This year, I won't be buying any new clothes.
I say this as I currently have three shopping tabs open, a package on my doorstep from The RealReal, and a note in my phone with things I "need" to buy: a few more turtlenecks, another sweater, a new black puffer to replace my perfectly fine, though slightly out of fashion, current black puffer. And while I'm at it, a new scarf in a bright color would be great, too.
You may have gleaned from the fact that I work at InStyle.com that I care about clothes and trends as well as the culture of fashion, from the creative community behind it to the artistry and beyond. There's a lot that can feel toxic about the industry, but for all its faults, fashion was a constant from my pre-teen years to my late-twenties, ushering me through many iterations of myself. It's always been there when I need something to look forward to, like a new coat arriving in the mail, or the push-up sports bra that will make me feel sexy, even though I'm just sitting on the couch binge watching The Flight Attendant.
Last fall, I began mulling over the concept of quitting my shopping habit cold turkey. Not only were the brand new Ganni dresses hanging unworn in my closet — the spoils of a pandemic-induced store-closing sale — but I had begun reading about the the fallibility of the ethical consumer movement, and the fact that while, yes, thrifting is ethically more sound than scoring armfuls of $2.80 Forever21 tops, it does nothing to combat the cultural mindset that prioritizes newness and excess, while taking accessibly priced items out of the hands of those who might need them more than I. At the same time, could I really commit to giving up my one real source of joy, however brief, in the middle of a lockdown?
To be honest, I'm not sure I can make it till 2022 without buying at least one (more) pair of Everlane jeans. But I was inspired by an older New Year's resolution that even I was surprised I managed to keep. In 2018, I vowed to stop shopping at fast-fashion retailers, and by some miracle, I did. My motivations this time are more or less the same: I want to do good for garment workers and for the planet. But now, in 2021, I have a different outlook on what it means to be a "conscious consumer."
With my first resolution, I wanted to stop giving my money to brands with a track record of excessive waste (though the exact numbers vary between sources, it's estimated that we buy a collective 80-100 billion garments worldwide per year) and horrific working conditions, not to mention, ripping off up-and-coming indie designers. A boycott seemed a straightforward yet impactful approach; in 2018, boycotting fashion brands was, itself, the latest trend. The green marketing boom was in full swing; Everlane was ascendant and untarnished, and Reformation was, for the most part, scandal-free.
Giving up fast-fashion was hard. When I made the resolution, I was a fledgling New York transplant from California. My limited social circle meant I spent Sunday afternoons strolling the streets of Manhattan, dipping in and out of the Zara on 42nd street and the Zara in Herald Square and the Zara in SoHo and the Zara in TriBeCa. Shopping was my one (and only) hobby.
When I succeeded, though — my wardrobe overflowing with jackets I had found among my deceased grandparents' old things, thrifted jumpsuits, and scarves I'd learned to knit myself — I felt accomplished. I relished in a feeling of moral superiority that my '80s and '90s vintage wardrobe projected: I cared about my look, but not enough so to have spent absurd amounts of money on it. (I had still spent absurd amounts of money on clothes, even thrifted ones.) My aesthetic, I thought, conveyed that I cared about the planet more. And I planned to continue shopping "consciously" for … well, ever.
And then, 2020 happened. During the last year, through not only the pandemic, but the Black Lives Matter protests that swept the country, I've had time to reflect about the good intentions of my old resolution. I began to ask myself what impact being a "conscious consumer" really has on ensuring the safety of workers, as well as their access to fair wages. Sure, I was wearing an Everlane mask, but that did not prevent workers in Los Angeles from being exploited, making PPE when they had none themselves. The same headlines were recycled over and over again, despite the growing popularity of direct-to-consumer "green" brands: The industry remains one of the worst polluters, the climate crisis has shown no signs of defeat. "Woke" corporations are no more helpful in solving the issues plaguing our society than the black squares they posted on Instagram last summer.
The economic consequences brought by the pandemic has made the literal cost of "living sustainably" even more apparent as well. What kind of self-described do-gooder brags about not shopping on Amazon when, for many people, it's an affordable and convenient option that has made a hellacious year a little bit easier? If I hyped myself to be a "better person" for skipping out on fast-fashion, what was I implying about people who couldn't afford the name-brand pieces made out of recycled water bottles or fishnets or Tencel or whatever the buzziest material of the moment happened to be? And what if the brands doing "good" in one area I felt passionate about, were guilty of contributing badness in another?
I did some digging. Turns out I'm not the only person who's had this crisis of conscience. Elizabeth Cline, whose book, The Conscious Closet, is sitting on my shelf, also had the epiphany late last year.
In an essay for Atmos, Cline explains the evolution of conscious consumerism, and, essentially, why I've come to associate Zara with guilt and Everlane with moral highground.
Boycotts of the '60s and '70s were impactful (think Rachel Carson's Silent Spring) because they placed responsibility on corporations, she says. But the conscious consumerism we know today places the responsibility on the consumer. "Neoliberalism spread the mantra that human needs and even solutions to social problems are best met by the marketplace and by capitalism — not government, civil society, or collective action," Cline writes. "Out went strong environmental regulations, social welfare programs, labor unions, and, most crucially, our generations-long history and culture of how to make change through public rather than private means." Instead of labor laws that protect workers, we have slogan sweatshirts and a portion of proceeds supports a cause we like. Or, we are told to "vote with our dollars."
The conversation about holding brands accountable, in 2020, was evident in the black squares we saw on Instagram over the summer. Corporations, especially those that target millennials like me, put out statements about the BLM protests including admissions of their own ignorance and their role in the injustices faced by Black Americans. These were followed by word-vomit apologies and then, finally, silence.
Whitney Bauck at Fashionista articulated what many "conscious consumer" peers were feeling in the wake of the cringiest summer of Instagram: We felt let down by companies we had trusted to make change in the world. It was as though a veil had been lifted, and we saw the messy inner lives of brands that, at the end of the day, were only trying to make money. "The very companies that those conscious consumers have been supporting by 'voting with their dollars' have proven themselves incapable of fully living up to their own professed values," she writes. "That doesn't necessarily mean they should be 'cancelled' into bankruptcy," she adds, but we shouldn't blindly trust them and their intentions, either.
I've come to the realization that ascribing morality to my shopping behavior — that shopping at "green" stores means I'm a good person, and shopping at Amazon makes me bad — is woefully misguided. To top it all off, I've come to understand that the resolution I made two years ago was a free pass for my conscience. If I'm shopping at "sustainable" stores, my thinking went, then who cares if I only wear the item once or twice? I had still contributed to the very environmental issues that I claimed to be addressing. My thinking in 2021: If I'm not buying any new clothing this year, then I'm not contributing to the waste cycle at all.
I was worried, at first, that by withholding my money from indie brands or artisans, I may be counteracting the very movement that I claimed to be helping. And then I snapped out of it. As Matt Beard wrote in the Guardian, "It's the fault of a much larger system offering you choices that, in many cases, you simply shouldn't be permitted to make." It's not my responsibility as a consumer to change the system, it's my responsibility as an activist.
Action has been the missing piece in my quest to reconcile my love of fashion and my desire to not cause more harm. Action, I've come to realize, is the only thing that matters — and no, shopping does not count. (Not really.) Vogue's Maya Singer similarly declared two years ago that she had "let go of my belief we can shop our way to progress."
"We, as citizens, could be advocating for all sorts of policy initiatives that push corporations to act as stewards of the places where they do business, be it establishing clear accountability throughout their supply chains, or demanding they pay their taxes where they sell their goods," Singer writes. "That seems a better use of our time than dithering about, say, which running shoe to buy. Isn't the goal to live in a world where all running shoes are ethical to consume?"
Becoming more politically active means donating my time, resources, and energy into helping organizations like Labour Behind the Label, Fashion Revolution, and Clean Clothes Campaign that are pushing for the kinds of changes that may actually make a difference in the overall impact of the fashion industry. It means gaining a deeper understanding of who is to blame for the exploitation of workers, what needs to change, and what power individuals actually hold over the process of changing it.
So why can't I just shop at ethical brands and continue my work as an activist? This leads me to the most painful admission of all: I need to reevaluate my relationship with shopping.
Since I was an insecure pre-teen living in the conservative, white, and wealthy enclave of Orange County, I looked to clothes as a way of making up for what I couldn't change — my bushy black hair and brown eyes and too-olive skin. Clothes were my way of communicating that I wasn't so different, and that maybe, even, I could be cool. And my relationship with clothing hasn't really changed since. (Though my relationship to my identity, thankfully, has.)
In the midst of the pandemic, a time with which house clothes and pajamas have become synonymous, a time when I've worn the same pair of sweatpants for weeks, I continued to shop. In the beginning, it felt like hope. In May, I bought a crop top I imagined wearing to late summer rooftop parties. In June, I bought a blazer that was just the right thickness for fall in the city. Every week, another package was delivered to my door, and I patted myself on the back for sustaining my favorite brands.
Even when I realized that lockdown was far from over, I continued to go gung ho on Girlfriend Collective activewear and stocked my drawers with more and more compression socks, leggings, and sports bras. I craved the rush of adrenaline that comes with each click of the "Purchase Now" button.
In stepping away for a year, I'm hoping to not only reexamine my relationship with shopping, but to be craftier with my closet, and finally wear some of the tops, dresses, and jumpsuits with tags still attached outside of my house. While shopping and playing with fashion is a huge part of my life, it isn't my entire life, and if this one small change — giving up new clothes — is what it takes to divert my focus away from the newness aspect of fashion and toward actually making a difference for the industry, then it's something I'm willing to try.
This year, rather than curating the aesthetic of someone who doesn't care too much about their appearance, I want to work towards actually caring less. Even if that means wearing my black puffer coat for one more winter season.
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