Forever 21 makes me nostalgic. I have many fond memories of whiling away the hours within its glitzy white interiors with my closest friends as a middle schooler. Giddy with adolescent glee about being free of adult supervision, I relished the brand’s impossibly low prices. At my local mall, Forever 21 was one of the only stores that proved amenable to a teenager’s budget, and frankly, being able to purchase a new pair of ripped jean shorts or strappy sandals for $12.99 made me feel empowered.
Nearly a decade later, the advent of internet shopping has allowed Forever 21 — along with other fast fashion brands — to grow even more consumer-friendly and accessible.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the monotony of the hours many of us spend at home, cloistered with our various forms of technology, has made it especially easy to pile shopping carts high with clothing we may not even need.
Of course, with rapid and widespread consumption also comes significant waste. The statistics are staggering:
The case for resale and reuse has never been more compelling, but the fashion industry still has a long way to go. According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, approximately $500 billion worth of clothing is wasted annually due to the disposal of barely used clothing.
Recent polls of consumer opinion, however, indicate that the tides could be turning. The Boston Consulting Group found in June of 2020 that 62% of customers would be more inclined to purchase from fashion brands that collaborate with secondhand vendors than those that didn’t.
Part of the noticeable shift in attitudes seems to be generational: data analytics firm First Insight discovered that 68% of millennials and 73% of Generation Z indicated that they would pay higher prices for sustainable products.
Luckily for these consumers, resources on seeking sustainable ways to shop abound. Often missing from these clean-cut guides and pastel-colored infographics, however, is an acknowledgment of just how confusing the journey of sustainable shopping can be.
Compulsive consumption habits are difficult to break, especially when they are facilitated by websites designed to keep you scrolling, clicking, and buying. Particularly for those just joining the sustainability movement, it can be difficult to reconcile your existential panic about global warming with your desire to keep up with the newest trends or throwbacks (lip gloss and low-waisted jeans, anybody?).
As much as many of us would like, none of us are given a genie or fairy godmother who will tell us when, where, and how to make our ethical shopping decisions. Unlike the Good Place, no one is there to serve as our personal Janet™. Instead, we must learn to be our own guides and proactively ask ourselves: how can we make our sustainable shopping sustainable? How do we convince ourselves to commit to conscious and moderate consumption for the long haul?
Ultimately, the most important step to remaining consistent in your sustainable shopping choices is creating a plan that works for you: your budget, your wants, and your needs. According to Lauren Bravo, author of How To Break Up With Fast Fashion, abruptly quitting fast fashion isn’t necessarily the most effective way to rein in your excessive spending habits.
“Everyone’s circumstances, budget and lifestyle are different. You probably know if you’re the kind of person who responds well to clear rules, or if you’re the kind of person who needs a bit of flexibility to stick to a plan long-term,” Bravo remarked in an interview with British Vogue.
Additionally, while acknowledging the frustration or shame that may arise when you don’t meet your sustainability goals, it is also important to reflect upon how those emotions are helping you. The point, after all, isn’t to overburden yourself to the extent that you relapse into your old mindless shopping habits and drop your commitment to a more sustainable planet altogether.
Feelings are valuable signals that can often serve as a trigger for us to change our ways. But what is the point of feeling guilty about your latest H&M purchase, for instance, if it won’t help you accomplish your sustainability goals moving forward? And how can you channel your emotions to align your actions with your internal values?
I may never get over my affection for Forever 21. At the same time, I’ve recently discovered a love for thrifting. For me, the preowned aspect of secondhand clothing adds to its allure: each thrift shop discovery feels like an inheritance, my own opportunity to indulge in the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. Even so, I’m bound to make mistakes on my sustainable shopping journey, which one thrift shopping YouTuber described as “the constant back and forth of trying to be perfect.” But in an industry that is sorely in need of consumers’ long-term commitment to the environment, intentionality is far more important — and sustainable — than professed perfection.