It all began in July 2019, when I was on holiday back in the UK with my sister and Mum. I’d ordered an embarrassingly large haul of clothes online, delivered ready for my arrival. As I slashed open each parcel and tried on the next new piece, I felt a rush of happiness, tinged with shame.
I knew I spent more than a lot of other people on clothes. I also knew that I was contributing to an industry that is destroying the planet and routinely making people work in near slave-like conditions, through fast fashion.
I made a decision to not spend any money on clothes for a year.
I’ve been writing about my experience along the way, but now I want to sum up what I’ve learned and what will change, as I approach the end of my challenge.
- Making clothes is really hard – they should be expensive
As a result of my self-imposed challenge, I took up dressmaking. I thought it would be a loophole, giving me new clothes to wear. Only, without being self-deprecating, the clothes I’ve made are fairly rubbish. The stitching isn’t straight, the fit is bad, the overall look is pretty shoddy. I’ve donated or thrown out most of what I’ve made – not at all the sustainable approach I was going for.
It turns out that creating professional-looking clothes is an incredible skill, a craft. It takes a lot of practice to get good at it, and every project provides a fresh difficulty. I have so much respect for garment workers everywhere.
Fabric is expensive, and that doesn’t take into account the money, time and talent it takes to design a piece, create multi-sized patterns, cut, stitch, transport, store and sell. I’m no longer resentful of the cost of good-quality clothing, but amazed at how little some garments are sold for. The only way it can be done is by paying garment workers a pittance. I wish we had more respect for the craftsmanship of clothes-making.
- Quality is a luxury
I will try my best to put quality over quantity, but I know I’m in a privileged position of being able to afford to do that, for the most part. Not everyone has that luxury. We have to be careful as we advocate for sustainability that we’re kind and inclusive in the way we do it.
- Caring for clothes takes effort
If we’re going to switch from quantity to quality, we need to ensure our clothes last. There are a few ways to do that – I spoke to my Gran about it during the year. Whether it’s treating stains as soon as they happen, handwashing your woollens, or hanging things up straightaway, it all takes just a little more effort.
- When it comes to fabric I prefer to go natural
Taking up sewing and dressmaking had so many unexpected benefits from me, including providing me with a hobby on cold, dark winter nights. Another benefit was learning more about fabric. Handling and working with different materials has given me insight into their price, as well as how they wash, iron, submit to being sewed, drape on the body, and last over time.
I now notice the dividing line in price for garments made from different fabrics. For jumpers, to use an example, the line is about $130 AUD. Anything under is mostly synthetic, anything over tends to be mostly or all-natural fibres.
For the most part, I prefer a fabric mix that is mostly natural. I’m not boycotting polyester or elastane. But I will definitely be looking at the fabric and care labels just as often as I look at the price tag now.
- Accepting I’ll always find something to spend my money on
Part of my reason for stopping shopping was to save money. But I realised it’s not just around buying clothes where my discipline is weak. If I give up chocolate for a month, I just eat biscuits instead. And if I have money available, it turns out, I seem to spend it. I’m sure I can’t be alone here.
So I’ve accepted that, and found a solution. I’ve set up an automatic payment to coincide with pay day that transfers the majority of my unallocated money somewhere else. It could be a peer-to-peer lending platform, over-paying on the mortgage, investing in shares, or just a separate savings account. Somewhere that I can’t easily see, or access it.
I need rules and limits. I haven’t decided my new rules, but I will put some in place. Whether it’s a certain number of pieces per year, or restricting the times I can go shopping, I’ll experiment to find something that works for me and my budget.
I’m fascinated by behavioural economics, and if you are too I can definitely recommend looking into the Freakonomics archives on self-control and willpower.
- In a crisis, you have to behave differently
If your house is on fire, you don’t light a match. If you’re in a climate crisis, you don’t carry on destroying the planet. Right? Only, that’s not quite how we’re all doing it.
Choosing good quality items, using shapes, colours and fabrics that work for your body and lifestyle shouldn’t be a hardship. So how about committing to classic, timeless style over short-lived trends? I think it’s a pretty do-able goal for most people, that will help us all reduce the damage we do to our planet.