Lauren Bravo on breaking up with fast fashion – and why she wants TV presenters to recycle their outfits
by The Dyás Admin·
In 2019, journalist, writer and author Lauren Bravo embarked on a year-long journey of fast-fashion abstinence. Disenchanted by her changing feelings towards clothes, and knowing the impact of fast fashion on the environment, she imposed a ban of Zara & Co. on herself and a willing friend. She chronicles her journey in her book How to break up with fast fashion, which doubles as a helpful guide to shopping more sustainably and rethinking the value of what you’re buying.
From ditching shame, to holding brands accountable and acknowledging the impact of social media and film and TV – our interview with Lauren discusses her opinions on sustainability and how to jump off the hamster wheel of fast fashion.
It's easy to feel overwhelmed or guilty about fast fashion choices. I know I’ve felt ashamed after buying particularly large quantities of stuff online. That said, I think your book handles the temptations of fast fashion well by not shaming consumers, but instead encouraging each of us to accept that we can all be terrible in our own way. However, do you think we might need to feel a bit more shame if we’re going to jump into action any time soon?
I think we have to strike a very delicate balance here. I would say that we don't necessarily need to feel shame as I don’t believe shame is a productive emotion in the service of changing one’s habits. If anything, I think shame can be an obstacle to change as it causes us to bury our heads in the sand and feel that we're incapable of changing the world. We can only change through talking and owning up to our own behaviours and therefore spread the message further and that must be done without shame. However, I would say that what we do need is responsibility and accountability. We need to educate and make sure that people are confronted with the fact of their own habits because we tend to play this game of “pass the parcel of blame”, by constantly passing off responsibility to someone else. We say it’s the responsibility of the brands, which is true; but the brands say it’s the responsibility of the government, which is also true. Nevertheless, that doesn't mean that as consumers we don't also have a role to play. It was my aim with my book How to break up with fast fashion to create a guilt free guide to change our habits, and to give productive and practical advice, because we are running out of time to halt climate change.
What triggered your decision to buy no new clothes for a year?
It was a series of dawning realisations, but it was also a few short sharp shocks. I had been changing my habits gradually over the past couple years before my fast fashion ban. I realised that I was disenchanted with fashion and my own shopping habits. Plus, I noticed that buying fashion wasn't making me happy anymore. But at the same time, I was a fashion writer, and I was learning more about the truth behind the fashion industry, especially when watching The True Cost documentary.
However, one of the big triggers for me was moving house in autumn 2018. I was sorting through a decade’s worth of fashion mistakes, clothes that I didn't wear, clothes I could barely remember buying. I was picking things up thinking: ‘Well this is perfectly nice, so why don't I wear this anymore?’ And the only reason was just because I had gotten bored of it or I had forgotten I had it, because I bought something else. I was confronted with the full scale of all the clothes I owned, and that was the final push that I needed. I thought to myself that I could probably go a whole year without buying anything brand new because I had so many clothes there and they all deserved a bit of love. I felt sick and guilty to have all those clothes in my life that had barely seen any action. I told my friend Daisy about my thoughts, and she joined the challenge. It was nice to have somebody to keep me strong when my resolve was wavering and vice versa. But I've always loved a bit of a challenge anyways.
And did you manage to stick to it for the whole year?
I did. It was tough, but it wasn’t as tough as I thought it would be.
Have you bought any fast fashion since?
I haven’t bought any new fast fashion, absolutely not. However, I’ve bought second hand fast fashion, from charity shops, from eBay, from Depop and so on.
Weirdly, though, I now find even second-hand fast fashion less attractive. If I'm looking in a charity shop I might see a nice print, but if I spot that the label is Zara or Primark I instantly don’t like it as much. I know the quality isn’t as good, plus I can see other people wearing it and it's got that negative association for me now.
Do you believe everyone else should follow your lead and pursue total abstinence?
Personally, I'll probably always feel the same about fashion - but now the idea of going and buying fast fashion just makes me really tired. I just don't have the energy for it. Even if Zara magically became 100% sustainable and ethical overnight, I don’t think I’d be bothered because I would rather have a little potter around a vintage shop or a little boutique.
I'm quite an all or nothing person, so I find it easier to tell myself I won’t go into fast fashion shops. I also don't go on their websites; I don't think about it and that works for me.
However, I don't think that works for everybody and it really depends on your personality, your life, circumstances, and privileges. I’ve always said that we don't need everybody to be doing this perfectly and we certainly don't need a small group of people doing it perfectly and making everybody else feel bad. I think it's fine to have the odd “slip up”. In fact I wouldn;t even call it that. If you choose more sustainable options 80 or 90% of the time, buying the odd fast fashion item that you really want and you know you’re going to wear is nothing to get stressed out over. We need to allow people a bit of flexibility - it’s more sustainable for the long term.
But what if you can’t afford to shop anywhere else? How does a single mother on benefits break up with fast fashion?
I don't think we need to persuade a single parent on benefits to stop shopping at Primark. People who are living on the poverty line or below and who genuinely have no other option than to buy the cheapest clothes available to them should carry on buying at cheaper places. They’re not the ones fuelling the problem.
The problem is that over the last few decades fast fashion has devalued our perception of clothing. It’s become normal to buy 60% more clothes than we did 20 years ago and only keep them for half as long.
The other problem is the much bigger group of people who actually could afford to spend a bit more on their clothes. But we are not prepared to buy fewer clothes and keep them for longer, mainly because we've all been fed this myth that it’s almost our duty as civilians, as women, to keep updating our wardrobes and buy new outfits every time we go out. However, the quality of those clothes has been driven down to such an extent that they don't last very long. They fall apart in the wash, they stretch out, and trends change so quickly, that we start to feel outdated in something we've only had six months. Then we believe that we are so poor that we can't afford to spend a bit more and we can't afford to buy better.
That's not our fault and I'm not judging those people who have that mindset. I’ve been there myself. I've been the student thinking: ‘I'm going to Primark, and I'll spend £100 buying six new outfits which I’ll wear for a couple of months and then they’ll fall apart.’ However, what I would say is that we need to focus all our attention on that middle group of people who don't feel privileged, who definitely have their struggles but who are being sold a false economy. It's not about making people feel bad for their habits. It should be about making the brands feel bad. They’re selling goods that aren’t fit for purpose and they’re bombarding us with marketing that makes us feel like we need to be constantly buying new clothes.
We need to encourage a change of mindset that almost dates back to the way that our parents’ or grandparents’ generation used to shop. You save up and you spend a bigger proportion of your income buying nicer clothing. And then you repair them instead of throwing them out.
Do you think fast-fashion has devalued clothes?
I do, but I also think that it's important to value clothes however much they cost us. I don't think it's helpful for us to dismiss fast fashion as worthless. We can still treasure it in the way we would cherish something that we paid a lot more money for. Fast fashion items are still worth repairing and caring for properly and we need to keep them in circulation for as long as possible. I've got fast fashion in my wardrobe that I've had for 10 years, and I still wear it. Ultimately, those clothes have still been made by human hands; somebody still worked very hard to make those clothes and I think that we need to honour them by keeping those clothes in action for as long as possible.
Some say that second hand fashion and vintage is trendy and starting to get more expensive. Will it send consumers back into the arms of fast fashion?
I think it's definitely true that there are some vintage and second-hand sellers out there who are overpricing stuff but ultimately those businesses won't survive. I volunteer in a charity shop and charities need money like everybody else does right now. Some people have complained that we have apparently over-priced a really good designer label item when really, we priced it fairly and still a lot lower than you would pay for it on eBay or Vestiaire. But we are a homelessness charity, which fundraises a lot of money for charity.
Most traders are not out to make a fast buck, but everything is getting more expensive. I also believe there is this mentality that because it's second hand, we should be able to buy armfuls of it whenever we feel like it. That isn't true either. We should still be taking our time to shop more consciously, even if it’s second hand. What we need most is clothes being recycled and repurposed.
How do you think we can change fast fashion for the better?
At the beginning of How to break up with fast fashion there is a chapter called “It’s not you, it’s them. And a bit you.” Brands, policymakers, and people have power, and I don't think that we have time to keep passing the blame anymore. Everyone needs to be doing their part.
That said, governments need to instate regulations to hold brands accountable. There need to be sanctions when brands are not manufacturing in the most environmentally friendly way. Unfortunately, that isn't happening at the moment. A few years ago, the Environmental Audit Committee recommended 18 really great, small, manageable action points that the UK government could take to make fashion more sustainable. And the government rejected every single one of them.
Therefore, I think it's important for people to step up and demand change, because the government isn't doing it. And unfortunately, brands, although they are changing, they're changing not quickly enough and they're putting more energy, time and money into greenwashing and pretending to be doing the right thing. I asked a similar question to Dr Mark Sumner from the University of Leeds, and he believes it is the consumers that have the most power because there are more of us. We are the ones spending the money and if enough of us decided to stop shopping from unsustainable brands we could make a change.
What about the big designers? If Gucci, Versace & Co. changed for the better, do you think the High Street would follow suit?
I think it would help especially since we know that fashion works through a trickle-down. High Street brands have been copying designer fashion and cutting-edge looks for decades, but I think that High Street brands would argue that their primary responsibility is to provide low-cost clothing. They may also say that designer labels can absorb some of the higher costs which fast fashion can’t.
I also think it's really important that we acknowledge that high end brands can be just as unethical as fast fashion ones and often get away with it more easily because they can fly under the radar. People assume that, because they're spending a lot of money on something, it means it's automatically going to have been made ethically and with better materials and that's not always the case. Everybody, across the board, needs to produce sustainably.
What’s the role of social media in the devaluing of clothes?
I think social media has an awful lot to answer for. Taking photos of wearing clothes matters now almost more than wearing them in real life. It shocks me that people don’t shop for clothes but for content. For example, I can’t get my head around Tik Tok hauls, which are a huge trend and it has become completely normalised to wear an outfit once on the grid and then get rid of it because we've created content from it. Fast fashion and social media have generated a throw away culture.
Where clothes were once an investment like buying a sofa or car, fashion has now moved into the category of fast-moving consumer goods, like toothpaste or a packet of biscuits. We’re expecting to use it up quite quickly and then throw it away. What we really need to do is to push it back into the slow-moving consumer goods category and retrain people to not buy clothing unless they are prepared to commit to it, use it, look after it and keep it in their life for a long time.
Preloved and thrifting are trending amongst fashion micro influencers and social media accounts. In your opinion, is this a fad or here to stay?
For better or worse, fashion is fickle and the same goes for trends in social media, trends in culture and trends in clothing. I think influencers are starting to become aware of the fact that they are part of the problem and what we’ve started to see is that the more savvy and educated influencers are changing their output. They're hitting those buzz words - talking about sustainability, about recycled fabrics and collaborating with more eco-friendly brands.
I don't think it’s a bad thing. It's important that influencers help clean up the mess that they helped create. Influencers can be a powerful force for good if they act as the middleman of followers and brands and actually tell brands what their followers want and hold brands accountable.
Of course, with any fashion trends, the danger is that it’ll fall off the radar again or that people are going to get bored. We need to be really worried about a lot of influencers who are just paying lip service to the topic rather than making a real change. Most importantly, we know we have a deadline and climate change is urgent - and if we miss it there won’t be a planet left for us to make fashion on. However, I do believe that people are gradually waking up and realising that action needs to be taken, and there are a lot of different avenues for different kinds of people with different interests to pursue sustainably.
What part does the education system play? Is enough being done to educate students, especially in secondary schools?
I think it's really important that we’re teaching kids textile and repair skills. That said, many people still don’t know how to sew and that's fine because we've also got brilliant apps and technology, or we can take clothes to the dry cleaners and have them altered. It doesn't have to be blood, sweat and tears from ourselves.
I do think it comes down to individual teachers rather than the government. I went back to my old high school last year and sat in a textile class and they were super-hot on sustainability because they had a teacher who had made it a real priority and taught students all about where fibres come from, how fabrics are farmed, and what environmental impacts the chemicals in the dyes could cause. Those students knew so much more than I did, and there are some brilliant teachers and educators out there who are making sustainability a priority.
I also think that teenagers are contrarian – I was, when I was that age - so I'm not sure to what extent my parents or my teachers telling me not to do something necessarily would have made a difference. I think it needs to come from people they look up to, like celebrities, content creators, influencers on Tik Tok, or friends.
In your book, you point out that we seem incapable of just liking clothes without also feeling the need to own them. Why do you think that is?
I think the simple answer is capitalism. We’ve been indoctrinated to believe that it's not enough to just admire nice things anymore. We need to possess them. It’s social currency, a kind of measurement of success depending on how much stuff we own in our lives.
Don't get me wrong, I’m not a minimalist, I have a bedroom stuffed full of clothes, accessories and knickknacks. I'm a collector, I like surrounding myself with nice stuff, so absolutely no shame on people who also feel that way. The real breakthrough, for me, was during the year of no fast fashion. I realised that I can still appreciate fashion and admire it without having to take it home with me.
We also often don’t distinguish between needing something and wanting it. Also, there is Arrival Fallacy - the idea that if we can buy perfect outfits, get perfect haircuts, make-up, and a body of perfect socially acceptable size, then we’ll be happy. Women are especially susceptible to it and fashion plays into that. Asos used the slogan “Get it or regret it”, and there really is a campaign to keep us on that treadmill, running towards a horizon that never arrives.
The first plastic free film has just been released. Is this the start of a revolution in sustainable TV and film production? À la “Emily in Paris” hits “Sue Ryder”?
It's really exciting and it’s definitely time for pop culture, film and TV to step up and take responsibility. We model lots of our ideas of what society and our norms should be like on what we watch in films and on TV. Something I’ve said for a long time that I want to see is TV presenters, for example Tess Daly and Claudia Winkleman on Strictly Come Dancing, wearing the same outfit more than once. They always look fantastic, I love seeing what they're wearing every week, but in terms of the message, I think it would be so powerful if Claudia just showed up on our screens wearing the same outfit she was wearing two weeks ago and then maybe again in another four weeks and it wasn’t commented on.
I would also love it if we saw more costume designers just using second hand and not using TV shows as these big adverts for fashion houses. I wonder how long it would take for that messaging to subliminally trickle through to society. Because it’s not normal behaviour to just buy a plastic bottle of water when you are thirsty. It’s normal to carry a reusable water bottle and fill that up. Equally, it’s not normal to wear an outfit once and never again. What’s normal is to wear the same clothes again and again, and again. That’s sustainable.
“Start your shopping ban, Anne. Give mending a go, Jo. Unsubscribe your email, Gail. Just listen to me.
Learn to upcycle, Michael. Count thirty wears, Claire. Ask who made your clothes, Rose. Just get yourself free.
Lauren Bravo’s book How to break up with fast fashion is out now.
The Dyás would like to express their gratitude to Lauren Bravo for her time and insight.
Interview and words by Carola Kolbeck