The consequences of disposable fashion: The year I quit shopping to help the environment

My mission: Spend one full year without purchasing new clothing, shoes, purses, accessories or jewelry

Published May 30, 2016 7:30PM (EDT)

 (<a href=''>maramicado</a> via <a href=''>Shutterstock</a>)
(maramicado via Shutterstock)

Last January, I met with a friend who volunteered regularly at a clothing donation center. Kari learned the cheap clothing that many people donate – the Forever 21 skirt that cost less than your breakfast, the H&M blouses that never fit quite right, the Zara pants that pilled after one wash – all comes at a devastating cost to the environment. And while you’re clearing out your closet for donation bragging to your friends (and tax accountant) how much you sacrificed for those less fortunate, well, much of that disposable fashion still ends up in a landfill.

"One million tons of clothes are thrown away every year," says, "with 50% of the total ending up in landfill." The unsustainable impact of producing such mass quantities of clothing is ravaging the environment. For example, one pair of those cute jeans you only intend to wear a few times requires 1,800 gallons of water to grow enough cotton just to manufacture them. And this trend is all quite recent; disposable fashion as it’s called only began ramping up in the mid-2000s.

Needless to say, learning this did not spark joy. The consequences of disposable fashion now struck me as so obvious, yet societal expectations encourage to buy buy buy! As a bleeding-heart environmentalist, I set out to spend a year without shopping.

The Mission

Spend one full year without purchasing new clothing, shoes, purses, accessories or jewelry.

I’m not much of a clotheshorse, but I’ve met many people who cannot go a single week without buying something new. Seriously, how much closet space do they have? It took all sorts of restraint to withhold my thoughts on how ridiculous I find these people. Biting my tongue in front of their wasteful over-fashioned trying-too-hard faces seemed to be another thing I gave up. Those who say things like “no pain, no gain” as their feet hemorrhage inside of 4-inch heels? No thanks! I set out to prove that retail didn’t own me; that I could spend a year without needing anything. I wanted to discover that quality really is superior to quantity and that I can put together new outfits with my existing wardrobe. That the “basics” are called as such because they go with everything. Oh and money. Saving lots of money.

The Fine Print

People asked, “What about soap and shampoo?”

I’m no savage. Of course, I’ll buy soap and wash my hair! This isn’t about hygiene. It’s about understanding how marketing forces consumers to make unnecessary purchases that are devastating the planet.

“But, shoes. You’ll totally buy new shoes, right?”

Nope. Again, no clothes, shoes, purs--…

“What if you receive a gift like a sweater?”

I’m giving up retail, not manners. Of course, I’d accept a gift should it present (heh) itself.

“What about clothes for special events?”

Many feel obligated to buy something new for so-and-so’s wedding or a New Year’s Eve party, etc. If you don’t normally find yourself on the cover of Us Weekly, then why sweat it? If your friends judge you for wearing the same cocktail dress twice, then they are shitty, shitty friends.


Tailors work wonders! Most clothes can be taken in, let out, hemmed, repaired, or otherwise altered to become more wearable. If you aren’t skilled with a needle and thread then the tailor at your local dry cleaner can help. I caught my jacket on who-knows-what which tore the seam apart at the waist. While many may just chuck the coat, my neighborhood dry cleaner stitched it up perfectly for $6. The same goes for little holes in warm woolen sweaters; they can fix those too! Replacing the worn lining of a coat costs far less than hunting for something to replace the North Face that cost you an arm and a leg.

A Note on Your Existing Wardrobe

Taking time off from shopping doesn’t work for everyone. Some of my new-mom and almost-mom friends scoffed (angrily) at the idea as their shape changed dramatically through the course of human-harvesting. Nevertheless, if your body is not transforming in any remarkable way it can be a cinch!


Of the whole experience there was only one moment when I really needed something new. Over Fourth of July weekend for a trip out of town I truly could have used a new bathing suit. As a New York City girl the opportunity to go swimming rarely comes up, so I dusted off an old suit I hadn't worn in years. My old bikini lost its elasticity, so I was self-conscious about giving an unintended peep show for the pool portion of my weekend out of town.

Weeks turned into months and soon my year off from shopping was complete and an absolute success. I saved money. Boatloads of money! But far more important than that, the exercise proved that it’s not only very possible, if noteasy, but also unexpectedly gave me a greater sense of freedom and self-confidence. Also, I saved money boatloads of money, roughly $2,000.

Prior to quitting shopping, I’d buy something that looks great on the hanger and think if I lose x-amount of pounds, it’ll be perfect. In actuality, I’d wear it once and chastise myself for not dropping that weight to make it fit right. It reminded me that I have a ribcage. Do you, too? Some designers forget women have these running the bodice so narrow that breathing becomes non-negotiable and no amount of weight loss would fix this. I have surreptitiously unzipped cheap dresses under a cardigan in order to breathe.  Now I scrutinize each garment before buying and most of the time, it’s just not worth it.

This challenge reestablished the idea that I am wearing the clothes not the other way around. It also taught me over and over again: I don’t really need this thing. That’s the freedom part.

Your Turn

Since I began this challenge a handful of friends followed suit finding nothing but positivity in it. The object of the game is to recognize that you likely have everything you need. Dig through your closet, reorganize it, and reacquaint yourself with your purchases. It’s a senselessly wasteful cycle to purchase and toss clothing at the rate many do.

If you rely on retail therapy, love your planet, or want a challenge to save money, I encourage you to try this. Maybe for just a month or perhaps longer to feel the sweet sense of regaining control over your shopping choices and becoming a smarter consumer. Your wallet and the planet will thank you.

By Sarah Sweeney

Sarah Sweeney is a writer and voiceover actor in New York City. Read more of her stuff at or say hi at @heysarahsweeney.

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