Confessions of an environmentalist who loves clothes

In early 2019 I made two important choices: the first was to leave San Francisco for a job in London, and the second was that there would be “no new clothes” in my life that year. I wish I could tell you that this second commitment was made purely for environmental reasons, but the reality is that every extra bag coming on that SFO to LHR flight was going to cost me $250. 

I have always loved clothes, so when I started earning money as a young professional, I indulged a bit.  Having done an environmental studies degree, I had some idea of the environmental impact of clothing, but I was also happy to let the greenwashing of these brands reassure me that my shopping wasn’t the real problem. Thus, it was the fear of moving expenses that finally pushed me over the edge to “no new clothes” and, surprisingly, that commitment has stuck for two years already. 

It’s likely not news to you that clothing production driven by our rabid consumption of garments poses a real environmental problem (I’d highly recommend taking a read through Yianna’s article on the topic here). However, the draw of newness and the pressure of beauty standards is real and powerful, so I believe it is a mistake to downplay the challenge of changing our shopping behaviors. As such, I’d like to share my own experiences of being an environmentalist who loves clothing. 

The first phase of my commitment of “no new clothes” was tough. I booked my plane ticket, looked at everything that I needed to pack, and swore that I was not going to buy another thing. A week later I went for a trip with a friend, followed her into a store, and promptly bought a new summer dress. That trip taught me an important lesson about being more conscious of my exposure; the clothing industry knows how to get in our heads and they are good at it! The next week I experimented with changing my walking route by one block to avoid the beautiful displays on San Francisco’s Market Street and started unfollowing fashion-focused Instagram accounts that created a lot of desire. 

I worked with this avoidance strategy to see what triggered me the most (bored Instagram scrolling was the top perpetrator). The real reward came when I made it six months without shopping. At this phase, it switched from feeling like an artificial rule to the start of a real detachment from consumerism that I could feel proud of. I began to enjoy my rebellion against companies advertising to me about new seasons, new styles, new everything. They were wasting their dollars on advertising and I was no longer wasting mine. 

However, after making it nine months, I decided it was time to figure out what my sustainable long-term relationship with clothing was going to look like. Complete abstinence was setting me up for an eventual sense of failure when I finally bought something, so where I landed was swapping out “no new clothes” for “no new clothes”. The best representation I’ve found for this shift is the “Buyerarchy of Needs” illustrated by Sarah Lazarovic. The idea is to reshape how we think about our priorities for clothing: maximize usage for what you already have, buy as little new stuff as possible, and challenge yourself to borrow, swap, thrift, and/or make when you feel the need for something fresh in your closet.  

For the past year, I have experimented with each of these tiers below “buy” and I’ll share some tips on having fun and making the most out of “no new clothes”. 

Use what you have: the most effective trick I’ve found for making the most of what I already have is to practice “forced closet turnover”. Put simply, I use a large suitcase under the bed to pack away a good amount of my clothing (typically the out of season pieces, but I try to put away more rather than less). This technique allows me to work with some different clothes every few months and forces a break from my go-to’s before I get sick of them. Plus I do get a genuine thrill when unpacking things after a few months of storage under the bed (note that this technique works better the worse your memory is, so it is magic for me!).

Borrow / Swap: these are the techniques I have personally used the least, probably due in part to the pandemic, but also to my fear of accidentally ruining someone else’s clothing in a borrowing situation. Borrowing / swapping also requires having people closeby that you both feel comfortable asking and have clothes that will be a workable size. However, one thing that has helped me do more borrowing / swapping is verbalizing my commitment with friends. People are curious about “no new clothes”, plus they often think of me when cleaning out their closets and I have been the recipient of some incredible pieces thanks to sharing my commitment. 

It is also worth noting that there has been a real boom on the professional borrowing / swapping front in the past few years. Rent the Runway and others have disrupted shopping patterns by offering everything from one-off borrowing (ideal for sourcing fancy wedding outfits), to unlimited subscriptions which gives you access to an endless closet of rented items. There is an environmental impact of the shipping, packaging, and dry cleaning needed for this business model which does mean that the net impact of this is not totally clear. However, it does move us in a good direction when it comes to reducing production and normalizing a new way of thinking about clothing consumption.

Thrift: thrifting is a favorite for me (and more importantly for Macklemore) because I still enjoy crafting a wardrobe with things I own. Thrifting doesn’t always work well if you have something specific in mind, but if you enjoy the act of shopping and being surprised, I’d recommend it wholeheartedly. My tip is to wander into thrift shops in fancy neighborhoods as the sourcing areas for these shops make some of them a treasure trove of nice brands I wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford. 

Sew your own: I purchased a sewing machine during lockdown in London and have enjoyed the experience of “extremely slow fashion”. Sewing has greatly increased my appreciation for the artistry of garments, but I understand that sewing your own is not practical for most. Furthermore, sewing is second only to buying new clothes on the “Buyerarchy” because most sewing is done with new fabrics that are resource intensive to produce. However, there is a growing interest in combining thrifting with sewing which changes the equation. Maybe that dress at the thrift shop is too large, but if you love the fabric and have the patience to sew, modifying it is a great option! Try to find items that are too large or have lots of fabric so you have material to work with while making adaptations. 

If you’re at all like me — a clothing fan with environmental concerns — I hope that my experience of transitioning from regular shopping to being two years in with “no new clothes” can help you navigate the right balance for yourself. I have found the experience to be rewarding, and surprisingly sustainable after the initial shock of detaching from my ingrained consumerism. Wishing you happy experimentation across the “Buyerarchy”!

Anna Breu has long been fascinated with the unique challenge of creating action around climate change and sustainability, and she holds a degree in Environmental Studies and Psychology from Middlebury College (USA). Anna works as an Associate Director at BTS in London where she focuses on strategy execution and creating change momentum in organizations, skills she likes to use outside work in the context of environmental issues. Anna is particularly focused on the role of her home country – the US – plays on the international stage, and is passionate about the potential of circular economies.

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