I Pledged to Stop Buying Clothes for a Year, and Here’s Why


In January, my friend and I decided to give up clothes shopping for an entire year for many reasons. Here are just a few:


Fast fashion is terrible for the environment

In the past few decades alone, the garment industry had undergone many technological advances allowing clothing production to shift from traditional manufacturing processes that require hands-on attention to much more time-efficient, digital manufacturing. Although quick turnaround in the clothing industry lowers prices, it comes at a cost to the environment and to the consumer.


Buying a cute shirt for $6 or a pair of jeans for $10 feels like a steal — a small shopping victory. The first thing I would do upon walking into a store would be to go the clearance rack and find as many items as I could because they were so cheap. How could you pass it up? It’s only $5. This sort of mentality towards shopping — to get the most bang for your buck — is not only harmful to how we value (or don’t value) our material possessions, but is extremely wasteful.


Americans throw away about 13 million tons of textiles each year, and according to the EPA, 84% of discarded clothes end up in incinerators or landfills. In just two decades, the amount of trashed clothing has roughly doubled — from 7 million to 13 million currently — and it is clear we can blame fast fashion and the recent changes in manufacturing and pricing. Besides being responsible for obscene amounts of waste, the way these clothes are produced is far from eco-friendly.


The clothing industry is the second largest polluter in the world, right behind oil. Clothing production requires excessive amounts of water; a cotton t-shirt and a pair of jeans can require up to 5,000 gallons. Like many other industries, the garment industry has high carbon emissions and shady chemical disposal procedures. Excess dyes and wastewater contain hazardous chemicals; chemicals that we end up taking home with us and introducing into our local water systems.

A 2012 study tested 140 items purchased in 30 different countries from various brands and found harmful nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs) in 63% of the clothing items. Many other chemicals were found in the clothing, including phthalates which can damage the liver, kidneys, lungs and reproductive system, as well as azo dyes which release cancer-causing amines in the body. NPEs, however, are more abundant and have drastic effects on aquatic life, and can be found in samples taken from freshwater, saltwater, groundwater, soil and even human breast milk.


So why don’t we just recycle our clothes? Many materials are not suitable for reproduction. Only 1% of our clothing is successfully recycled into new garments and because of this difficulty, the rest become items like insulation and cloths, which ultimately will end right back in our landfills.


Donating clothing to shelters or consignment shops is a great idea, but that small percentage of low-quality clothing that is salvageable or sellable can’t make up for the millions of tons left over. The only way to avoid fast fashion and the environmental consequences it creates is to stop buying clothing, or at least buy much less of it.


Clothing companies are notorious for low wages and poor working conditions

Bad wages and working conditions in clothing factories are maintained and driven by low market prices and companies’ need for low production costs. Businesses that have gotten into the spotlight lately for poor wages are Forever 21, TJ Maxx, Ross and Dress For Less, amongst others.


According to the U.S. Department of Labor in 2016, workers from 77 Los Angeles clothing factories were paid as little as $4 and an average of $7 an hour for 10+ hour days on sewing machines. This is far below the California minimum wage and is barely enough for workers to get by with the high costs of living in L.A.  


This trend is seen globally. In Bangladesh, where garment factory workers — usually women — are working 14-16 hour days, working conditions are dangerous and wages are far below living wages. These factories, often lacking fire-safety laws and procedures, are especially prone to disaster. In 2012, 1,100 workers died in the Rana Plaza factory, pictured below. Walmart and Gap are big buyers of Bangladesh produced clothing and have since vowed to educate their Bangladesh factories on safety procedures.


Poor wages and working conditions are what make fast fashion possible; that $6 shirt really was a steal. Consumer demand for excessive amounts of cheap clothes, regardless of quality or production, forces producers to keep costs down, whether that's paying their workers less or using cheaper, unsafe chemicals.


I’m all about a $6 shirt, but preferably at thrift stores. The hardest part about being production-conscious when buying clothes is that “eco-friendly,” “organic” clothing is extremely overpriced. Or is it? Maybe that’s just cost of quality, ethically produced clothing.


Shopping costs add up quickly, and eco-friendly shopping is even more expensive

I wasted a lot of money on clothes that I would end up donating or throwing away in a year. Even though I was buying cheap from Forever 21 clearance racks, the cost added up quickly.


Buying clothes at such “bargain” prices, with the mentality of buying as much as you can for as little as possible, made me appreciate my items less, in turn, making them more disposable. Not only is it expensive to complete a new wardrobe every year, but it also takes away from how we value clothing and self-expression through fashion.


Minimalism—thank your shirts for their service and donate

I wouldn’t call myself a minimalist yet — I actually consider myself somewhat of a hoarder. I appreciate my belongings, and it's really hard for me to get rid of things, but clothing is a bit easier to get rid of. During my short-lived Marie Kondo phase, I went through my entire closet, only keeping the items that I either wore often, knew I would wear in the future, or had some sentimental value.


Warning: trying to achieve a more minimalist lifestyle does not mean getting rid of everything just for the sake of having more space and being a self-proclaimed “minimalist”. If you can see yourself wearing that navy blue blazer in the next 10 years but would never wear it now, save it. That’s one less thing you’ve thrown away and one less thing you’ll have to purchase in the future.


Decluttering my closet without the intention of filling it back up again did help clear my headspace and make me feel less disgusted about my past shopping experiences. It was a fresh start to a year of nonconsumption.


My experiences so far:

Both my friend and I have done well with our goal to not shop for clothes. It’s easier when I’m away at school; being at home with my mom is a different story. For us, retail therapy is a very real thing. Growing up, I think I went to Target every weekend and breaking that habit has been pretty difficult. When I was home last weekend, I caved for the first time at Target and bought a $6 turtleneck. Cheat days may defeat the purpose of my challenge, but they don’t defeat the purpose of simply buying less.


I’ve taken nonconsumption to the extreme by attempting to not buy any clothes for a year — but you can also help in much smaller ways.


What you can do:

1. Shop consciously: Put a little research into some of your favorite stores, and decide which ones you should and shouldn’t be shopping at.

2. Buy less: Be more selective when shopping. Don’t buy everything you like or looks good on you — think about what that piece could add to your wardrobe, like how often you’d wear it and how long you think the piece would last.