When I first started my ethical fashion journey three years ago, I wanted to completely overhaul everything all at once. I had just read Lucy Siegle’s book, To Die For: Is Fashion Wearing Out the World? and I was shocked. I knew there was something wrong with the fashion world but I had no idea it was that bad. My closet was full of clothes from H&M, Primark, Zara and Forever21. I had never given much thought to where those clothes came from. I mean I knew they probably weren’t made under the best conditions, but I kind of pushed that awareness aside. But when I knew what I knew, I suddenly wanted nothing to do with those brands.
A frantic internet search for ethical alternatives marked the beginning of my shift away from fast fashion, but it was a shift that would take much longer than I expected. I stumbled and gave up many times. I burned out and went back to my old shopping habits.
It’s frustrating, stressful, and gets in the way of your new-found ethics. I call it ‘Eco Fashion Burnout’. Burnout happens sometime after you make the decision to dress more ethically but you don’t know how to make this inconvenient lifestyle change when fast fashion is so cheap and easy to get. After spending hours online, searching for ethical clothing companies that suit your personal style, you’ve found everything there is to find and you realise your options are seriously limited.
Can you have it both ways? Can you be fashionable and ethical? You still want to dress well and be admired for your fashion sense and what’s on offer by the eco fashion industry just doesn’t cut it. There’s not enough choice, not enough variety, and no trends. Most of it is, to be honest, a little on the frumpy side. Oh, and also, you can’t quite justify paying £100 for a sweater, even if it is all natural, undyed, locally produced. Not when you’re used to paying a quarter of that. So you go back to H&M, or Zara, because it’s cheaper and you need a sweater. The ones they’ve got look like the one you saw on Pinterest and it’s just too tempting. You feel guilty doing it because maybe you’ve seen The True Cost and you’re no longer ignorant, and being wilfully ignorant is worse, but, but… Burnout.
I’ve been there many times since I started my ethical wardrobe journey. Looking back on those three years, I’ve learned that it takes time to turn away from a system that is designed to keep you addicted. You not only have to wean yourself off certain stores, you have to wean yourself off an entire industry and the way it controls us. Ultimately, you have to find a balance between your ethics and your aesthetic. Here are my tips for how to stay committed and avoid giving up:
- START WITH SMALL STEPS
When you decide that you want to help change the way things are done in fashion by choosing ethical, you might be tempted to completely overhaul your wardrobe and ‘rebrand’ yourself. But like with any lifestyle change, this is not the most sustainable way of doing it. Start by making small changes. Commit to not buying from one fast fashion retailer but don’t deny yourself all of them all at once.
Find an ethical store and get to know the brand by buying one thing, even if it’s a pair of socks. See how you feel. Maybe start buying your socks from them instead of your usual store. Remind yourself that you are investing in ethics and quality.
Try thrifting or find a swapping website. Give someone’s used clothes a second life. Vinted is a great website and app if you’re in the UK. There are lots in the US. If your country doesn’t have one, maybe you could start one, or organise a swishing event.
- EXPLORE MINIMALISM
If you haven’t already, learn about minimalism. Minimalism is not about austerity and having nothing in your house. It’s about identifying the things you truly love, and getting rid of anything that doesn’t bring you joy. Look in your wardrobe. Are there things in there that you never wear or don’t feel good in? Donate them to charity or sell them. Decluttering is something that happens in phases and layers. Maybe the first time around, you’ll only get rid of a couple of things, but the more you engage with minimalism, the more you’ll learn about yourself and what you really want. Keeping only the things you love creates clarity and peace.
Try a capsule wardrobe challenge. Do it with your friends. Do it for a short period of time, like a month or two. Document it on social media if that’s your thing. See if it sticks. It’s ok if it doesn’t but let it be a learning experience. Un-Fancy has an amazing capsule wardrobe planner you can download.
Other great resources:
The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo. A step-by-step guide by Japanese tidying expert on how to declutter and organise your home.
Minimalism: A Documentary About the Important Things – A documentary by Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, a.k.a. The Minimalists. Available on Netflix, iTunes, Amazon and Vimeo.
L’art de de Simplicite: How to Live More With Less by Dominique Loreau. Does exactly what it says on the tin. A beautiful book about how to simplify your life and live more fully.
- BE SELF-REFLECTIVE
Reflect on how the fashion industry and your own insecurities influence your behaviour. Ask yourself these questions: How are the choices you make motivated by the advertising you see around you and on social media? How often do you buy something because you want people to see you in a certain way? Does dressing fashionably make you feel superior? Do you buy certain brands because of the status they project? How comfortable are you with yourself?
Self-reflection is good for growth and finding what’s really important to you. The fashion industry puts a lot of pressure on us to keep buying stuff. Can you identify that pressure and learn to live without giving in to it?
- ACCEPT WHAT YOU CAN’T CHANGE
Accept the time and place you live in, and your financial circumstances. We are living in a time of gradual transition. More and more people are waking up to the negative consequences of materialism but the world hasn’t caught up yet. Ethical fashion is still a young industry and it’s difficult for companies to compete with fast fashion giants. This is part of the reason why they are so expensive. Support them if you can. The most important thing you can do is educate yourself about how the fashion industry works, and accept that this is where we’re at right now. Accept that it won’t change overnight, but you can contribute by making small changes in your own life, talking about them, and encouraging others to do the same.