other single crop in the world. It takes up 16% of global insecticide releases. And it’s not just chemicals, which harm the health of those farming the crop, as well as huge problems caused by runoff into water supplies. It’s the water usage itself – it takes 11,800 litres of water to make a single pair of jeans.
From a personal point of view, the ‘one item a month rule’ meant I was almost certainly not going to buy something I didn’t really want or love when I put it on! And a side effect of this I found was that when you’re trying on an item to really put it through its paces, you’re judging it, rather than yourself – rather than feeling rubbish about how nothing suits you.
And bit by bit, I found this led me to a new mindset, which has left me more content and also, better off. And that is the mindset of not-buying as the default, and only deviating from it when something meets my own exacting standards. Shopping is only something that happens when I really need or want something specific, not a hobby in itself.
So, to sum up – whilst a whole year of no new clothes might not be for everyone, I would definitely recommend an audit of your wardrobe to anyone, taking stock of what you have and what you wear. The best piece of advice I can give to you, is once you know what it is your wear – accept it as ‘your’ style and embrace it wholeheartedly. You might want to be the kind of person who rocks pencil skirts and heels, but if you always end up in converse and jeans – accept it! ‘Comfortable in yourself’ is truly one of the best fashion choices you can make – for the planet, for your wardrobe and for your state of mind.”
So – that was it! A big thank you to Ruth Cava, Festival Curator, and to Matt Shearing for inviting me to be part of such an amazing event. If you’d like to learn more about the London Community Resource Network, please visit http://lcrn.org.uk and Sustainable threads at http://sustainablethreads.org.uk.