Why I Stopped Buying New Clothes, and How I Haven't Looked Back

Sarah Mitchell blog second hand

Second Hand September is now coming to a close for the fourth year in a row.  A campaign initiated by Oxfam in 2019, the goal is to encourage consumers to try buying only second hand clothes for at least 30 days. Gradually we are seeing more of a shift in mainstream media towards the trend for buying second hand, with celebrities increasingly choosing ‘vintage’ pieces, and even Love Island partnering with eBay to dress contestants in second hand items.  Learning about the environmental impact of the fashion industry was one of the pivotal moments that started me on my journey towards On Purpose; it helped me to connect my individual actions to a broader systemic issue, and inspired me to take action.

In February 2019, after reading up on the impact of the fashion industry in the news, I decided to set myself the challenge of not buying any new clothes for six months. Three and a half years later, I'm still going and it's become a permanent change.  

Around the time I started on this challenge, my parents moved house and did that thing all parents do at some point, and all grown children dread: they gave me my stuff back. Carefully hoarded under my childhood bed for decades, I was finally having to take responsibility for the random detritus of my teenage years. Looking through the boxes, I found an old notepad filled with notes and scribblings. Plans for weekends; lists of Christmas present ideas for friends and family, and itemised lists of clothes that I coveted, alongside an estimated budget and where I was going to get the money from.

From my earliest teenage years I have been obsessed with the idea that the right outfit, the right new dress, skirt or jumper, from the right brand or in the right style will make everything just right. I have always loved clothes for the power they give you. The transformative effect of choosing a style or outfit that will present you to the world in just the right way. Looking at these lists though, made me acutely aware of the mental energy I had expended over the years, as well as the physical time and effort I had put in, to trawling along high streets and scrolling through countless websites.

At the start of this journey I was approaching the end of my second maternity leave and had spent nearly a year at home with a baby, reading the news and watching the world literally burn down around us. We had switched to a renewable energy supplier years ago, insulated our home, used public transport to commute, had a hybrid car and generally tried to make environmentally conscious choices. It was an article in the Guardian though, that made me really aware for the first time of the environmental impact of my fashion choices. I learnt that it takes 2,700 litres of water to produce a single t-shirt. That's enough drinking water to last one person for three years. And by 2025, two-thirds of the world's population could be facing water shortages.

The House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee report, Fixing Fashion: Clothing Consumption and Fashion Sustainability, states that "we buy more clothes per person in the UK than any other country in Europe". Apparently UK citizens discard around a million tonnes of textiles per year, and while charity shop donation rates are high, around three hundred thousand tonnes of clothing still ends up in household bins every year with around 20% of this going to landfill and 80% incinerated.

I have definitely been guilty of buying clothes thoughtlessly, with the assumption that if I donated them to charity eventually, then there was no harm done. However I found that only about 30% of clothing donated to charity shops is sold in the UK (e.g. through charity shops, online sales, vintage shops, etc). The majority of the remainder is exported for re-use either in Africa or Eastern Europe, which is a big problem in its own right.

I mulled it over in the following days. I tried to imagine being one of those people who stop buying new clothes from the shops. What would that mean for my fashion sense, my identity? I thought about the countless items of clothing I had cleared out over the years, donating to charity shops. I mentally went through my wardrobe to think whether I had enough clothes to get me through any upcoming occasions or events. Finally I came to the conclusion I should just stop buying new clothes. I’d start with a six month trial, and see how I got on.

The first thing I noticed was the mental load that lifted from my mind. Every time I came across an advert, a magazine article, or an email from a clothing brand or walked past a clothes shop window, there was the strangely liberating realisation that I didn't have to weigh these items up. I no longer felt like I had to factor them into my plans or make any decisions around what I did and did not like or want, as these new clothes were no longer an option for me. It was an impact I had not expected, and it was surprisingly welcome. Especially once I had returned to work in London; for over a decade I had worked within walking distance of Oxford Street. That's a lot of clothes shops to have to deliberate over.

The challenge itself was compounded by a few factors. Over the past three and a half years, I had spent nearly half that time pregnant, and nearly two years of that time breastfeeding. I’d returned to work at my job in London for nine and a half months in between my maternity leave. I’d put on weight, and subsequently lost, a not inconsiderable amount. Needless to say, my wardrobe was a haphazard collection of different sized clothes, designed for very different occasions.

Over the following months I experimented with my new clothing options. First up was a hen party in Brighton. Literally zero options for that in my wardrobe and a predictable post-becoming-a-mum panic about what one wears out ‘these days’. It belatedly dawned on me that not buying new clothes didn't stop me from buying second hand clothes - low and behold, eBay! For the bargain price of £8.50 I was the proud owner of a black sequinned mini dress.

Secondly, I revisited my wardrobe. I had a few nice pieces in there that no longer fit. Around this time, my husband needed to get his suit taken in, and it occurred to me that I could also get my clothes altered. I picked out about five or six things and took them to Great Stitch, a local tailors. It felt like getting new clothes. All of a sudden, items that I otherwise would have donated or tried to sell were beautifully fitting and filled with new life.

My next tactic was to go through my mending pile and, controversially, actually mend my clothes, rather than leave them wallowing at the bottom of the wardrobe. I came across a great Instagram account for inspiration - Mindful_Mending is a brilliant source of ideas for how to turn tears and rips into design elements, all using relatively simple stitching.

I also rediscovered my enthusiasm for making clothes. Whilst buying fabric has its own challenges around sustainability, I have saved up a hefty stash of fabric over the years from various dress making exploits, and using some of that up seemed like a good place to start. Fabric Godmother has some amazingly simple but stylish patterns, and I made a couple of lovely dresses.

Finally there is the adage that ‘the most sustainable piece of clothing you can have is the one you already own’.  The last piece of advice that I came across was the most obvious: to 'shop your wardrobe'. It takes some time and the right frame of mind, but sorting through old clothes and thinking about how to style them in a more current fashion was a great challenge and really satisfying.

Overall I was able to return to work at my fashion conscious London office, attend a variety of summer weddings and generally socialise with friends, confident in the fact that I was well dressed. I was so happy with all the ways I had discovered to get by without buying new clothes that I started doing it for my children's clothes too. Which is actually kind of an obvious place to start, given the rate they get through clothes.

By the summer of 2019 I had found my stride and it was at this point that I started an online course from the London College of Fashion, Fashion and Sustainability: Understanding Luxury Fashion in a Changing World. This really helped to focus my ambition and broaden my understanding of the issues around fashion and sustainability.

Of the four different agendas set out for fashion and sustainability, the two I found most interesting and challenging were the economic and the cultural agenda. Simon Mair, Research Fellow at the Centre for the Understanding of Sustainable Prosperity based at the University of Surrey, argues that whilst "imagining an economy that isn't dominated by the dynamics of growth won't be easy", it is necessary if we are to live within planetary boundaries. The production process of fashion can and is getting more efficient, however the overall impact of this production is growing as we consume more on an individual basis. So long as businesses model their success and their growth on an increase in volume, we are looking at exceeding the resources of our planet. The UN says that by 2050 the equivalent of almost three planets could be required to provide the natural resources needed to sustain current lifestyles given the growth in global population.  The garment industry is reportedly the world's third biggest manufacturing industry after automotive and technology industries.

According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation report, a New Textiles Economy: Redesigning Fashion’s Future (2017), textile production is a major contributor to climate change. It produces an estimated 1.2 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent (CO2e) per year - more than international flights and maritime shipping combined.

We need businesses to rethink their definition of success and sustainability, but we also need to take responsibility as consumers to rethink how we manage our own consumption habits. Which is where the cultural agenda of fashion and sustainability comes in. There is a lot of external pressure exerted on us, both knowingly and unknowingly, to desire and ultimately purchase things that we do not need. There is a whole fashion infrastructure feeding us newness and aspirational content, all the time. And there is a scientifically measurable impact. Surges in dopamine are linked with the anticipation of the pleasure we expect from buying something new. Clothing, and luxury fashion in particular, is associated with ideas of status, indulgence and reward. Alex McIntosh, the course leader of the Fashion Futures masters program at London College of Fashion, brings us back to the definition of luxury though. Whilst it can be "an inessential desirable item which is expensive or difficult to obtain", it can also be "a pleasure obtained only rarely" [Oxford English Dictionary].

There is an abundance of scientific evidence that happiness is derived from experiences not things. How can we use this understanding to redefine our relationship with fashion then? In my journey this has meant valuing theatre tickets, weekends away or afternoon tea out over using birthdays and Christmas as an excuse to covet expensive new things. It has meant taking the time to make my own dresses, from choosing fabric, cutting out the pattern, making design choices around sleeve length and finish, to creating a finished garment that I feel proud of. And it has in some ways been the satisfaction of taking the time to find second hand clothes that are beautiful, perfect for the occasion, and more often than not, a bargain.

A lot of focus within sustainable fashion efforts is on creating less waste in the supply chain and improving the production of clothing, but I want to address the pressure and cultural assumption that we should continue to buy new clothes and that newness is a good thing. I want to help create a world where it is not only socially acceptable, but actually preferable to consume less. To dress and shop 'smarter'. And hopefully, you might give it a try too.