From an environmental, ethical, and even artistic perspective, fast fashion as an industry is problematic; that’s a fact. But while it’s easy to point a finger at the companies mass-producing inexpensive designs, many of these issues also stem from customers who buy and then discard them at an alarmingly rapid rate.
According to the fashion documentary The True Cost, the world now consumes 80 billion pieces of clothing per year; meanwhile, the average American annually generates 82 pounds of textile waste, which goes straight into landfills. And for those who can’t resist the siren call of Zara, it’s hard not to feel like you’re part of the problem.
So what’s a trend-conscious shopper without mountains of money at her disposal to do? A quick Google search turns up dozens of similar stories urging you to "buy less, buy better!" They’ll point out that instead of purchasing, say, six or seven pairs of under-$100 heels from a fast fashion chain, it’s wiser to save up for one $600 pair from a big-deal designer.
But stories like these automatically assume that the expensive shoes will be more comfortable, better made, and — above all — will make you so sublimely happy that you won’t feel tempted to buy anything else for the rest of the season. On one or more of these counts, as you and I and Monica Geller know, they’re often wrong.
A reformed label snob who once filled my closet with whatever deeply-discounted designer pieces I could afford, I actually didn’t begin shopping at fast fashion retailers until well after I’d graduated from college.
Problem is, I treated a trip to, say, the Alexander Wang sample sale the way most people shop Urban Outfitters: Head for the clearance rack first, grab the trendiest items possible, and don’t overthink your purchases. Before long, I wound up with a wardrobe full of flash-in-the-pan pieces that clashed with my classic personal style — not to mention a completely depleted savings account.
So several years ago, I purged my closet of everything but my most beloved, versatile items, put myself on a strict budget, and overhauled my entire shopping strategy. Swearing off the sample sale scene, I headed to Topshop and Zara instead to fill in any small, lingering gaps in my wardrobe — but I promised myself I’d only choose things that I knew I’d wear often and keep for the long haul, like plaid circle skirts and layering turtlenecks.
Sure enough, most of those pieces are still in my regular rotation today. The solution to a well-rounded wardrobe, it turns out, isn’t to swear off fast fashion altogether, but to be smarter in how you consume and care for it. And in my experience, there is a way to do that.
The next time you duck into a fast fashion store, shop thoughtfully. Steer clear of obvious runway knockoffs and aggressively trendy pieces, both of which you’ll likely get sick of after a couple of wears. Power past the sale and/or clearance sections, where it’s all too tempting to scoop something up just because it’s majorly marked down. Think twice about anything in a bold print or pattern, too, and avoid beaded or sequined items that are likely to get damaged quickly.
Instead, look for pieces that incorporate current trends but also fit in with the rest of your wardrobe and can be worn for more than several seasons. When you get into the habit of constantly buying something new just for the sake of buying something new — even when the price seems too good to pass up — that’s when the trouble starts.
Speaking of which, be realistic when you’re looking at price tags. Tempting as that $5 top may be, items in the $25 to $100 range will likely fare better in the long run than those under $20.
Next — and this is a biggie — try everything on. I know that your time is precious and the lines for those fitting rooms are long, but it’s crucial to see how your potential purchases fit — especially if, like me, you tend to be lazy with returns. Once you’ve put on a piece, sit down in it. Squat. Put both arms up and wave them around (I like to sing the chorus from Naughty by Nature’s "Hip Hop Hooray" while doing so). Test all zippers and buttons to make sure they work properly, and make sure all seams and hems are even. Basically, do everything you can to test out the garment’s construction and comfort level before you buy.
Clean your clothes with care, too, regardless of how much they cost. As I’ve said before, many of my favorite, most comfortable sweaters are from brands like H&M and Forever 21 — and by hand-washing and line-drying them instead of tossing them in the machine along with my socks and leggings, I’ve gotten many years of wear out of them. (During that same period, it should be mentioned, I’ve lost several actually-expensive knits to pilling and inexplicable holes. Go figure.) Washing your things by hand will also prevent shrinkage and warping, both common complaints with low-priced fashion.
It never hurts to have a few basic sewing skills in your back pocket, either. Rips, tears, and popped buttons happen — but they can often be easily fixed at home, and will extend the life of your fast fashion purchases. I have a particular matching set from Zara, for instance, that I purchased in 2013 and that started coming undone at the side seam after three or four wears. It took approximately five minutes for me to fix, and I’ve since worn the set at least a dozen more times with no issues. If nothing else, you can also take things to your tailor, who can likely fix that zipper or rip for a few dollars.
Which brings me to an important point: By and large, claims that fast fashion garments are ticking time bombs that start disintegrating the second you put them on your body are exaggerated. I typically purchase a couple of pieces from Topshop and Zara each year, and have never once had anything fall apart, even after multiple wears. The fact of the matter is that there’s no reason why you can’t make a pair of $80 shoes or a $60 dress last for years.
Although under-$100 items comprise at least 50 percent of my own closet at this point, I actually consume and dispose of clothing less now than I did back in college, when I religiously visited every sample sale my schedule would allow. I am, in fact, "buying less, buying better" — I’m just not letting a garment’s price tag determine its worth in the context of the rest of my wardrobe, and am treating my high street favorites with the same care as my pricier pieces. After all, just because something isn’t designer doesn’t mean it’s disposable.