Environment

How 'Not Buying Clothes' Became the New Buying Clothes

Fashion's latest moral signifier is, uh, just re-wearing stuff you already own.
January 30, 2020, 9:00am
not-buying-new
Photo via Alamy and @notbuyingnew. Collage by VICE staff. 

Celebrities and influencers want you to know that they’re going to stop buying new clothes. Earlier this month, Joaquin Phoenix made a public commitment to wearing the same Stella McCartney tuxedo throughout the film awards season, while Deborah Meaden of Dragons’ Den promised not to purchase any new handbags, shoes or clothes for the next year. Influencers like @notbuyingnew and @enbrogue routinely share photos of upcycled vintage sweaters and charity shop-sourced dresses under the hashtags #progressnotperfection, #slowstyle and #capsulewardrobe.

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It’s easy to feel irritated by this sentiment. Concern for the environment aside, if I had a custom Stella McCartney blazer, I’d be wearing it every day, let alone to every awards show. Meaden has a net worth of over £40 million, so I’m sure her wardrobe is well stocked. It’s also difficult to take upcycled fashion influencers seriously when they post about being gifted @oldceline tops.

Clearly, “not buying clothes” has replaced “sustainability” and “Fair Trade” as fashion's latest dubious moral signifier. Will this result in a positive impact on the environment, or is it a trend that will soon give way to the capitalist inevitability of buying next season’s new must-have item?

One thing we can be certain of is that our shopping addiction is killing the planet. In the UK, we buy five times as many clothing items as we did in the 1980s. A survey conducted by environmental charity WRAP found that one in three women consider a garment “old” after one or two wears. And the problem is set to get worse: experts predict that clothing demand will rise by the equivalent of 500 billion t-shirts over the next decade. What's more, these clothes will likely end up as waste. The equivalent of one rubbish truck of textiles is landfilled or burned every second. As a result, fashion will be responsible for more than a quarter of the world’s carbon budget by 2050.

With this in mind, not buying new clothes seems as good a manifesto as any to combat climate change. How To Break Up With Fast Fashion, a new book by journalist Lauren Bravo, explores this topic in detail. She committed to not buying any new clothes for a whole year, following a house move that saw her faced with “five years’ worth of shopping mistakes.”

“Fast fashion is a juggernaut, and we need to slam on the brakes,” Bravo tells me over email. “For starters, not buying new clothes means you wear the ones you already own more, saving clothes from landfill or the energy-intensive process of recycling. By extending the lifespan of a garment even by just nine months, you can reduce its carbon footprint by as much as 30 percent.”

It is, however, important to acknowledge here that committing to not buying new clothes is easier for some than others. As plus-size style blogger Stephanie Yeboah points out, finding second-hand clothes for bigger bodies is much harder. “I don’t have much of an option when it comes to vintage or charity shops,” Yeboah tells me. “Slim women often buy bigger clothes so they can customise them or wear them in a baggy fit. I see so many videos from YouTube gurus saying, ‘If you want the oversized flannel shirt or the oversized mom jeans just buy a bigger size and then tailor it down.’ It would be nice if we had a section in the charity or vintage shop that just catered to us.”

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Even if your body does slide into a tiny-waisted vintage tea dress, the “If I buy these snakeskin-print cycling shorts, I will feel better” impulse is extremely difficult to kick. And it’s near impossible to maintain discipline when your Instagram feed is filled with influencers in outfits poised to make that guy who ghosted you side right back into your DMs, and bikinis sell on Pretty Little Thing for £1. You don’t even need to have money in your bank account, thanks to “buy now and pay later” companies like Klarna.

Lucy Siegle, climate change activist and author of To Die For: Is Fashion Wearing Out the World?, says that government regulation would help individuals make a long-lasting commitment to the "no buy" movement.

“We know that the environmental footprint of fast fashion is huge,” she tells me. “But unless you apply any breaks, there's nothing to stop it apart from cultural trends and consumer backlash. So, what you need is legislation. And the last attempt at bringing in legislation was rejected by the government.”

The legislation Siegle is referring to is the 18 recommendations presented to the government by the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee last year. Policy recommendations included taxing a penny on the price of clothing items to fund recycling centres, a ban on incinerating or landfilling unsold stock that can be recycled, and introducing sewing lessons in schools. All of these measures were rejected.

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Given the fragile state of the high street and the importance of consumer spending to the economy, it seems unlikely that politicians will adopt these buy-less policies any time soon. As Siegle explains: “We're going on a free trade route after Brexit, no brakes will be applied because they are considered to be anti-commercial.” In fact, one of Jacob Rees-Mogg’s policies when campaigning for Brexit was to make clothes even cheaper. Unsurprising, then, that one of the most vocal supporters of the Leave campaign is Lord Wolfson, the CEO of high street chain Next.

Avoiding the temptation to shop is an exhausting uphill battle but with a Conservative majority government in power, individual action may be the most powerful tool in the fight against clothing waste. “We haven’t been able to change the system,” Siegle says. “The only other route is to say, ‘Fuck this. I don't want to be part of it.’”

Bravo agrees. She advocates a form of consumer strike, in the hope that it will encourage a shift in the type of clothing that brands manufacture. “As consumers, we have the power to vote with our wallets; not shopping at those huge high street chains sends a message that they need to do things differently,” she says. “It might not seem like a very powerful act of protest to ghost ASOS for a few months, but if everyone did it, the collective impact could be huge.”

Clothes take excessive amounts of water to produce, not to mention the fuel burned in transportation, or the amount of waste that ends up in landfill when bell sleeves are declared out of fashion. Despite all this, fashion marketing preys on our fear of missing out on the hot new trend – ASOS' tagline is “get it or regret it”. To stop this damage being committed in the name of "fashion", we need laws. But in the absence of a government willing to take a stand against our planet dying, a collection of high profile individuals pledging to not buy new clothes can’t be a bad thing.

There’s no ethical consumption under late capitalism, but there is even less ethical consumption in fast fashion.

@annielord8