If you care about the environment, fashion is a problem. It’s also an industry you can do something about.

Looking around at the state of the world, it can feel like the change that’s needed is beyond what any person can do on their own. In some ways, that’s true: big problems, whether it’s climate change or microplastics in the ocean, require big responses. Can any individual really make a difference? While it may not solve all the world’s problems, the choices we make about what we eat, buy, and wear, do have an impact.

The impact of clothing production is especially problematic for so-called ‘fast fashion,’ making clothing affordable but carries some significant hidden costs. The increasing appetite for something ‘new’ means that fashion production accounted for 10% of the world’s carbon emissions in 2019. Add to this the fact that 85% of textiles produced end up in landfills every year and that washing clothes made of polyester contribute to the problem of microplastics in the world’s oceans. The issues fashion faces can seem insurmountable.

Fashion, though, is a consumer-focused industry, so what you choose to do makes a difference. In this post, we’ll take a look at changes you can make, from conscious shopping to simply not shopping for new clothing at all. While there are challenges in not buy new clothing, it has its benefits as well. Read on to find out more.

Some Changes You Can Make

With an industry as consumer-driven as fashion, small lifestyle changes can have a big impact, especially when coordinated and done in concert by many people. Writing in The Conversation, Alana James—Senior Lecturer in Fashion at Northumbria University, Newcastle—puts forward four things that consumers can do to make a difference:

1. Think Before Buying

As consumers, we need to think twice before we buy new clothes. Borrowing, swapping, making, and thrifting clothes are all available options for us to try. Instead of considering new items as a first choice, what if we thought of it as our option of last resort? To respond to ‘fast fashion’ a ‘slow’ and considered approach to consumption is key.

Clothes Swap

2. Shop According to Your Values

Making sure the places you shop at reflect your personal values is a start, if and when you buy new clothes. Do some research, and you’ll be better able to put your money somewhere about which you can feel good. You might want to prioritise a transparent supply chain. Or, maybe you care about the individual materials in your garments. Another good option is to prioritise domestic manufacturing. No matter what, spend time to find where you can shop without compromising your values.

3. Buy Second-Hand

While fast, mass-market fashion developed to replace second-hand stores, those shops are making a comeback as consumers think more about the impact of their purchases on the environment. You can save money, help give a new life to an old garment, and avoid having to buy something new—a win on three fronts.

4. Dispose of Clothes The Right Way

Just as you take care with how and where you shop and what you’re buying, you should also think before you toss your clothes in the bin. An estimated £140 million worth of clothes are sent to landfill every year, many of which are made from synthetic fibres. That means they may take anywhere from a couple of decades to a couple of hundred years to decompose. Instead, consider repairing, recycle or reusing clothes, if and when you can.

Some Reasons to Not Buy New

No matter how ethically you buy, it’s worth trying to challenge yourself to simply not buy any new clothes. As the founder of Patagonia put it when speaking with GQ in 2018, you can buy an electric car, but it’s better for the environment to drive yours into the ground. Otherwise, you’re simply putting another vehicle onto the road, with all the associated impact of the manufacturing. Clothes are different, but not as much as you might think.

Not buying new requires sacrifices, but it has benefits too. For example, cheap clothes that have a negative ethical and environmental impact aren’t really ‘cheap’ in any meaningful way—and they still cost money. If you’re buying higher quality clothes that are better for the environment and more ethically produced, they’re likely to cost more money too. Not buying new, therefore, means you’re likely to save a good deal of money.

Another benefit is psychological. One tip for people avoiding buying new clothes is something called a ‘capsule wardrobe,’ that is, a small set of clothes that you need to choose from for, say, a three-month period. You might limit yourself to 10 shirts and a corresponding number of skirts, pants, shoes, etc. While this can sound limiting, it has been found to have a positive psychological benefit, perhaps an unexpected plus for not buying new clothes.

Plenty of successful people have arrived at this kind of wardrobe all on their own. For instance, Steve Jobs had his well-known black turtleneck, and Donna Karan made her name selling these simple basics to women in the 1980s.

The psychological benefits come from a few sources. One is that you stop investing your possessions with too much meaning. Another is that it saves you time and energy when you try to pick out what to wear. Finally, it encourages creativity as you work to recombine what you have to wear for new occasions.

How Do You Get By Without Buying?

If you’ve committed not to buy new, how do you make that work? Along with using the capsule wardrobe approach, remember you can still get clothes that are ‘new’ to you. Consider having a clothes swap with friends and family. You could even make an event out of it, get together and see what people have that they’d be willing to trade and what of yours you’d be willing to part with in exchange.

capsule wardrobe

Another thing to keep in mind is that it may just be hard to break the habit. If you’re a bargain shopper, you might feel the urge to keep hitting ‘buy’ online when you see sales (even if you don’t need anything). If you’re a compulsive shopper, someone who usually turns to make purchases when they’re anxious or upset, keep that in mind and make plans for what you’ll do instead. If you’re the kind of shopper who’s worried about ever having to wear the same dress to two parties, you’ll need to find ways to use what you have more creatively, as mentioned above.

Here are some tips to get you through the months where you decide to go without buying new:

Unsubscribe—If you get emails from stores or fashion outlets that provide you with ways to buy or inspiration to do so, remove the temptation from your life. You’ll be making things much easier on yourself.

Unfollow—Like the email tip, if you follow influencers or other social media accounts dedicated to fashion, fast or otherwise, consider unfollowing them, so you aren’t faced with another place to click ‘buy.’

Don’t go to stores—Set yourself a timeframe in which you simply aren’t going to go to clothing stores. It could be a month or three or six. Whatever you choose, this will help you figure out when and why you tend to go shopping. If you typically go to stores with friends, you can try proposing other activities with a less commercial bent.

‘Forget’ your wallet—If you really have to go to a store, either on your own or with someone else, you can always try doing so without a way to actually buy anything. Leave your wallet at home. You can enjoy window shopping without the risk of actually making the purchases you’re trying to avoid.

Count the items you’ve already got—Knowing that you have seven blue shirts in your wardrobe back home may well help you understand that you don’t really need another, no matter how deep the discount seems to be.

These are just some of the things you might consider trying, and you’ll soon learn what works for you. You could also find an accountability partner if you have a friend who’s also interested in reducing their clothes shopping. That way, you can each help each other work through the challenging moments, reminding each other why you’ve made the commitment not to buy new clothing.

Final Thoughts

While one person can’t change the world on their own, your decisions do make a difference. Whether it’s because you care about the environmental impact of fast fashion, you want to save money and find some psychological benefits, or both, deciding not to buy new clothes can have a major impact.