KN Green Week: Confessions of a (mostly) reformed ‘Shopaholic’

9 May 2019

For most of my life, shopaholic is a label I would have happily applied to myself. Shopping has always been a happy place for me. I have sought solace in the late night opening hours of Oxford Street’s shops after a tough day at work. I have laughed uncontrollably trying on ridiculous outfits while meandering the shops with friends on Saturday afternoons. I have felt a rush of delight at finding the perfect outfit for a friend’s wedding.

Despite the joy I have derived from shopping in the past, I have recently been on a journey which has left me ill at ease with my shopping and fast fashion habit.  It is a journey I would like to share.

The reality of fast fashion

We used to have two fashion seasons a year: spring/summer and autumn/winter. Now the top high street brands introduce new collections weekly and often have daily drops of new products. Despite there being fewer than 8 billion people on the planet, it is estimated that we produced 150 billion new garments globally last year. In the UK we purchase 38 million new garments every week. This is what we mean when we talk about fast fashion.

There have been elements of the fashion industry, such as the treatment of garment workers globally, with which we have all likely been uncomfortable for some time. If a shop on the British high street is charging a tenner for a dress, it is difficult to see how the workers in that supply chain can have been properly compensated for their work.

This was certainly one of the first issues which started to tweak my conscience and dampen any joy that finding a ‘bargain’ might otherwise bring.

I still wanted to shop though, so I avoided the cheapest shops on the high street and my guilt about the ethics of fast fashion lessened.

But then the concern over the proliferation of our use of plastic started to garner headlines. Were all these synthetic fabrics we were clothing ourselves in equivalent to plastic, destined to pile up in landfill and remain there for centuries? Indeed, the recent trend for faux fur started to cause me particular angst. As I saw rail after rail of brightly coloured faux fur coats in the post-Christmas sales, I couldn’t help think about the article I read which suggested that polyester, which typically makes up faux fur, could take anywhere from 500 – 1,000 years to biodegrade!

I had already resolved to stop buying bottled water, so wasn’t it hypocritical of me to blithely buy lots of clothes that would long outlive me on the planet?  I also started understanding the impact that microplastics are having on our oceans. These fibres are released into the environment every time we wash clothing made of synthetic fibres.

So I then started worrying again about how much clothing I was accumulating and where it would go when I was finished with it.  But at least I could still enjoy purchasing clothes made of natural fibres, right?

Well no - Stacey Dooley and a very worthwhile BBC documentary quickly cured me of that delusion.

As well as educating me that fashion is the second most toxic industry on the planet, ranking only after the fossil fuel industry, I also learnt of the devastating impact cotton production has had on water supplies as producers try to keep up with the insatiable desire for more and more garments. Cotton is an incredibly water intensive crop and over production of it in Central Asia led the Aral Sea, once the fourth largest lake in the world, to completely dry up.  So, overconsumption of natural fibres was clearly no longer an option either.

What can I do?

So, we have established there are serious ethical and sustainability questions surrounding our current consumption of fashion. Are there realistic steps we can take to make a difference? Is it still possible to indulge a love of fashion without forsaking our love of the planet?

Happily the answer is yes! I am certainly not perfect, still learning and still fighting a regular compulsion to shop, but I have found the following really helpful in my efforts to change –

  1. Clothes swaps. It is estimated that around 30% of the clothes in European wardrobes are not worn. Following some Marie Kondo inspired wardrobe cleansing, my friends and I set up a ‘Swap Shop’ WhatsApp group where we share photos and details of clothing we no longer wear. Not only have I nabbed some fab items but it is actually really satisfying seeing a piece of your clothing bringing joy to a friend and getting a new lease of life! We’re also trying to share clothes more for events such as weddings instead of buying something new for a one off event.
  2. Be more mindful when considering purchasing something. It is generally considered that an item should be worn at least 30 times to justify the impact of its production. Will you wear it that much? Do you really love it?
  3. It is also worth checking out the growing number of sustainable brands (more of which below) and consider buying second hand. There are some great new resell sites such as Depop and Vestiaire Collective where you can buy and sell clothes easily and pick up some great bargains.
  4. Look after and love what you own. Take good care of your clothes so they last longer, consider repairing items instead of disposing of them, and learn to love fashion repeats.
  5. Help to reduce the spread of microplastics by using products such as Guppyfriend when washing items made of synthetic fibres. These help prevent fabric shedding and capture microplastics which do shed so they can be properly recycled.

Tell me more

There are some great slow and sustainable fashion resources which can help inform your shopping, remind you why you might not need a new outfit for that party on Saturday night and help you to find ways to appease your desire for new threads (hello swap shops!).

  • Eco Age – a sustainability consultancy who also publish great articles on a whole range of environmental issues including sustainable and ethical fashion and beauty;
  • Good on You – an app which provides ratings on fashion brands based on their impact on people, the planet and animals;
  • Love not Landfill – a ‘campaign which wants to encourage young Londoners to donate their unwanted clothes to charity, put them in clothes banks, swap them, borrow them and buy second hand’. They run regular events for clothes swapping and up-cycling, amongst other things.  

Overcoming a lifetime of shopping habits in a culture where people are increasingly wary to even be seen multiple times in the same outfit on social media requires a real change of mind-set. While this shift in mind-set is a challenge, the benefits– to your bank balance, your wardrobe space and most importantly, to the planet – make it a change worth making and one this former shopaholic will continue working on personally and championing publicly.

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  1. Friday 3 May - Climate change and the individual: Where to begin… by starting to ask the right questions
  2. Tuesday 7 May - Eating the Environment Better
  3. Wednesday 8 May - Plastic Packaging – Reduce, Reuse, Recycle
  4. Friday 10 May - Can law help save the world?

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