July 8, 2021

Oped by  Isabelle Lockhart

I love clothes. I admit it without shame. Fashion has been a huge part of my identity, ever since I was a toddler insisting on choosing my own, painfully garish, outfits. Finding the perfect pair of jeans or the dress that falls exactly right gives me an unparalleled thrill. I draw my confidence from the fabric I swathe myself in. 

As a tween, large chain brands like Zara and Abercrombie were a magnet for me, with their attractive displays and perky sales associates. They had the trendy clothing beloved by myself and my peers in every color, pattern, size, and texture imaginable. Being in those store fronts felt like being in a luxury apartment. The air was thick with the cloying scent of perfume and the vibrations of a Lorde song playing just a little too loud. As I rifled through racks of skirts and graphic tees, I would occasionally lock eyes with an airbrushed model smirking at me from a glossy photo display. The presentation was seductive, and strategic. I would leave the stores smelling like a Fortune 500 CEO and feeling dazzled. It never occurred to me that I was being manipulated, or that I was not the only stakeholder in my shopping habits, even if it felt like the clothes and I were in a healthy, monogamous relationship. 

That changed in 2016, the year I sat down with my mom to watch a movie called The True Cost (2015). My life changed that night. Glued to my couch, popcorn long-abandoned, I watched a story of deep-seated injustice and pain unfold. The film revealed, in horrific footage and heart-breaking interviews, an ugly side of fashion. I learned about the women in Bangladesh who were killed in a 2012 factory fire while making Disney and Wal-Mart merchandise. Bile rose in my throat as I watched limp bodies being carried from a collapsed textiles factory in the same city. It was these mistreated, foreign workers who were manufacturing 97 percent of textiles sold in the US, a statistic that has held steady as of 2019. That brand-new blouse I had gotten for $4.99 might have been made by a child inhaling chemicals in a building seconds from crumbling. Wearing that shirt felt comparable to sporting blood diamonds. The environmental capital that goes into the production of fast fashion is also formidable. So much of the clothing consumed in the US and around the world ends up in landfills. The True Cost gives the figure 82 as the number of pounds of textile waste the average American produces per year. I came to realize that the fast fashion industry values profit over the health of the earth and the lives of earth’s people. 

With that new understanding, I made a pact with myself: to the best of my ability, I would never buy fast fashion again. I am proud to say that though I am always the first to cheat on a diet and the last to follow through with a 30-day meditation regimen, I can’t remember the last time I compromised on this goal. Thrifting clothes became my passion. I can browse second-hand stores for hours. Some may smell more like must than expensive cologne, and you’re unlikely to hear any Lorde coming over the loudspeakers, but they’re my new heaven. I have found some of my favorite, most unique items at thrift shops. I give them a quick wash when I get home, and they’re ready to go. I get more compliments on my thrifted clothes than I ever got on my H&M apparel. In the words of rapper Macklemore, “I wear your grandad’s clothes and I look incredible.” When I open my closet today, I only see thrifted items and the clothing that I have stolen from my sister and mother – sorry, guys.

In no longer buying from fast fashion brands and by purchasing clothes second-hand, I am doing my part to create an economy that is more circular than linear. I bolster this commitment by donating clothes I have outgrown or no longer wear to a local non-profit that provides donated clothing to homeless children, women, and men. I am trying to prove that you do not have to give up what you love in order to live a sustainable and ethical life. Shifting your habits, even slightly, can have a resounding effect in your community and beyond.