I never thought I’d have an epiphany in my closet. But after the shameful discovery that I was repeating the same five items while ignoring the rest of my mammoth wardrobe, I challenged myself to wear everything I own (with a few exceptions like cocktail attire) within six months or lose it forever. I posted each outfit on social media. I even asked for help deciding what to keep and what to donate. I had no idea my Wear Your Whole Closet Challenge would forever alter the way I feel about shopping and fashion.
Month 1 — August — was pretty straightforward. Pull something out of my closet, wear it, post about it, decide its fate, repeat. September was comparable. But by October, I’d come to a startling realization: Fast fashion was my dear friend and my mortal enemy. I’m referring to wildly affordable, trendy stores like Zara, H&M, Forever21 and the online killer, ASOS.
Shopping has always been a high for me. That little jolt of adrenaline I get from buying or wearing something new is absolutely legal, a hit I can get as long as I can afford it. In my 20s when cash was tight, fancy boutiques were not an option, but the fast fashion outposts were. Now, in my older, more successful years, I haven’t broken the habit. When I can find an Isabel Marant knockoff pant or a blouse that’s practically identical to one I saw walk down the runway during Fashion Week but for a quarter (or less) of the price, who can blame me?
Then again, maybe like me you’ve suffered the humiliation of discovering a garment in your closet that was purchased a year, two years, even a decade ago, with the price tag still intact. In Month 3 of making my way through my closet overflow, I came upon two pieces, two days in a row, taunting me with their damning, uncut price tags. A crisp white button-down from Zara: $35. A print Forever21 dress that practically blinked $15.50 at me like a neon sign. In the spirit of the challenge, I wore them both, but it was still a retail revelation: Fast fashion equals something close to zero commitment.
I’m into the last month of my project and, so far, I haven’t found any tag-on items that cost $100 or $200 or more. Those purchases require thought. If I’m going to pay that amount for something, it means I’m dedicated to it; I wear it. But a garment that costs less than $50 I may just grab and hope it works out, like that fuzzy Muppet-like sweater I adore today but will end up hating in a few months. It’s not irrational, but it is quite taxing to your closet, not to mention the planet.
I thought this problem might be limited to people like me, with a love of fashion and a possible shopping addiction. Or for those like my husband, Dan, who before a trip announces he’s “going to do laundry,” which I know means buying half of a new wardrobe at Uniqlo. Turns out, we’re far from the only offenders. A Newsweek article from last year details how fast fashion is “causing an environmental crisis” as Americans throw out a shocking 14 million tons of clothing each year — 80 pounds per person — most of which ends up in landfills or an incinerator.
I’ve always done regular clothing purges and felt good about making donations to nonprofits like Salvation Army or Goodwill. Sometimes I resell garments in consignment shops or on sites like the Real Real or Poshmark. However, charities are only able to sell around 20% of such donations. (The other 80% probably end up at a textile recycler.) And second-hand shops and consignment sites reject fast fashion because the quality isn’t great, the resale value is low, and there’s just too much of it out there.
Actually, fast fashion is made to not last, ensuring perpetual shopping. Zara, my personal fashion kryptonite, has an unconventional business model that creates even more demand: Unlike other retailers that update their stock once a season, the Spanish-based brand reportedly restocks with limited supplies of new designs twice a week, encouraging customers to come back often and buy immediately or risk losing the opportunity.
Several brands have recognized their role in this throw-away culture. H&M created a “Conscious” line, made from recycled textiles. They also offer a 10% discount to customers who bring in 5 items to donate. Levi’s is working on jeans made of recycled cotton from old T-shirts. But that barely scratches the surface of the waste crisis.
I am no role model when it comes to curtailing buying. But my wear-it-or-lose it experiment has had a huge impact on the way I think about consumption. “Minimalist” will never appear on my gravestone, but I now have a deep desire to own less. I can’t say I won’t ever indulge in fast fashion again, but I do think we can all make an effort to buy consciously.
Ask yourself, “Do I really love or actually need this?” Then, picture that top or skirt in a landfill overflowing with clothing, and ask yourself again.