I started getting interested in ethical/sustainable/conscious fashion and beauty about two years ago. I don’t consider myself a fashion addict per se but I must admit I do love beautiful things and while I make a point to wear every single item I buy, there is this one stubborn dress in my closet with the tag still on (it’s slightly too large if you must know). So anyway, as I was reading ethical blogs, instagram posts and research on the environmental and human impact of fashion, I quickly became mortified at the idea of buying anything ever again. The process of shopping for clothes became ridiculously painful, riddled with hours of confusing research on what materials to avoid and prioritize, how to build a capsule wardrobe (an agonizing idea for a maximalist like me) while of course trying to find a price tag I could actually afford.
That last part may have been the hardest. Having been broke most of my life, I am a proud and skillful bargain shopper. Spending over twenty euros on anything always seemed like a luxury. So going from that to a 250 euros pair of boots (my first ethical buy, thank you Bhava) required more than a few adjustments.
So my natural reaction, being an all or nothing kinda girl was to stop buying stuff altogether. I didn’t set this as a goal. Initially, I was simply disgusted by the processes involved in manufacturing clothes. Being a humanitarian worker, I felt like quite the hypocrite advocating for emergency support for disaster affected people while accumulating things that violently contribute to the suffering of others. The other thing that made it easy for me to make that decision was that I was working abroad, so I could shop my own closet every time I came back home and feel like I was wearing new clothes. The last thing is that I have a specific style and every item I buy is a variation of that style, so it quickly stopped making sense to keep buying more.
It started in Tunisia in February 2017 where I swore off Mango and Zara; and it held up until April 2018, when I landed in Kenya and fell in love with Kitenge cloth (it was true love guys, not a fling). During that entire time, I couldn’t lie, I did buy a few things: a skiing coat from French sport gear giant Decathlon (which actually has a pretty responsible supply chain), a couple of traditional scarves from the Tunis souk, a vintage dress from Beirut (an impulse buy I could have done without), a sport bra, a tunic made by my aunt’s fashion students (that was a good cause) and some jewelry beautifully handmade in Tunisia. Aside from these few purchases, here’s what I learned from a year abstaining from (fast) fashion.
1. I don’t have to buy things to take care of myself
Before I started this experiment, I had never realized how much time shopping sucked out of my life. I used to spend hours scrolling through racks of clothes on ASOS or Vestiaire Collective while watching tv shows, occasionally thinking that I might want to do something else, but never quite getting there. When I started to quit online shopping, avoid shopping malls like the plague and ignored fancy boutiques on my way to work, I actually freed up space to figure out what I really wanted to do with my time.
For one, I launched Qualms & Conundrums. But I also suddenly had time to listen to podcasts, cook healthier foods, do yoga, read again and buy flowers on my way from work. Last, but certainly not least, I decided to go back to school to work on fashion sustainability and got into the French Institute of Fashion – a school I would have never thought I had even the slightest chance to get in.
2. My self-worth isn’t hanging by a trend
Being a third-generation Algerian immigrant in France, I always received a lot of comments related to how different or how typically arab/berber I looked, spoke (“OMG how come you don’t even gave an accent when you speak French?”) or behaved. So I always attached a lot of importance to my looks. I never wanted anyone to think that I was less-than, so I always wanted to look at my best. Hence my obsession with fashion.
What happened though when I stopped buying new clothes is that I realized that what I already owned was more than enough. And having gained in confidence – one of the perks of adulthood – I didn’t feel the need to prove myself to everyone and their cousin quite as much. The true lesson I learned is that who I am is already more than enough.
3. I’d rather spend money on meaningful things
Ironically, I started this process when I started making the most money I ever made. But the more my salary increased, the more I wanted to spend it on important, meaningful and substantial things. So the first few months I paid back my student loan in full. Then I spent more time developing my friendships over great food. I travelled more. I took care of my health. I set money aside. And I paid next year’s school tuition fees in full.
Alice Van Grutten said it best when she said “the ethical fashion movement won’t succeed until consumers stop believing that happiness is just another cheap shirt away.” In a way, I spent a lot of time filling my closet so I wouldn’t have to admit that I was otherwise unfulfilled. Taking a break from that gave me a chance to take a cold hard look at my life and make a change for the better.