You might have predicted that, in a year like 2020, priorities would have shifted from on-trend outfits and high street mega-sales towards conscious, considered consumption habits.
Sadly, you’d be wrong. In fact, online searches for ‘cheap clothes’ rose by 46.3 per cent between March and June, with mass unemployment and the monotony of endless lockdowns blamed for a mass pursuit of cheap thrills. Today, while traditional retail struggles to stay afloat – or in the case of Debenhams and Arcadia, collapses altogether – fast fashion e-commerce giants like Boohoo have only been gaining momentum, reporting 45 per cent sales growth during the pandemic, despite the Leicester labour scandal.
The pendulum swung even more dramatically towards fast fashion last week on Black Friday, the annual sales event where retailers slice huge discounts off their overstock, encouraging a culture of hyper-consumption, when PrettyLittleThing, the celebrity-driven online fast fashion store owned by Boohoo Group, made headlines with a ’99 per cent off’ sale. Price tags for the firm’s synthetic bodycon dresses reached staggering lows of £0.04. Yes, really. And while this clever marketing strategy was based on loss-leaders to drive traffic to the site, it exposed in plain sight the underlying problem with fast fashion: the true cost of cheap clothes is the livelihoods of the garment workers who make them.
As a refreshing antidote, fashion writer and consultant Aja Barber started the hashtag #IQuitFastFashionBecause on Twitter, perfectly timed to fight back against further fashion discounting during Cyber Monday. The hashtag encourages users to share the myriad of reasons they decided to decouple from the fast fashion cycle. A dedicated sustainability and social justice advocate, Barber wanted to raise awareness of the nuance behind the price-related arguments that dominated during the Black Friday sales, putting the focus back on what really matters.
“I realised that there was a ton of misinformation floating around about who fast fashion harms,” she says. “I wanted to start the hashtag to share facts about how the industry harms others, and the reality of how much clothing gets produced and disposed of annually, but I also wanted to share my own story about my relationship with fast fashion and how harmful it was”. For Aja, honesty is the best policy when it comes to fast fashion; after all, no one is born a perfect ethical consumer. “It was a way of being open with others and allowing space for people to consider stepping away in a time period where consumerism is at its peak and the pressure to buy is strong.”
Over the past 48 hours, hundreds of people have shared their stories of quitting fast fashion, alongside Aja’s regular input about her own motivations. “#IQuitFastFashionBecause I could,” she reminded us in one Tweet. “Not everyone can. I get that. But those of us that can, should.”
Clearly, Barber struck a chord – within hours of her first Tweet, her hashtag began trending across the UK. Among those responding was #EthicalHour founder Sian Conway, who tweeted that she switched to sustainable fashion because: “Finding my own style was joyful – no longer wearing what advertisers and influencers told me I should wear”, a sentiment shared by journalist Melissa Watt, who declares herself a proud outfit repeater: “I wanted to free myself of fashion FOMO – the anxious, exhausting (and expensive) need to keep up with the ever changing trends.”
Of course, fast fashion has a devastating impact on the planet too, as environmental campaigner Ella Daishtweeted: “I don’t want to support an industry that exploits millions of vulnerable people, pollutes the environment, contributes to the climate crisis. If you can, shop differently. Vote with your money, match your purchases to your ethics.”
Hoping to inspire the next generation of sustainable fashion champions, young activists like Izzy McCleod, Zainab Mahmood and Tolmeia Gregory have also been sharing their experiences of saying no to fast fashion. “Sustainable and ethical fashion shouldn’t be an optional extra, that should be the norm” says McCleod. “People sharing stories is a way of spreading awareness which feels more empowering than telling people what they should be doing.” For Mahmood, quitting fast fashion was all about holding herself accountable for buying into the destructive system of forced labour and high street hauls. “I wanted to stand for something different,” she says, simply. Gregory, meanwhile, says she also aims to make a statement with her position as a global citizen, not just as a consumer. “If I can take back some power and decide that I don’t want to uphold an industry built on planetary exploitation and underpaid labour, then I can start to see my own worth differently as well as the worth of those who are being abused and overworked by it.”
The question now, for those who’ve been following the conversation, is what to do with it. If you’re feeling inspired to look towards a life outside the churn of fast fashion, it’s time to take concrete action towards changing your shopping habits. Lauren Bravo literally wrote the book on this subject. In How to Break Up with Fast Fasion she shares countless tips designed for people who love clothes, but hate what they do to the world. In a recent interview for my Common Threads podcast, Lauren explained why it was so important to not only invest in your own ethical fashion transition, but also to bring others along with you by sharing your story – a perfect opportunity to use the #IQuitFastFashionBecause hashtag even at the start of your journey.
“We need massive system changes to get where we need to be at the speed that we need to get there,” she says “But encouraging people to make small, manageable changes in their lives can add up to a huge difference.”