‘How a clothes shopping ban changed my life’

·6-min read
 (Hannah Rochell)
(Hannah Rochell)

My lightbulb moment happened in Topshop. I was browsing the Oxford Circus store, ready to buy a skirt that was so ‘me’ I could have designed it myself. It was cheap and yellow and I loved it. But I had made a vow to shop more sustainably and that meant reading labels.

The skirt was made from polyester. Polyester is plastic. Plastic is made from oil. Fossil fuels are killing the planet and plastic doesn’t decompose for hundreds of years. So I put it back and walked out. And I found the rush I got from my willpower even better than the excitement of buying something new.

Shortly after, in April 2019, I made a pledge to not buy any clothes for a year. After 12 years working as a fashion journalist, I had become more and more disillusioned with the very industry that literally put clothes on my back. Because not only was I a serious over-consumer myself when it came to clothes, but the language I used in articles and particularly headlines, such as ‘must-haves’, ‘need’ and even simply ‘new’, was all part of the problem. I was part of the problem.

Three years earlier I had been made redundant from my job as fashion features editor at a glossy magazine when it ceased publication. Going freelance gave me enough distance from the fashion industry to start to see the role I was playing in the climate crisis.

In April 2019 Hannah made a pledge to give up buying any new clothes for a year (Image courtesy of Hannah Rochell)
In April 2019 Hannah made a pledge to give up buying any new clothes for a year (Image courtesy of Hannah Rochell)

I am a passionate recycler, I hunt down low-impact beauty products and I even cook for my dog to reduce the amount of packaging I get through, but for some reason - probably my love of clothes and my pay packet - up until that point, I had conveniently blinkered myself from the relationship my job had with the environment and the exploitation of garment workers. I decided to make a change.

I diversified my blog, which at the time focused solely on flat shoes, introducing conversations around sustainability and using fewer shopping links. But the real turning point for me was learning more about fabrics and fibres via a job I got writing for Common Objective, an industry platform of sustainable fashion resources, which in turn made me a serial label checker.

Following that trip to Topshop, I set about examining my own, somewhat extensive wardrobe. Much of it was bought on the high street, which in turn meant I had loads of polyester. There was a surprising amount of viscose, which, if not made sustainably, causes deforestation (it’s usually made from tree pulp) and uses toxic chemicals in its production which are harmful both for those working with it, and who live in the surrounding areas where it is washed into the water system.

 (Hannah Rochell)
(Hannah Rochell)

Much of my cotton was blended with a man made material, meaning that every time I washed it, it was releasing microplastics into the environment. And even the 100% cotton pieces, in spite of being made from a natural fibre, come with all sorts of problems of their own which I don’t have the word count to go into right now.

After having an epiphany at the Oxford Circus Topshop, Hannah Rochell has not set foot in a fast fashion store for over two years (AFP via Getty Images)
After having an epiphany at the Oxford Circus Topshop, Hannah Rochell has not set foot in a fast fashion store for over two years (AFP via Getty Images)

But the main thing that stood out was this: I have a lot of clothes. I really don’t need anything new. So I began shopping from my own wardrobe, spending time styling up new outfits with old clothes, and falling back in love with things I’d had for decades. I discovered that I’m not the jeans and T-shirt girl I always thought I was and that instead, I’m a massive fan of the versatility and comfort of a shirt dress (helpful for any future denim-related shopping wobbles).

I’d like to point out that what I have done isn’t possible for everyone - I was privileged enough to have a well-stocked starting point, my weight doesn’t fluctuate that much and I also don’t have any growing children to clothe, but those of us that can should be slowing down the way we shop for the sake of the planet and the people that make our clothes, who are all too often underpaid in unacceptable working conditions.

Garment workers at a factory in Bangladesh (Getty Images)
Garment workers at a factory in Bangladesh (Getty Images)

It’s not an exaggeration to say that my shopping ban changed my life. I will never shop fast fashion again. I now buy very rarely, and very carefully, from independent brands that I have fully vetted. If I buy clothes, it’s because I love them and because I know I will cherish them for years.

All my friends and family check in with me before they buy anything new, too. And I no longer write fashion articles about trends and ‘must-haves’; instead I earn my crust writing about sustainable and slow fashion, and environmental issues for togetherband.org, a movement which aims to advance the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals through creativity and culture. And I’m still very much a serial label checker, not that I’ve set foot in a fashion store for about two years...

Fancy trying it yourself? Here are my five tips for changing your own relationship with shopping:

Stop impulse buying. I usually wait at least a few days, which also gives me time to properly research the brand’s ethics and the fabric that the item is made from. Giving yourself a cooling off period will often make you realise you didn’t really want that new item after all. This method has also saved me loads of money!

Unsubscribe from fast fashion newsletters. Because what are newsletters designed to do? Make you want to buy stuff. See also shops. When I started my shopping ban I changed the route I walked to work to avoid temptation.

Hannah says we should all be aiming to wear every item of clothing at least 30 times (Image courtesy of Hannah Rochell)
Hannah says we should all be aiming to wear every item of clothing at least 30 times (Image courtesy of Hannah Rochell)

Curate your Insta feed. Only follow brands and influencers that don’t try and push fast fashion on you. The more you do this, the more inspiring people the algorithm will help you to find - I’ve discovered many of my favourite sustainable brands and creatives on Instagram.

Do a wardrobe challenge. It doesn’t have to be giving up shopping for a whole year; you could try 3 months or limit yourself to second-hand only for a while. The main thing is to break the fast fashion cycle. And, full disclosure, I broke my ban a month earlier because so many small sustainable brands were struggling during the pandemic - I had already planned the few purchases I was going to make when I’d finished my experiment and I wanted to support them when it really mattered.

Start counting the number of times you wear your clothes. We should all be aiming to wear every item of clothing at least 30 times to reduce their carbon footprint. It will also help you figure out what items you rely on and what you should avoid buying in the future. In my case, jeans.

Hannah Rochell is deputy head of content at togetherband.org and writes her own blog at enbrogue.com. You can find her on Instagram @hannah.rochell

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