Some children will step into their mother’s heels, slide her mangled tube of red lipstick across their tiny mouths, or wrestle on a tie with clumsy, chubby fingers, then look down and understand that fashion will be the great love of their life. I was one of those children, snapping the crystal bracelets my mom wanted to trust me with but shouldn’t have and stuffing my shirt to better imagine the day that I could rock a Victoria’s Secret bra, or better yet, that pink dress from My Date With the President’s Daughter.
As I got older, my interest in fashion made me an ideal target for Instagram advertisements and fashion vloggers encouraging me to buy their outfits right now with their discount code. The clothes from ASOS and Nasty Gal piled up in my closet, unworn and out of style, and I became more attuned to winter getting warmer every year. Finally, after leading a climate change event for my city during Greta Thunberg’s September climate strikes in 2019, I accepted that clothing was the primary way I contributed to our worsening climate crisis. I decided to stop buying it.
At least, I decided to stop buying it new. Since 2019, I’ve only purchased clothes at thrift stores, online vintage havens like Etsy and eBay, or through zero waste independent designers like Maison Cleo and Beasha Studios. I truly can’t imagine ever going back to how I used to buy clothes, and I’ve never felt more appreciative of fashion or my collage of a closet.
I truly can’t imagine ever going back to how I used to buy clothes.
That said, I’m familiar with the unique blend of flippance and guilt when someone online announces how often they compost or something, so I won’t pretend like cutting my fast fashion habit was easy, or it wasn’t afforded to me because of my privilege. Some people don’t have the time, money, or energy to comb through the Internet to find an inexpensive pair of secondhand jeans that fit them. But I also don’t want to wrongly perpetuate the idea that climate activism is only for a few white and wealthy people.
My decision to cull my waste would not have been possible without women-of-color activists such as Aditi Mayer and Dominique Drakeford, who tirelessly discuss the way fashion is inextricable from climate change, race, and community. To that last point, as a Bengali woman, I feel that I have a particular responsibility to buy better; South Asian women toil in precarious fast-fashion factories for low wages while one in seven Bengali people are predicted to be displaced by climate change in the next three decades alone.
Regardless of my personal connection, climate change stopped being an intangible possibility a long time ago. As necessary as it may feel in the moment, your next clothing purchase directly impacts the most vulnerable people on the planet. I want to offer you a no-nonsense look at how I made the switch from being a regular H&M shopper to something of an eBay demigod, if I do say so myself.
First, I had to start small to make changes last. Boring, I know. But it’s too easy to fly on the wings of an idea and decide that you’re going to stop buying fast fashion, and, while you’re at it, learn to crochet your own grocery bags and never look at a piece of plastic again. Then you get immediately overwhelmed, hop off, and go back to your old ways.
Your next clothing purchase directly impacts the most vulnerable people on the planet.
It’s also not always practical to go all in. I had first intended to live a completely “zero waste” lifestyle—somewhat of a misnomer considering bodily waste is a tragic, human inevitability—until I accepted the fact that I was a college student with $80,000 in student loans and completely avoiding plastic was murdering my bank account.
I quickly found that what was more important than labeling my life with vague designations like “zero waste” or “slow fashion” was figuring out what truly made me want to live more sustainably. I decided that I was motivated by a desire to act in exploited workers’ best interests, my appreciation of high-quality material, and a love of vintage design. Once I defined those core values, it became easier to hold myself back from purchases that felt misaligned.
From there, I watched a lot of YouTube videos about historical sewing practices and even learned how to sew myself. This helped me better identify excellent stitching in secondhand garments while shopping in person or online—like tight, straight stitches and vintage sewing conventions like single stitching. Understanding sewing helped me find old clothing that was made well and sure to stay in top shape for a long time. Similarly, I found it helpful to form a basic understanding of fabric types, which let me gauge how well a garment would hold up just by touching it or seeing how it draped on a mannequin.
Armed with these clothing essentials, I’m now able to buy vintage that’s built to live and hang around like a loved one, not disintegrate after a wears like a Fashion Nova fling.
But as a young Dakota Fanning says in the Henri Bendel-approved Uptown Girls, fundamentals are only the building blocks of fun. After securing my fundamentals, I indulged myself in learning more about vintage high fashion (I highly recommend Olivia Haroutounian’s TikTok for this purpose), prioritizing my personal style over trends (as enticing as I found that Strawberry Dress, I knew it would end up in closet purgatory after one or two wears), and I made accounts on The RealReal, eBay, and Depop.
I’m now able to buy vintage that’s built to live and hang around like a loved one, not disintegrate after a wears like a Fashion Nova fling.
Now, this is going to sound counterintuitive, but if you excessively buy clothes you don’t wear the way I once did, that last step is essential. At first, I feared that having constant access to vintage clothing on my phone was just me putting my fashion waste problem through a slightly eco-conscious filter. In reality, using the “save” function on all of those sites completely changed how I performed purchases.
Instead of chasing the dopamine rush of cashing out a shopping cart the second a new item caught my eye and begged me to buy now, the save function helped me feel, well, safe. I knew that all the things I liked were waiting exactly where I left them, and having a growing composite of clothing helped me keep an eye on deals, maintain a repository of my personal style, and avoid impulse purchases that I would later regret.
Now, when I open my closet door, I feel proud. The care and work I invest into sourcing, cherishing, and maintaining my clothes make them feel like well-worn stuffed animals I proudly bring to school. I’m happy to share them with the world, and I no longer let anything fall to the crumpled wayside.
Realistically, I know that patching a hole in my favorite sweater instead of buying another one isn’t going to counteract Jeff Bezos’ joyrides to space. But by giving up new clothes, I’ve become more connected to my love of fashion and the world, and for now, that’s enough.