How to quit fast fashion: ‘Sometimes we don’t need retail therapy, we need actual therapy’

From browsing Pinterest instead of retail sites to delaying gratification, four people who’ve forsworn fast fashion share their anti-shopping habits

Fast fashion brands have peddled the promise of a shiny new outfit resulting in happiness for more than two decades, which is just enough time for most of us to recognise happiness is not really what fast fashion delivers. But given how easy and cheap it is to buy, and the way a cocktail dress or pair of shoes can follow us around the internet, breaking up with fast fashion can be difficult, even for the most conscious consumer.

According to psychologist Chris Cheers, sometimes the first step to changing your behaviour is noticing the beliefs that are happening underneath it. He says since, psychologically, fashion can be based on comparisons or meeting expectations, your brain may understand clothes as a space where it has to avoid the threat of not dressing up the way you’re meant to. In other words: fitting in.

“So maybe your belief is, ‘If I don’t buy this, I can’t go to that party.’ Or, ‘If I don’t buy this, people won’t think that I’m hot or people won’t want to go out with me,’” he says. The key to addressing and changing this behaviour is to notice the thought and understand you don’t necessarily have to believe it.

Cheers says a useful exercise is following the thought through. If your brain is suggesting you’ll be more popular or desirable in the new purchase, think about what happens in reality. Is a new top actually going to get you the meaningful life that you want? “Sometimes we don’t need retail therapy, we need actual therapy” he says.

In the meantime, there are some strategies you can put in place to change your buying habits. Here, people who have successfully stopped buying fast fashion explain how they did it, and stuck to it.

The rule of three

Woman wearing a blue knitted jumper and blond hair holds a pile of clothing in front of her
Lauren Bravo, author of How to Break up with Fast Fashion. Photograph: Phil Fisk/The Observer

In 2019 Lauren Bravo, the author of How To Break Up With Fast Fashion, set herself a challenge: going the whole year without buying anything “new-new”. On the last day of 2018 she panic-bought five dresses from a fast fashion retailer (and sent four back). “Realising that none of those dresses really satisfied my craving was a pivotal point,” she says. This helped overhaul her shopping habits.

Now she never buys anything new “without mulling it over for a few weeks or months first”. This gives her time to research the brand’s ethics – she only buys from brands who pay their workers a living wage.

Waiting also means she can consider how the item will fit into her existing wardrobe. To do this she uses a rule from her mum: before you buy anything, name at least three items in your wardrobe you would wear it with, and three (real) places or occasions you will wear it to.

She also believes in the joy of saving up for something. “Remember how it felt when you were a kid, to really, really want something and save up your pocket money for months and months to finally buy it?”

“Taking your time to invest in something really great, with a story you love behind it, feels so much better than a hundred impulse purchases ever could.”

The unfollower

Woman wearing a black top and grey pants with a colourful bag on her arm stands outside a cream building
Maggie Zhou unsubscribed from all sales emails, and does not follow fast fashion brands on Instagram. Photograph: Maggie Zhou

Writer and podcaster Maggie Zhou says she avoids fast fashion by adhering to several principles. “One is the 30 wears rule, where I ideally want to wear an item of clothing at least 30 times.”

She has also made a conscious effort to put fast fashion brands out of sight and out of mind by changing her digital activity: unfollowing fast fashion brands and influencers on social media and unsubscribing from email lists.

But the ultimate shift was a realisation that “style actually comes from rewearing and restyling clothes multiple ways.” She points out that anyone can make something look good once, but “being able to reimagine it for different aesthetics and occasions is where skill comes in”.

The no-buy browser

Profile image of Wendy Syfret. Wendy says browsing and shopping is something that’s hardwired for her, but she lessens the urge by filling up Pinterest boards, rather than shopping carts.
Wendy Syfret says browsing and shopping is something that’s hardwired for her, but she lessens the urge by filling up Pinterest boards, rather than shopping carts. Photograph: Wendy Syfret

“I know myself, and I know I’m not going to stop shopping,” says Wendy Syfret, author of The Sunny Nihilist. I want to be that person, but sadly it’s too deeply embedded in my life. It is emotional, it is habitual. I can lessen those impulses but I can’t get rid of them.”

One way she replicates the fun of online shopping is by putting that curatorial energy into non-shopping platforms such as Pinterest and Instagram. “I make boards and saved folders of looks I like or brands I’m interested in,” she says.

“My interest usually wanes pretty quickly. But I’m left with an abandoned Pinterest board, not a bunch of stuff in the mail that I bought at 2am and don’t want any more.” When she does see something she likes, rather than buying it, she emails herself the link so she can consider it later on her desktop.

Ultimately, she tries to ask bigger questions of herself when it comes to style, so it’s not about upholding “fresh” and “new” as aspirational aesthetics. Instead she tries to focus on the person she wants to be and the vibe she wants to project. “The reality is, if you’re really trying to project an authentic version of yourself, it’s probably not going to be with something you just bought.”

The educated switcher

“It’s not so much that I have a strategy for avoiding fast fashion,” says Nico Idour, “I just do not engage any more.” The owner of Jawbreaker the Baker used to buy a lot of fast fashion, but has completely reformed his shopping habits since meeting his husband, designer Jason Hewitt.

Two men in smart clothes pose in a countryside setting
Nico Idour (left) with his partner Jason Hewitt, a designer who persuaded him to stop buying fast fashion. Photograph: Nico Idour

Hewitt changed Idour’s shopping habits by explaining the “realities of fast fashion” and the huge environmental costs of mass production and international shipping.

“Minimising my environmental impact has always been hugely important to me and so for me to immediately disengage from fast fashion once I understood the damage was not a difficult choice to make at all,” Idour says.

Instead, he shops exclusively second hand. He also has a rule that he has to try something on before he buys it, which stops him from making impulse purchases online. It also helps that he enjoys wearing clothes he loves and feels good in over and over again.


Lucianne Tonti

The GuardianTramp

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