Freeing ourselves from supporting harm

Could giving up buying new clothes be the biggest personal change you can make for the environment? That’s what The Guardian asked in an article on the growing number of people moving away from fast fashion to second-hand clothing. I came across it after I’d vowed to not buy new clothes for a year.

A Clothes with Karma event under the milkwood trees in my garden

The seed for that was planted by an 18-year-old. I’d remarked to her that there were far more second-hand than new clothing shops on the streets of a Cape Town suburb. She swept her hands over her jeans and mohair cardigan. “Everything I am wearing is second-hand,” she said. She explained that buying used clothes not only saves her money; it also makes her feel good because it is better for the Earth. She opened my eyes. So when fires raged through the Amazon and forests of Africa, I knew what to do: I decided to not buy new clothes for a year. It made me feel less helpless.

Cautiously – was this regarded as frivolous? – I shared my decision in a Facebook post. Immediately, a handful of people joined me and we set up a Facebook group called “We’re not buying new clothes for a year” to support each other and share experiences. 

I did some research and so did the members of the group. Everything I learned convinced me it was the right thing to do – and that this could indeed be the biggest personal change a consumer can make to lessen harm on the environment and the people who live, and work, in it. Presumably, if you are doing this, you are already living in a way that is good to the environment.  

The damage that fast fashion does

There’s a heap of information out there, but here’s a good summary of the issues. Follow the links if you want to discover more. In a nutshell:

  • The fashion industry produces 10% of all humanity’s carbon emissions – more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined.
  • It’s responsible for 20% of all industrial water pollution and is the second-largest consumer of the world’s water.
  • The throwaway habits around fast fashion lead to the equivalent of a garbage truck full of clothes being burned or dumped in a landfill every second.

Why on Earth did I think this might be a frivolous thing to do? The New York Times gave me a clue: “Clothes are easy to ignore because they are made far away and have throughout history been made by enslaved, unpaid and low-paid laborers, often by women. But clothing affects every other environmental problem we care about.”

My research led me to Extinction Rebellion, or XR, which pushes for peaceful, radical environmental action. XR is driving a global movement to “#BOYCOTTFASHION” for 52 weeks (it caused a bit commotion at the London Fashion Week this year). “There is no fashion on a dead planet,” it tweeted. We produce up to 100 billion pieces of clothing a year, “taking a terrible toll on the planet and people who make them”.

Consumers are choosing to remove their support for an industry that does harm to people and the environment. The choice to stop buying new, for whatever period, is being seen as a powerful form of activism against the damage that harmful consumerism, particularly of fast fashion, does to the environment.

How do we do it?

How easy is it to stop buying new clothes for a year? I like the term, “circular fashion”, which CBS News uses to distinguish from “conspicuous consumption”. It means “extending the lifecycle of well-made garments and recycling their materials into new items”.

XR has some advice too: “There is an abundance of clothing and textiles already in circulation which we can creatively repair, re-use, alter, upcycle, recycle and much more, minimising our use of new resources. We encourage rebels to share through swapping or renting, or buying and selling second-hand.”

The clothing exchanges I’ve held in my garden every eight months or so take on new meaning. We call these feel-good events Clothes with Karma. I’ll explain more about these events – they are fun and easy to organise – in later posts. And I’ll explore other ways you can manage just fine without buying new clothes.

Inspirational people

The Facebook group, steadily growing, is a source of inspiration – on why and how to stop buying new clothes and what it means for each of us. Members include men and women and people across the globe. I suspect commitment varies: some people have not bought new for years; some (like me) are just starting out; some are being more conscious of how and what they buy. They are united by a conviction to take a stand against harmful, thoughtless consumption. They are insisting there is another way.

Here’s what some members say:

  • Melanie Farrell (Cape Town) puts it like this: “When I was working fulltime, buying clothes was a way of distracting myself from how much I hated the job. Now that I’m freelance, I still have a wardrobe full of ‘distraction dresses’ and piles of things that I’ve never worn. The psychology of shopping is interesting, but a bit disturbing too.”
  • Victoria Whisson (London) says she “committed shopping” to self-medicate when she was desperately unhappy. “I believed shopping gave me some control – a sense of having choices –  when I felt trapped by my situation. Now, of course, I realise that what I was actually doing was the opposite of being in control.”
  • Angela Tuson (East London, South Africa) decided to not buy, eat or consume any animal products or products of sweatshops. “I feel happier and, strangely, more stylish and coordinated,” she says. “I didn’t realise that thoughtless buying was making me feel burdened until I stopped.” 


Just three months into my no-new-clothes journey, it’s already redefining my relationship with clothes – which I love – and with how I spend my money. Even with a few additions found in charity shops, I have fewer clothes in my wardrobe now: as I rediscover treasures in its depths, I pass on things I have not been wearing. My shopping trips for essentials are quicker, more focused and not as heavy on the wallet as they were. I feel lighter, freer.

When/if I buy new clothes again, I shall choose good-quality items from local designers and brands that I know use sustainable production. By then, it will be a habit to reduce, reuse, recycle and be more creative with what I have. I’ve just discovered a term for it: slow fashion, based on the impact of an item’s production on people and the environment. It’s about buying less but better, buying local. It’s about being mindful; it’s about getting back to basics.

Bird’s eye view of a clothing exchange under the milkwood


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