Let’s not pretend a month is a long time to stop shopping. It isn’t. Or it shouldn’t be.
But, all the same, it’s probably a good job the Good Outfit Challenge was sprung on me without warning (“Will you give up shopping for a month?” “Starting when?” “Now!”) because I know how it would have gone otherwise. Like the takeaway you get the night before starting a diet, I’d have done a frantic sweep around Zara with my arms outstretched and an ASOS binge on the bus home. I don’t even think of myself as the kind of woman who shops "for fun" – it’s more habit than hobby, like an eternal quest that I will never complete. I shop often and anywhere. Last time I went to the hospital for a blood test, I somehow left with a new pair of earrings.
And while I hope I’m a vaguely conscious consumer – I buy almost as much from charity shops as I do from the high street – the truth is I feel a bit sick when I think about where my clothes come from, and where they might end up. So often, I don’t think – I just buy.
But not this month. In the run-up to Fashion Revolution Week (it began on 24 April, the date of the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh which killed 1,129 garment workers in 2013), I swore off shopping and embarked on a Good Outfit Challenge – to wear a different outfit every single day from my existing wardrobe, considering the ethical credentials of each label I wore. My starting point? Fashion Revolution’s Fashion Transparency Index 2017, which ranks 100 of the biggest global fashion companies on their social and environmental policies, traceability and commitment to issues like the living wage. And the end point? We’ll see. Hopefully not chin-deep in a Topshop haul.
I shop often and anywhere. Last time I went to the hospital for a blood test, I somehow left with a new pair of earrings
At first, being in-between seasons makes it especially hard to turn off the urge to shop. The spring florals are out, the winter coats are off and I feel the pull of the high street like a siren call… but, instead, I dig out last year’s garms and do battle with my wardrobe ennui. Cue a series of morning meltdowns. Some things look grubby, some never fitted well to begin with, some have an irrational association – like the denim dress and shirt I wore on Brexit referendum day and as such never really want to wear again – but most, I feel sheepish admitting, just don’t have that allure of shiny newness any more.
So, I try to develop recipes to make old things feel exciting again. Summery midi skirts look fresher when teamed with slouchy jumpers and ankle boots. Vintage skirts and dresses look less like fancy dress when paired with smart basics like a cashmere jumper and trench coat. I have a layering breakthrough the day I put an old polo neck with a hole in the side under a Topshop slip dress that I’ve only worn to weddings. To soothe the morning panics, I start using fashion’s favourite high/low juxtapostion as a formula: recent + old; summer + winter; posh + scuzzy; boring + ridiculous; something I kind of hate + something I still really love.
I also learn that hunting down old treasures is only sustainable if you actually bother to look after them. At least half of my morning wardrobe panic results from pulling out things that are creased, stained or trashed by moths. I always thought people who stored their posh jumpers in special bags were neurotics, until I take out my favourite (only) cashmere jumper one day to discover it looks like Swiss cheese.
So, over the month, a sewing kit becomes my secret weapon – mending, adjusting and even upcycling tired garments (OK, ironing on patches) to prevent them joining the 350,000 tonnes of used clothes that end up in UK landfill each year. A few days into the challenge, I unearth a top I made myself when I was 15, in the midst of my adolescent DIY phase. The seams are wonky, but I know who made them – which is more than can be said for most of my wardrobe.
Transparency, Fashion Revolution believes, is the first step to transforming the clothing industry. And, as soon as I start assessing the ethical kudos of each outfit, trawling "About us" pages, looking at labels, using the Transparency Index and sites like Rank A Brand to try and grasp just how much guilt is sewn into my seams, I realise how silent most retailers are on the issue. At best, some have a page of vague bumf about "responsibility" and "commitments"; most have nothing at all.
Among the shops I do have info on, there are some surprises. Zara, home of the perpetually unravelling hem, doesn’t rank quite as badly as I expected, while spendy pseudo-hippies Anthropologie are in the very lowest percentile with a measly score of seven. Which doesn’t mean they’re necessarily bad… but it doesn’t look good, does it?
There are confusing judgement calls to make. Ralph Lauren has a dismal score on the Fashion Transparency Index, but does that make my £20 vintage Ralph Lauren shirt less OK? And, of course, no set of criteria is perfect or exhaustive – brands can pay fairly but use toxic chemicals, damaging methods or commit some other unignorable hypocrisy (American Apparel, gone but not forgotten), while "British-made" doesn’t guarantee a flawless record either, with factories in Leicester and East London recently found to be paying workers as little as £3 an hour.
Meanwhile, on Instagram, the critics pipe up. Why am I pretending that re-wearing some old clothes is changing the world? Why aren’t I championing smaller brands? Why haven’t I traced every single item back to source? How could I be such a terrible, frivolous human to begin with? The guilt is increasing, while my wardrobe options dwindle. To cheer myself up, I try on a jumpsuit from People Tree, one of the UK’s most established Fair Trade labels. It looks chic. Not at all like my preconception of ethical clothes, as the kind of wafty linen smock your kooky aunt buys at craft fairs.
Between balancing environmental impacts and human rights, trying not to contribute to landfill while still supporting local businesses and, at the same time, keeping people in the developing world in (fairly paid) jobs, the whole business of ethical shopping can start to feel a bit like a puzzle. Or, as Deborah Frances-White puts it in her The Guilty Feminist podcast, “If I buy cheap clothes, I just see the faces of the sweatshop workers, and if I buy expensive clothes, I just see all of the faces of the people in poor countries who would eat for a year on that money. So I can only really be happy naked.”
Head swimming with stats, in the final week I go to Sophie Slater, co-founder of Birdsong London – a gorgeous online fashion brand that matches designers with skilled women’s groups around the world – to ask where the hell clueless consumers like myself should start. “I think it all comes down to personal choice,” she says. “My advice would be go easy on yourself. Think about what you'd really like and change your spending habits, so that you're buying pieces you'll really love and treasure from companies you like the sound of. Having the time, money and mental space to think about buying ethically is a privilege, so do what you can.”
It’s an important point – that sustainable shopping comes laden with privilege of its own. I know my luck with charity shops is due partly to living in an area full of people far richer than me. Plus hunting down niche, ethical labels requires the luxury of time, but it's still better to make a few small changes than feel overwhelmed with guilt and just give up. Sophie suggests Birdsong’s ethical brands list, blogs like The Good Trade and apps like Balu to steer me in a more sustainable direction. And it isn’t just boutique brands – she’s optimistic about the high street’s potential to become sustainable, too. “If you're still producing in a developing country, then it only pushes the prices up by a tiny fraction to pay a living wage,” she says.
Thankfully, more fast-fashion brands are taking the time to slow down, with ASOS Made In Kenya, Mango Committed, Nobody’s Child and H&M Conscious all delivering desirable, sustainable style without defaulting to the ethical stereotype – a greige linen smock dress. Although there are still plenty of those to be had too, FYI.
I think part of the issue is that many of us don’t give ourselves permission to spend decent amounts of money on clothes. We’ll happily throw hundreds each month at brunch and takeaway coffees, but still recoil at anything over £60 on a price tag. So, what do we do instead? We buy cheaper and more. It’s a big mental gear shift – realising that the things we tend to scoff at for being overpriced might not be at all. Maybe that’s just how much clothes should cost, because we value the human lives behind them.
So, at the end of the Good Outfit Challenge, I’m staying on the wagon – with a few modifications. My new diet plan is one new-new purchase a month, maximum, and only from a brand that I can research without feeling queasy. As much vintage and charity shop booty as I can fill up on, but no replacing old things unless I’ve tried to fix or revive them first. More talk, more action, more curiosity and more creativity – but less self-flagellation. Because, as Sophie points out, clothes-shaming each other isn’t a sustainable driver for change.
"Number one thing: don't feel guilty,” she says. “Feel excited by ethical brands and the possibility of a better industry.”
Excited about clothes I can do.