Clothing dump, fast fashion that pollutes, “worthless” clothes, there are many reasons to criticize the clothing industry. Here is what led me to embark on the experience of a year without shopping.

“Clothing graveyard”, “world fashion dump”, “where fast fashion goes to die”.

In the fall of 2021, major media from all over the world were broadcasting images of the Atacama Desert, in Chile, invaded by mountains of clothing, many of them unsold from our thrift stores, imported by containers. Some are resold on local markets, but those that are too worn or simply considered outdated end up in huge dumps, sometimes illegal, which threaten ecosystems and the health of populations. This situation is not unique to Chile. We find such landfills in Kenya, on the banks of the Nairobi River, in Tanzania, in Ghana, and in many other developing countries without the necessary infrastructure to manage these tons of textiles from the North.

These images, which have become a symbol of our overconsumption of clothing, were the trigger for this reflection on our relationship to fashion. How did we get here ? Where does this need to subject our wardrobe to constant renewal come from?

To better understand the forces that push us to consume, I have chosen the radical path. “To do a year without shopping is to step back from the consumer society to watch what is happening,” notes Alexandra Graveline, a Montrealer who took up this challenge in 2018, influenced by the story of a journalist from the New York Times having gone a whole year without buying new clothes.

“I realized that there was a disconnect between my compulsive shopping behavior and other values ​​that appealed to me such as sobriety and the environment,” says this public relations professional.

Ten years ago, on April 24, 2013, the Rana Plaza, a building housing five garment factories in Bangladesh, collapsed, killing 1,135 people. This tragedy has highlighted how the race for low prices, which defines the garment industry today, jeopardizes the safety of workers. If, like others, I then became aware of the impact of my consumption of fast fashion on humans, then a few years later, of the appalling environmental footprint of this industry, translating this information into real actions was another pair of sleeves. I was still buying too much.

In May 2022, a study by psychology researchers and published in Nature Sustainability highlighted this contradiction by demonstrating the gap between consumers’ ecological motivations and their purchasing behavior. Thus, those who said they chose more eco-responsible products are also those who had bought the most clothes in the three months preceding this survey conducted in four countries.

Whether we consume ethical or local, organic or recycled fibers, the heart of the problem lies in overconsumption. Between 2000 and 2014, the consumption of clothing per person in the world increased by 60%, according to a report by McKinsey. “Consumers responded to lower prices and greater variety by buying more clothes,” the report argues. The number of garments produced annually has doubled since 2000 and surpassed 100 billion for the first time in 2014: nearly 14 items of clothing for every person on Earth. »

After studies in fashion, a job in a boutique and a master’s degree in management and sustainable development, Janie-Claude Viens, development officer in ecological transition at Concertation Montreal, now supports designers and consumers in reducing the footprint. ecological related to textiles. A former big consumer of clothes, she herself achieved a year without shopping in 2019-2020.

For Valérie Guillard, professor and researcher in marketing at Paris-Dauphine University, this acceleration in consumption is attributable to fast fashion, a segment of the industry whose foundations were laid in the 1970s and which expanded globally in the 2000s. This model, which relies on low prices, variety, and rapid response to consumer cravings and trends seen at major catwalks, has since accelerated to the point that today we’re talking super-fast fashion, with players like SHEIN boasting in 2021 on Twitter that they’re launching 1,000 new items a day.

On April 1, 2022, I embarked on a year without shopping involving my wardrobe and that of my 6-year-old son. One year of buying no new clothes or accessories, except underwear. I had decided that thrift stores and resale applications would not be prohibited to me, but faced with the observation that it is now very easy to reproduce overconsumption behavior by buying used and that several applications encourage it, I tightened this rule mid-year, ruling out used clothing purchases, except those for children, as growth breeds need. My weight is also relatively stable, it is easier to meet this kind of challenge. Because yes, this challenge has been met. A little in pain, but also in joy… Good news: this detention was not an Olympic test!

In the spring of 2022, the atmosphere was free. After two years of intermittent confinement, it was the return of outings with friends, happy hours and the arrival of spring. In the media, we were talking about outfit suggestions for the return to face-to-face.

“People want to wear new clothes,” designer Jeff Golf told La Presse at the time. Not those of 2019 nor those of the pandemic.

Challenge obliges, I was condemned to bring out my old clothes. The first few weeks were pretty easy. I didn’t shop every month, so what’s the difference? I even thought that this challenge would not really be one. Until May, when I had to attend the opening of a space showcasing Quebec creators. As part of my job at La Presse, I am called upon to cover the local fashion scene. Like a newly sober journalist covering the wine industry. Staying away from temptations was not entirely possible!

At the heart of my year without a purchase, the desire for renewal showed up in a cyclical way, often at the crossroads of the seasons, or when I had to put on, without enthusiasm, for the 42nd time, my black sweater and my “skinny” jeans. that I will end up wearing out.

“We valued it, this revival,” said Marie-Eve Faust, professor and former director of the Graduate School of Fashion at the University of Quebec in Montreal (UQAM).

In January 2021, she made the decision that she would mainly only buy clothes made from local fibers. As Quebec produces little of it – she also participated in the establishment of the Quebec branch of Fibershed, an organization that promises the use of local textiles – Marie-Eve Faust has since offered herself practically no new clothes.

Why does this renunciation seem so inconceivable to us? Perhaps because the garment has long since lost its strict utilitarian function. “The fashionable piece represents love, wealth and power at the same time, which is why the customer’s quest is never satisfied: it is an empty belief, doomed to failure, because impossible to achieve” writes historian Audrey Millet in Le livre noir de la mode.

“It’s a dynamic that sets in to try to meet some of our psychological needs [mainly the needs for connection to others, autonomy and competence] that are not necessarily satisfied,” explains clinical psychologist Geneviève Beaulieu. -Pelletier, also associate professor at UQAM. “Shopping can be a form of compensation. »

For some, it will be through shopping, for others, through alcohol or online gambling.

But since buying a dress is not a basic psychological need, happiness is short-lived. Quickly, we think about the next purchase.

The fashion industry is built to shape desire. “It’s the same recipe, always, from one retailer to another. Every week, our job is to create the desire for something new,” says Valérie Vedrines, founder of Critical Mass, a collective that works to reduce the socio-environmental footprint of the communications industry in Quebec. . After working for more than 20 years in marketing, including 15 with major fashion retailers, she left this environment which was in profound contradiction with her values.

Sales periods caused him discomfort. In a year without shopping, this is one more temptation to resist. Especially on Black Friday. “Black Friday has become a war of purchasing volume, notes Valérie Vedrines. This is no longer a profit war. At companies I’ve been to, Black Friday week accounted for 25% of sales across the line. It’s colossal. »

This experience made me realize that even if we unsubscribe from all newsletters, clean up our social networks, avoid shopping centers as much as possible and try not to succumb to this new trend that is displayed on every street corner, countering desire is not easy.

If a year without shopping allows you to revisit your wardrobe, it is also an opportunity to explore other modes of consumption that do not always involve an exchange of money. The options are more and more numerous, although the offer remains more abundant in Montreal than in the regions.

It’s been 10 years since I’ve been to a wedding. There were two on the calendar during the year of this challenge. Of the four weddings I had attended before, twice I wore the same dress. Two other times I bought a dress that I never put back. When one does not have an active social life, weddings are a great source of clothing waste. That’s why I turned to renting.

Based on the observation that women are less and less wearing the same evening dress twice, a trend solidified by social networks, Sarra Ghribi founded in 2012 Loue 1 Robe/Loue 1 Tux, which offers 1,300 dresses in sizes XXS to XXXL .

If you do not plan to wear a dress more than once and are looking for medium or high-end, renting can be economical. It costs between $50 and $500, including cleaning, for a dress worth $150 to $5,000. For men, renting a suit costs $130 and a tuxedo $280, which includes shoes, fittings, cleaning, accessories and insurance.

Other Quebec companies offer a rental service for evening dresses or clothing, including Maison LPRN, Chic Marie or Belle

The exchange was my lifeline. I have been a member since 2019 of the Shwap Club where I go every two or three months. A year earlier, Annette Nguyen, a lawyer by training, had launched this large exchange club in Montreal, in which nearly a thousand women participate.

The Shwap spaces, located in the Saint-Henri, Mile-Ex and Verdun neighborhoods (thrift store for children), are set up like boutiques, with fitting rooms. Like a thrift store, except that there are no price tags on the clothes. Access is restricted to members, subject to an annual subscription ($115). Each part brought and accepted gives the right to a credit to be exchanged against another part chosen in store.

For Annette Nguyen, it was her way of tackling clothing waste. But the model is not perfect. Reflecting what its members consume and desire to consume, the Shwap Club has plenty of fast fashion pieces. It is dependent on trends too. “It’s really the trickiest part of the business model,” says Annette Nguyen. We are an alternative to fast fashion, but at the same time, we encourage it by following this trend which makes all our clothes obsolete very quickly. I haven’t found a magic solution to this yet. »

Exchange clubs are still rare in Quebec, but they are spreading here and there. In addition to Montreal, there is one in Longueuil (Club Favie), Quebec City (Boutique Between Us Ecochange) and Sherbrooke (Club Le Garde-Robe).

You no longer have to go to dark church basements to find second-hand clothes. They’re everywhere: in commercial thrift stores, social purpose organizations, on Marketplace, and resale apps and sites like Vinted, Good Shopping, and Upcycli.

Because they are very accessible and some resale platforms encourage overconsumption, I decided to discard second-hand clothes halfway through my process. But for anyone who wants to consume better, the second-hand market is a way to turn.

On November 25, 2022, Black Friday, fashion journalist Lolitta Dandoy and stylist Gerardine Jeune, known as Miss Geri, held a sale of their clothes at a store in Cours Mont-Royal. Very beautiful pieces, handpicked. Passionate about fashion, they mainly buy second-hand, and have been doing so for several years.

“I really have a lot of clothes,” admits Lolitta Dandoy. It may seem contradictory with the idea of ​​not over-consuming and I am well aware of it. […] But I like to believe that these are all beautiful pieces that will never end up being thrown away. »

“When you’ve experienced borrowing in one area of ​​your life, it opens doors,” says Alexandra Graveline, who took on the one-year-without-shopping challenge in 2019. occasion, I could ask a friend if she has a nice dress in her wardrobe”. And conversely, she will come to me when she needs. It calls into question a lot the need to own and buy objects. »

During my year, I mainly used the loan (and the gift!) for my son. Colleagues and friends kindly gave me shoes, a cap, sweaters and pants. Sometimes all you have to do is ask!

“Buy less. Choose well. Make it last. It was one of the mantras of the great British fashion designer Vivienne Westwood, who died in December 2022. And it is certainly the legacy of a year without shopping. Standing back from the consumer society allows us to come back to it with a transformed look.

“The year without shopping for me has had an impact on everything,” Alexandra Graveline reflects. You realize that owning an object may be overvalued […] A year without shopping is an opportunity to say: stop, to consume less, to question your choices and to put a stop to this clothing waste . »

“I really like this experience,” says psychologist Geneviève Beaulieu-Pelletier. Becoming aware of the mechanisms [that encourage us to consume] gives us back a form of autonomy. It’s a way to regain some control. »

Like me and like all those who have started this process and with whom I have spoken over the past year, the end of the challenge was not followed by a trip to the mall. The next purchases will be more thoughtful, more aware.

But, even for the most savvy consumers, it is difficult to navigate. Sensing their appetite for locally made and more environmentally friendly products, companies began to communicate extensively on the allegedly often eco-responsible virtues of their products.

“It’s very difficult for ordinary people to navigate it and get the right information,” says Montreal designer Elisa C-Rossow, who designs timeless, high-end clothing. There is a lot of greenwashing, false transparency. If you don’t have an extremely sharp eye, you’re lost. »

At the end of the day, it’s our complete relationship to clothes that needs to be reviewed, she defends. “If clothes were twice as expensive, we wouldn’t be living under this abundance,” says Janie-Claude Viens, development officer in ecological transition at Concertation Montreal. When a t-shirt costs the same as a sandwich… It’s a bad change of habit to pay more for an item of clothing. »

Some people will never be able to afford a $150 sweater, but many could by buying less, believes Elisa C-Rossow. According to the most recent data from Statistics Canada, Canadian households spent an average of $3,344 on clothing in 2019. “There’s a saying that goes, ‘I’m too poor to be cheap’. be thrifty, editor’s note), reminds the designer. We would have better purchasing power over our clothes if we consumed better. »

Rethinking the relationship to your clothes also means looking after them and thinking about repairing them when they are damaged, a skill that has been lost, notes Marie-Eve Faust, professor at the École supérieure de mode de UQAM. “Before, people had it because they grew up with it, they knew how to sew on a button. Often our students arrive and don’t know. »

Over the past year, I’ve knitted, darned, patched, inspired by visible mending videos, which since I no longer leave items hanging in my online shopping cart, have supplanted fashion brand posts on my social media. A basket by the way which, despite the end of the challenge, remained empty. But for how much longer?