Fast fashion: high profits, big advertisements, little value.
Two weeks ago, I bought a leather handbag. When I spotted it sitting in a forlorn corner of an East London flea market, I told myself I would pay no more than £5 for it. When the uninterested hipster who was selling it said it cost just £2, I didn’t even try to barter down the price.
Sure, the bag’s inner lining was ripped and dirty enough that I cut it out as soon as I got home. And yes, the leather had some suspect markings as well as multiple spots where the stitching had become un-stitched. But, the rich and pleasant smell of its buttery leather and the slew of compliments I’ve accumulated while toting it around means that my new acquisition has essentially paid for itself, not that it had far to go.
While I’ve always been a fan of second-hand goods and the thrill of finding a one-off bargain, purchases like this one have become even more of a treasure since I made the decision to swear off “fast fashion” earlier this year.
With nearly instantaneous runway-to-retail turnover, ridiculously cheap prices, and a dizzying volume of colors, varieties and sizes, it’s no surprise that clothing from Forever 21 and H&M are the mainstays of many women’s wardrobes. I have, on more than one occasion, walked through the gleaming doors of H&M’s behemoth Oxford Street store in need of a simple shift dress or pair of black jeans, and have never struggled to find exactly what I needed, as well as a few items to add on.
However, despite big chains’ efforts to improve their environmental and social impact, I was finding it increasingly hard to justify buying even the occasional item from a place that pushes 30 to 50 trend-driven fashion seasons a year, rather than sticking with Mother Nature’s customary four. It was when I learned that clothes from most fast fashion outlets are designed to withstand no more than five wears, that I decided it was time to kick the habit for good.
It appears however, that few shoppers are joining me. With 2,575 stores in 44 countries, H&M announced last week that its 2nd quarter profits had reached $745 million, an impressive 20 percent rise over the previous year right in the midst of a recession. For most, the killer combination of up-to-the-minute trends and bottom-line prices is too tempting an offer to resist.
What is the alternative though? We can’t dress ourselves solely from the floors of flea markets and corners of thrift stores unless we want to smell like my leather handbag from head to toe. Furthermore, as someone who still declares it a minor victory each time I manage to pay my rent, affordability is as necessary as style and sustainability when it comes to buying clothes, if not more so. For most of us, eco-couture is not a viable option.
The answer, I’ve come to find, is what I like to call conscious fashion: valuing individual items in your wardrobe for the story they tell, who they belonged to first, or the unique place you bought them, thereby reducing the impulse to accumulate more. As someone who predominately lives out of a suitcase, I’ve become adept at paring my possessions down to the essentials, but that doesn’t mean I’ve lost my sense of style or creativity in the process.
Recently, I’ve been playing a mental game with myself: as I leave the house each morning, I mentally tally the items I’m wearing and where they came from. Points are scored when most of my outfit used to belong to someone else, known or unknown. A typical day might include my sisters riding boots (they were too small for her); my best friend’s vintage Coach satchel purse which she gave me for my last birthday (we call it “the lunch box”); a blazer I bought in a basement thrift store on a trip to Atlanta for $10; a sarong my mom bought in Ibiza that I wear as a scarf; and a pair of Goodwill jeans that remain the only pair of second-hand pants I’ve ever managed to find long enough for my lanky legs.
While an increasing majority of my wardrobe does come from other people (recently when someone asked me where my favorite place to shop was, my honest answer was my mom and sister’s closets), there are of course times when I need or want to buy something new.
These days, I try and do that with as much intention as possible. Buying new things less often means you can afford to spend a bit more and will be more likely to hold on to these purchases once you’ve made them. Impulsively wandering into Forever 21 before a night out is the opposite of shopping with intention; it’s the surest way to end up with a trendy, badly tailored item you won’t wear in a few months.
As someone who lives far from my family and friends, wearing things that used to belong to the people that I love makes my belongings feel less disposable and encourages me to take care of them more. Furthermore, buying unique clothing from vintage stores and street markets that are off the beaten track attaches a sentimental value to my belongings, a quality that Forever 21 and H&M will have a hard time reproducing no matter how hard they try.
It’s not simply that wearing something that’s not from a multi-national chain makes it sustainable. Conscious fashion is about more than that. In essence, my things have become more than just things to me, which I suppose is why I’m content with having less of them.