Would you wear this item 30 times? If the answer’s yes, you’re on your way to shopping more mindfully says Lucy Siegle, ethical living journalist and author of To Die For: Is Fashion Wearing Out The World
Imagine. You open the doors of your wardrobe and drink in the scent of 20 perfectly laundered garments. Kept in top condition, you know each one so well. From left to right, a chunky knit, then a finer knit, everything graduated in colour through to a single pair of dark denim jeans that fit so well they never fail to delight. Each trans-seasonal, carefully curated piece hangs in its own space, as if in the most upscale of boutiques. A smile flickers across your lips as the pleats of a georgette dress remind you of a glorious wedding a decade ago – and you still wear that dress. Each piece is imprinted with memories. You know exactly what you’re going to wear today and you know these trusted pieces will once again leave you ready to take on the world. Welcome to the mindful wardrobe. It’s rarer than hen’s teeth.
“I mean, I bought seven pairs of pants. Who needs seven pairs of pants?” The pretty blonde American woman in her early 30s looks at the camera and raises two gigantic pink bags. They’re like airships, the plastic stretched to bursting, and full of low-cost, trend-driven fashion. She holds up item after item, asking her unseen audience: “Do you think this is cute?”
The term ‘fashion hauler’ has yet to make it into the Oxford English Dictionary, but it’s only a matter of time. If you’re not familiar with the format, shoppers film their ‘haul’ – the result of a passionate day of buying – speaking to bedroom cams with a breathless enthusiasm that edges towards spiritual. Haul videos used to be the preserve of teenagers. But the demographic has crept up in age.
“Download the app to shop the links!” she enthuses. Even though I’m experienced at resisting and something of a slow-fashion consumer, I’m glad I’m watching on a laptop and left my phone charging downstairs. We’re all vulnerable.
“I can’t believe I got this much! Oh. My. God!”
The Eco Cost
Truthfully, the haulers are not that far removed from the rest of us. Take a long hard look at our shopping culture and you’ll see, online or in store, we’re all engaged in the mother of all benders. In 2014 we crashed through a significant barrier: the fashion industry was producing 100 billion new garments a year (up from 80 billion in 2012). Producing so many garments puts incredible strain on the planet and the fashion industry is among the top five global polluters. We consider the environmental impact of so many of our actions, from our morning coffee to the temperature of our bedrooms, but we haven’t turned our full collective attention to our wardrobes. Yet.
In developed economies like ours, consumption of clothing increased by 60% between 2000 and 2014. In the UK during 2016 we bought 1.13 million tonnes of new clothing, and threw away more than one million tonnes. Meanwhile, the projected lifespan of these garments is in decline.
We wait just one year before throwing away most apparel, according to research from Onbuy.com. My research over 10 years for my book on the fashion industry, To Die For, and Netflix documentary, The True Cost, brought me across buyers for retailers who work on the premise that a dress stays in a millennial consumer’s wardrobe for an average of five weeks. Meanwhile, an estimated £30 billion worth of clothing hangs about in British wardrobes gathering dust because we simply don’t have time to wear it all. Thought about in those terms, the skirt you bought as a quick pick-me-up and wore twice is just more clutter in your house. Did you really want it?
When we shop, there’s a conflict in our brains: one part is stimulated by the pleasure of acquisition, while another processes the pain of the cost. Or, as neuroscientists have observed through brain scans of shoppers, the prefrontal cortex, which is associated with decision-making, and the insula, which is involved with how we process pain, both light up like Blackpool illuminations. If you’re looking for a system to stimulate (the high of pursuing new clothes) and soothe the pain reaction (the lower the price, the quicker you will be soothed) then fast fashion is the perfect strategy. The question is, how do we get a grip? Part of the answer, I believe, lies in mindful shopping.
Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer was one of the first to recognise that mindful techniques could help us move from unhealthy to healthy behaviours. She has described mindfulness as “a heightened state of involvement and wakefulness, with an emphasis on awareness of external stimuli”. We regard it now as bringing your attention to what is happening in the moment, a skill that can be developed through meditation. And we’re increasingly focused on mindfulness as a way of managing our thoughts and feelings for better mental health.
So how can we apply this to shopping and restore equilibrium to our lives and space to our homes?
Remember, none of this is about denial, it’s a different way of thinking and buying that is calmer and more satisfying. Start with practical strategies. Reduce your buying speed by questioning how and when you shop. When have you made the most bad purchases? And where are you likely to access fashion? It could be the shops near work, but for most of us this means our phones. Deleting shopping apps will remove the pressure. Try replacing them with a mindfulness app such as Headspace, but also with a few of the increasing number of apps that help you curate what you already have. Once you’ve photographed your clothing, Closet+ will help you put together weather-appropriate outfits (no mean feat in the UK), plan outfits in advance and create holiday packing lists. It’s the closest you’ll get to feeling like Cher from Clueless with her computer-organised walk-in wardrobe.
Then there’s sharing – and not just with your nearest and/or dearest. Accessories, where fit is not an issue, adapt best to sharing structures. There are already handbag libraries, such as MonLuxe, where for a monthly fee you can borrow a Birkin (insurance permitting). Watch out for more innovation in this area.
Personally, I set myself a ‘30 wear’ rule. As soon as a garment catches my eye, I need to stop and think, ‘Will I wear it 30 times or more?’ As you get used to this, you can start to increase the number: will you wear it more than 50 times? More than 100?
If you enjoy vintage fashion, and want to feel extra good about it, you can add on a hypothetical number of wears clocked up by previous owners and find yourself up in the 1,000s. Thirty wears is just the start. For me, anything that keeps clothes longer in our wardrobes, breaking the consume-and-chuck cycle, is also a win for the planet. Research shows that, in the UK, extending the life of clothes by an extra nine months of active use reduces the carbon, water and waste impacts of that garment by around 20-30%.
Do you remember shopping with your mother or grandmother and them rubbing the fabric between finger and thumb to check the quality? The focus on good materials and solid stitching is a key part of mindful shopping. (I’m obsessed with what clothes are made from, so I like to touch and feel a garment as if I’m buying fruit. As you can imagine, online doesn’t work for me.)
Similarly, do you remember being a teenager and saving for an item of clothing? And how good it felt when it was finally yours? That’s a good feeling to recreate.
Keep Vivienne Westwood’s mantra of “buy less, choose well” in mind. The more carefully curated your wardrobe, the fewer pieces you will need and the more you will wear and re-wear. This strategy often translates into a financial saving too. You begin to think more in terms of ‘price per wear’. Those who find they are pressured into updating their wardrobe on a weekly basis often cite the constant parade of Instagram influencers. The jury is out here. I personally find style influencers and fashion editorial useful.
Because I now have more of a grip on what I spend and where I shop (this wasn’t always the case…) I use them as inspiration for how to curate my existing wardrobe. It’s not about aping someone else’s look, but about tweaking your own resource of clothing to produce your own individual take on trends. Again, you can slow this process down. A Pinterest board works in the digital realm, but moving matters into the physical slows the process even further: get an old-fashioned pair of scissors, then cut out, glue and keep your favourite looks to make a mood board. You’ll be able to spot the kind of pieces you always go for and, often, your passion for an item of clothing will cool. Timing is everything.
Ultimately though, we fall the most in love with garments that remind us of our own good times. Professor Carolyn Mair is a fellow of the British Psychological Society and consultant to the fashion industry. Formerly professor of psychology for fashion at London College of Fashion, she created the world’s first master’s programmes to apply psychology in the context of fashion. She has observed that the pieces we keep in our wardrobes, the ones that stand the test of time – the ones, crucially, with the lowest cost per wear – are those to which we’ve attached a strong personal narrative. Her favourite example? “A pair of lucky pants.” Mair’s research shows that many people secretly own underwear to which they attach talismanic significance and they are loath to throw away. Mindful shopping means you get to tell your own story, and you should have a whole wardrobe of carefully selected clothes to do it in.
How to make your wardrobe last
Ensure your mindful purchases stay for the long-haul with these aftercare tips:
Add coffee to a wash
If black clothes appear faded, add two cups of freshly brewed black coffee to a wash to darken and refresh the colour.
Varnish your buttons
There’s nothing worse than losing a button on a new coat. To stop threads unravelling, paint buttons with clear nail varnish.
Use cedar shoe trees
Cedar shoe trees slip inside footwear to keep their shape and fight odour. We like H&S Cedar Wood Shoe Tree, £15.99.
Invest in hangers
Good hangers have the power to keep your clothes in prime condition. John Lewis Wood Hangers, £13 for six, keep the shoulders intact and hanging properly.
Skip the iron
Ironing can be too harsh for many fabrics, leaving them worn-out and marked. Steam clothes where possible. Just hang them in the bathroom straight after a shower.
Shave your knitwear
When your knits turn bobbly from overuse, fear not – invest in a debobbler such as Philips Fabric Shaver, £20, and take each clumpy ball of fabric straight off.
Use a toothbrush
Clean the nooks and crannies of brogues and trainers with a toothbrush. Soak the toothbrush in gentle soap first.
Get the paper out
This might sound a bit extreme, but lining your drawers with paper will help prevent insects and moths making their way into them. Holey clothes be gone.
Visit the cobbler
Make friends with your local cobbler; they can breathe new life into tired shoes. Get the outsoles, toes and heels reinforced whenever they’re looking worn. We rate George Shoe Repairs, Fitzrovia, London.
Keep the dust bags
With pricey purchases, such as leather shoes or designer bags, keep the dust bags. They protect treasured pieces from the outside world. Also, wipe leather with Lavera Liquid Soap, £4.99, once a week.
Lucy Siegle’s Rules of Mindful Shopping
1) Move away from fast fashion and towards a more ethical way of curating your wardrobe.
2) Apply my 30-wear rule. If you can’t commit to wearing a new garment or accessory at least 30 times, walk on. Proudly tag your social posts with #30wears.
3) Similarly, ask yourself what an item will go with. Can you wear it in four different ways with clothes you already own?
4) Meditate before you make a purchase. Enter shops – bricks-and-mortar or online – in your best frame of mind. Don’t shop if you are stressed, rushed or upset.
5) Invest your time; you and your clothes are worth it. Take the time to try things on. Take the time to organise your wardrobe.
6) Swap, barter, lend or borrow clothes from friends. You don’t always have to possess something to enjoy it.
7) If you make a mistake (easily done), try to find that piece a new home where it will be loved.
8) Avoid buying on price alone. Just because an item is cheap or on sale doesn’t mean you have to have it. Even £10 could go elsewhere – on a more expensive piece that you’ll wear for longer, for example.
9) Write lists and do research. Be strategic. If there’s a gap in your wardrobe – say you need a white T-shirt – research the ultimate white T-shirt for you and don’t invest until you’ve found it.
10) Take pride in the fact you’re a smart shopper who buys for the long-term. Don’t succumb to the pressure of having to be seen in a different outfit every time. “I love seeing you in that dress,” is a good compliment.
11) Don’t beat yourself up about the occasional splurge. Mindful shopping should be joyful and rewarding, a way of taking control. It takes time to properly discover what you truly love, but you’ve started on the journey.