I am not a shopaholic. Seriously.

But when I packed up my belongings this summer to move into a new apartment, I couldn’t help but notice how much stuff I had. I, like many young women, love a good sale. It’s easy to saunter into a shopping mall and come out with a dozen new sundresses. As the moving company was loading my boxes into a truck, I overheard one of the movers tell the team that he had, “never moved someone with so many clothes.” Okay, perhaps I need to make sure my priorities are in check.

Image: Flickr, PROMaegan Tintari

My colleague Agnia Musur and I committed to a challenge this year to go a full twelve months without buying any clothing. I’ve taken the challenge once before in 2011 and it is truly life-altering.

I started the challenge on July 1st and am currently more than five months through my year of no new clothes. The biggest lesson I’ve learned so far is that all of the clothes I thought I so desperately needed to have for each wedding/event/cocktail party/garden party that hit my calendar just weren’t really necessary. I’ve become accustomed to pulling out the random dresses I forgot about in the back of my closet and being totally surprised by what I already have. Anyway, clothes should last longer than a season, right?

My year without new clothes has helped me to personally understand the massive impacts fast fashion has on the environment and on people living in poverty. We live in a culture where designs travel from the runway to the stores as quickly as possible to keep up with trends. Fast fashion has promoted a throw-away culture, since stores are bringing in new designs daily. Since the 1990s this has become an industry, with big companies such as Gap, and Forever 21 looking to increase their profits. While fast fashion might be great for keeping up with the latest trends and not making a large dent in your wallet, this industry has harmed the environment and involves horrific working conditions for those producing the clothes.

To keep up with the demand for cheap trendy clothes, big fast fashion companies have looked to factories in parts of Asia because the cost of labor is so much cheaper there than anywhere else. In Bangladesh garment workers earn around $43 dollars a month, and in China workers earn slightly more, around $117 a month. Even in the United States, where average garment wages are around $1,600 a month, workers are below the poverty line. But in developing countries, workers toil for long hours in horrific conditions. They're sometimes not allowed to go to the bathroom and the air in the factories can become so hot that it burns people.

On the floor at the factory. Each worker earns US$2, including mandatory overtime. Considered a good wage by Chinese standards. But rising costs, falling exports coupled by rising inflation is shutting down many factories in the industrial heart of Guangzhou.
Image: Flickr, Edwin Lee

On top of the horrible conditions for workers, this industry is also hurting the environment. Because fast fashion means keeping up with the trends, factories are constantly churning out massive amounts of cheap clothing. This cycle leads to an acceleration in carbon emissions and ultimately global warming as clothing and materials are shipped around the world and electricity goes into production. The fast fashion industry is also responsible for 17 to 20 percent of industrial water pollution and the use of cotton is responsible for 2.6 percent of global water use.

On the surface, fast fashion may seem like a great way to get cute, trendy clothes for little cost. However, next time you go to buy clothes from there think about the environment and the workers that made that $10 shirt. A year of not buying clothes, or only shopping at ethical shops may not be feasible for everyone but if us global citizens slow down on participating in the fast fashion industry we will be doing our part to save the environment and helping people get out of poverty.

Also, by reconsidering your relationship to clothing, you’ll be putting pressure on the titans of fast fashion, which could ultimately lead to a change in the industry. To win back customers, some companies may begin to promote more ethical and sustainable practices. 

With New Year’s Eve fast approaching, I encourage you to consider what resolutions you will make to support the world’s poorest. Pick your favorite Global Goal to support and tell them world in TAKE ACTION NOW.


Demand Equity

Why I'm not buying clothes for a year

By Judith Rowland