Ash Bruxvoort recently ended a complicated relationship, but it wasn't with a man, it was with her wardrobe.
Once the distressed owner of over 200 shirts, skirts, pants and dresses, she has cut her wardrobe by 75 percent, realigning her fashion choices with her environmentally conscious mindset.
"It was like I was using shopping to make myself feel better," explained Bruxvoort, a 24-year-old freelance journalist who said her unhealthy shopping habit snuck up on her after she started her first job.
For less than $20, a new skirt could erase the stress of a bad day of work, she said.
The modern fashion industry is built on this kind of instant gratification. "Fast fashion" — the mass-produced, low-priced fashion phenomenon associated with stores like Old Navy, Forever 21 and H&M — has completed clothing's transformation into an inexpensive consumable, more like a Starbucks drink or restaurant meal than a luxury good.
But, as Bruxvoort discovered, the shift comes at a cost. In order to keep prices low, fast fashion retailers use low-quality materials, selling items that wear out or tear in the span of a few months. Rapidly shifting trends mean consumers regularly buy new clothes without considering whether they are worth the price, trained by the fashion industry to favor full closets over slower, savvier shopping. And even as the cost of individual clothing items has markedly dropped, data on consumer spending show that shoppers are spending more overall, steadily increasing the industry's profits.
But a new slow shopping trend is resurging. Bruxvoort, for example, said now that she shops less and puts more thought into her purchases, she feels more in control of her money and happier with what's in her closet. Change can be intimidating, but Bruxvoort and other slow shoppers describe the process as empowering.
"If you do put in the time and thought, you're going to have a wardrobe that's really curated and beautiful," said stylist Jordan Duncan. "It will convey the message that you want to convey about yourself."
Quality versus quantity
Real spending, which takes into account both price changes and changes in spending, on clothing and footwear in America grew by nearly $100 billion from 1999 to 2013, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Clothing prices dropped over that period, meaning the amount of clothing purchased swelled. Consumers may feel like they're getting a great deal on individual pieces, but it's the fashion industry that ultimately benefits.
"The goal (of fast fashion) is for the consumer to purchase many articles of clothing in the fastest amount of time possible," explained Shannon Whitehead, a sustainable apparel consultant. "It may seem like there are four fashion seasons (spring, summer, fall, winter), but it's 52 seasons. There are new trends every week."
Whitehead said consumers often fail to realize how fast fashion purchases add up. In 2013, Americans spent an average of $1,604 on apparel and services, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported.
"(Shoppers) don't keep track of a shirt from Target or a tank top from Forever 21," Whitehead said, but regular $5 purchases add up over time. "You're doing more for your wallet by spending money on thoughtful, timeless pieces that last."
Fashion companies also take advantage of quickly shifting trends by peddling lower quality items that aren't built to last and convincing consumers that high closet turnover is desirable.
Amanda Homer, a designer who worked for Gymboree, Banana Republic and The Gap, said today's fashion industry is driven by money more than a sense of loyalty to consumers. Because companies adjust cloth purchases to meet profit margin expectations, she witnessed a "roller coaster of (material) quality" during her tenure in the industry.
"Stores like Forever 21, H&M and Zara are releasing new pieces every single week," she said. After big fashion shows, fast fashion retailers will have affordable versions of the new trends in stores within a few weeks, a timeline that necessarily leads companies to cut corners on quality, Homer noted.
Bruxvoort's shift from shopaholic to careful consumer was inspired, in part, by quality concerns: "I would wear a shirt from Forever 21 and a month later it would have a hole in the arm," she explained.
In contrast, she bought a sweater recently that cost $90, a far cry from fast fashion's typically low price range, but Bruxvoort considers it a better deal. She thought about buying that kind of sweater for months before making the investment and is confident she'll still be wearing it a year from now.
Consumers and their clothes
During her affair with fast fashion, Bruxvoort didn't closely track her spending, but she was reminded of how many clothing items she churned through during her regular treks to Goodwill.
"I realized pretty quickly that the way I was buying my clothes wasn't sustainable at all," she said. "I would fill up huge garbage bags of clothes to take to Goodwill because it was stuff I didn't want to wear anymore."
One of the often unnoticed side effects of the fast fashion industry is that clothes become disposable. If only a small investment of time and money was made in an item's purchase, its owner is unlikely to feel much remorse when it soon gets shoved to the back of a closet, donated to a thrift store or thrown away.
Textile waste has increased considerably as the relationship between consumers and their clothes eroded over the last few decades. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 14.3 million tons of textiles were discarded by Americans in 2012. That's almost eight times the amount (1.8 million tons) produced in 1960. Although 2.3 million tons of fabric was recovered for export or reprocessing, an average of more than 76 pounds of textiles per person ended up in landfills in 2012.
Whitehead focuses much of her research and advocacy work on the environmental impacts of textile waste, and she stresses how counterintuitive it is to continue to spend money on clothes that often end up in the trash.
"Even if it's just a necklace or a pair of shoes, you should think really, really hard before you buy it," she said.
Committing to making more thoughtful purchases is part of Whitehead's vision of slow fashion, a movement that seeks to mitigate fast fashion's impact on the industry and the environment. Less a new phenomenon than a return to clothing practices of the past, slow fashion steps away from trendiness to focus on ethical materials and high-quality construction.
A new way to have fun
Fast fashion retail stores are designed to make shopping fun. With low prices and new pieces, they encourage consumers to think less about how long an item of clothing will last and more about how great it will look that night or that weekend. Rather than celebrate finding a special sweater after months of searching, as Bruxvoort did, most consumers rejoice in finding a good deal on a trendy piece, whether they thought about the style before they walked into the store or not.
Once a self-described "shopaholic," Whitehead said her transition to a smaller wardrobe required her to think about having fun with fashion in new ways.
"I had to ask myself, 'Why do I feel better because I have something new to wear?' That's a huge thing for the American consumer. We look to material things to fill something that's lacking," she said. "Now when I'm going out, I see what outfit I can come up with out of the pieces that I have already. I make it a game."
Duncan, whose styling business is based in Nashville, Tennessee, loves to study fashion magazines and go shopping with clients. But she said the real fun comes from finding a personal style that can weather rapidly changing fast fashion trends, even if it's expensive to get started.
When she meets with clients for the first time, she asks them about what they like and who they look up to, piecing together a style from even non-fashion-related personality traits. From there, she'll pick some "classic" pieces.
"You're always going to need a good pair of jeans and a good pair of boots. And a shirt with a great jacket. Those are the basics no matter who I'm dressing — man or woman no matter what look they're going for," she explained.
Duncan describes her own shopping strategy as a mixture of patience and self-awareness. She identifies what items she needs and then keeps an eye out for them, worrying less about the time it takes than the quality of her ultimate purchase.
"If you buy a lot of classic styles, you're going to be able to keep them for years," she said. Her boots, for example, she's had for five years.
The speed of fashion
Armed with budget- and quality-based arguments, consumers may still find it hard to resist the allure of fast fashion. Bruxvoort can attest that saying goodbye to frequent shopping trips made her feel at first like she was also giving up her personal style.
"Deciding what to keep was really hard for me. I have a very eclectic style," she said. Transitioning to a smaller closet meant she had to be more creative, maintaining her look with fewer pieces.
But Bruxvoort is confident she made the right decision because she feels better about her minimal wardrobe than she ever did about her overflowing closet.
"When you put on a well-made garment or a nicely tailored blazer or skirt, you feel completely different," Whitehead explained.
Whitehead encourages consumers to start small, tracking clothing expenditures for a month and then committing to buying nothing the next month. A clothing moratorium can reorient a shopper to the money they invest in shopping, she said.
"Money that you've saved (can be) invested into one timeless, classic, ethically made piece," Whitehead explained. And although that one investment may not change the fast fashion industry, she said, it will change the way consumers feel about their clothes.
"There is no perfectly sustainable option," Whitehead noted. But asking questions like, "How often will I wear this?" and "Where will it go after I'm done wearing it?" is a great place to start.
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