Style lovers needn't worry that living a more conscious lifestyle means being boring or bland. In fact, choosing what to wear more carefully, rather than just compulsively buying the latest fast fashion, can result in a new sense of joy in deciding what aesthetic you choose.
We catch up with author, journalist and sustainable superfan Lauren Bravo who tells us all about her relationship with fast fashion, and how to break the habit of a lifetime.
How did you come to the idea of "breaking up with fast fashion”, and the decision to write your book about it?
"A couple of years ago, I was in a bad place with clothes. It felt like I was perpetually shopping; trawling the high street, scrolling through ASOS, looking for new brands on Instagram, and standing in the Post Office with my inevitable returns. I found I was losing my energy and enthusiasm for shopping; it just wasn’t bringing me the joy it promised – and yet I was buying far more than I needed, and spending more time than ever obsessing over clothes. Then I moved flat towards the end of 2018, and suddenly I was confronted with my whole shopping history, in all its sad, crumpled, unravelling glory.
"I found clothes I could barely remember buying, clothes I knew I wouldn’t wear even as I was buying them, and clothes that were perfectly nice but I’d simply got bored and forgotten I had them. The sheer enormity of my wardrobe was a wake-up call, and I decided to give myself a final push: I challenged myself to go a whole year without buying any brand new clothes. Around the same time, I began writing more and more about sustainability and less about ‘must-buy’ trends, which prompted my publisher to approach me and ask if I wanted to write a book on the subject. I almost said no – I felt wildly underqualified, not virtuous enough, and still quite confused by the whole world of sustainable fashion. But then I realised that if I felt that way, so did most people. And that was probably what made me the right person to write it."
You've described fast fashion as the "ultimate toxic relationship”, why is that?
"There are so many parallels. For lots of people, fast fashion is one of those short-term quick-fixes that feels good temporarily, but ultimately leaves us feeling bad about ourselves. It’s a relationship that we often feel bound into, unable to leave because society expects us to just keep on buying things. It can be long-term – some people have never known another way of shopping – and like lots of relationship break-ups, it can take a few years and a few false starts to truly get it out of your system. And of course it’s quite literally toxic. The fashion industry is one of the biggest polluters on the planet, with a carbon footprint bigger than international flights and maritime shipping combined."
Why is conscious minimalism, which embraces a slower, more sustainable way of looking at how and what we buy, so critical right now? "Lots of us are suffering from ‘stuffocation’, overwhelmed with things that we don’t need and yet compelled to keep buying more. It’s especially true of clothes; over the past 20 years or so we’ve moved from a place where clothing was an investment, something we bought with the intention of keeping it for a few years at least, to a point where for many consumers fashion is almost disposable. The average garment is now worn just seven times, many not even twice. Overconsumption is fuelling the worst aspects of the fashion industry – brands churning out thousands of new styles every week is placing crippling pressure on factories, which in turn is forcing garment workers and farmers to work at an unsustainable pace. Fast fashion is a runaway juggernaut and we desperately need to slam on the breaks. To me, conscious consumption is about slowing down, but also about rediscovering an emotional connection with the things we own. If we’re emotionally invested in their story, where they’re from, who made them, what they’re made from etc, then we’re more likely to keep them for longer, look after them better, repair them when they break and generally keep them in circulation. But I don’t necessarily think we have to be minimalists to consume sustainably! It’s about voting with our wallets for the kinds of brands we want to support, and committing to things for the long haul."
Does shopping more consciously, or sustainably mean losing a sense of style?
"Definitely not! If anything, since I quit the High Street and started shopping more sustainably, I think I have a stronger sense of personal style – although without just blindly following trends, it took me a while to work out what I actually like. But it’s a popular misconception that sustainable shopping has to mean a wardrobe full of hemp smocks and sensible beige basics. There are so many ways to express your own style through conscious fashion, especially if you’re prepared to get creative and adapt, restyle and reinvent what you already own."
Tell us some of your best ‘FINDS’ over the years from charity shops, flea markets and car boot sales?
"Oh my god, so many. My favourite shoes right now are a pair of incredible Buffalo platform clogs in patchwork leather, very 90s-does-70s, which I’ve been wearing to lots of my book events – they were from the charity shop I volunteer in, and I pounced as soon as they hit the shop floor. I love the FINDS that feel like fate (once, a pair of trainers I’d nearly bought new for £80 the week before, boxfresh and in my size for £8) and anything with clues about its former life, like satchels with names written inside. I’m a sucker for a good coat and I have so many brilliant secondhand ones; current faves include a brown vinyl Joseph trench from a jumble sale, and a checked Laura Ashley jacket from a charity shop, which I’ve customised with a faux fur collar from a different charity shop. It’s very cute."
You’re based in London, does this have an impact upon your style?
"It definitely does – I moved here from suburban Sussex when I was 18 and it felt like the promised land, somewhere my outlandish wardrobe finally belonged. I love London for its diversity and imagination, but also its anonymity. I love that you can get on the tube wearing virtually anything and know that nobody in the carriage will bat an eyelid. And you don’t have to wait for the right invitation, because the city itself is a reason to get dressed up. I get inspired by other people’s outfits all the time – I’ve had to start keeping notes on my phone for jotting down details in the street. But at the same time, living here definitely didn’t help when I was at the peak of my fast fashion addiction. When I ‘popped to the shops’, ‘the shops’ literally meant Oxford Street or Westfield. It was overwhelming."
Top tips for shopping sustainably?
"Use the #secondhandfirst rule. Before you buy anything new, try to find it secondhand first. Look in charity shops, comb eBay and Depop, or ask yourself if you could borrow it or rent it rather than buying it. And when you do buy new things, use Livia Firth’s tip and always ask yourself – honestly! – if you will wear it at least 30 times. If the answer is no, think very carefully about whether you should buy it. I’m also a big fan of the Good On You directory, which rates thousands of fashion brands on their sustainability credentials so you can decide at a glance if a brand deserves your money. It makes for pretty eye-opening reading. But above all, I’d say just try your best. Accept that you’re not going to do this flawlessly, because nobody can. And if you slip up and buy something less sustainable, just be prepared to love it, wear it, look after it and keep it in circulation for many years to come."
Best exhibition you’ve been to in the last six months?
"I loved Olafur Eliasson at the Tate Modern – and seeing it hyped up on my Instagram feed for months beforehand only added to the thrill of experiencing that fog tunnel firsthand…" (Photo by Edson Rosas on Unsplash)
Artist or conceptual thinker that you admire? "Does Dolly Parton count? I'd like to think so."
Who do you admire when it comes to innovations in sustainability?
"I really love Birdsong, a London brand that works with groups of women makers, paying everyone a fair living wage, using eco-friendly fabrics like TENCEL and organic cotton, and making beautiful, size-inclusive clothes to order. Their motto is ‘no sweatshops, no Photoshop’ and I really love that they take a feminist approach to tackling sustainability. When you remember that 80% of global garment workers are women aged 18-35 (and only 12.5% of fashion companies have a female CEO) it makes sense that the two need to go hand-in-hand. I’m also obsessed with designers like Mary Benson, Megan Crosby and Loftyfrocks, who make gorgeous dresses out of deadstock fabric – and Rachel Clowes, who has developed biodegradable sequins to replace the usual plastic ones. Because a future without sequins is a sad one indeed."
You’re a journalist and author, how do you balance your work? What’s your routine?
"I don’t know if balance is the word! Right now I’m in book promo mode, which means a lot of my time is spent dashing around doing live events, podcasts, radio and interviews. I love it but the challenge is trying to fit my paid work in around all the shameless self-publicity. Ordinarily I try to stick to a fairly solid routine, it keeps me sane – but for someone who works from home I’m really quite bad at working... from home. I get cabin fever. So I go for a swim or a run most mornings, then I work at a co-working space or in coffee shops. I try not to work in the evenings and at weekends if I can help it, but when I do, the pay-off is knowing I can have a lazy morning or a long lunch the week after."Any challenges that you’ve faced during writing the book?
"To be honest the whole thing was a challenge! Being confronted by the truth of my own relationship with clothes wasn’t easy, and nor was sifting through the wealth of information out there and working out how to make it accessible to readers rather than overwhelming. I was also so scared that I’d get things wrong or have my arguments ripped to shreds by people who know much more about all this than I do. But thankfully that hasn’t happened at all; I’ve found that when you’re open and honest about your own hypocrisies, people embrace it and are much happier to engage in conversations. We don’t have time to wait for perfection – a large number of people changing their habits, however imperfectly, would have a much bigger impact than a small group of people trying to be saints."
Now we’ve found out all about you, who do you think we should FIND out about next?
"There are some really brilliant slow fashion advocates on Instagram, founts of knowledge who delight in wearing the same clothes over and over again – the perfect antidote to all those influencers pushing their #gifted items. Some of my faves include @notbuyingnew, @ajabarber, @EnBrogue and @emsladeedmonson. Go, FIND them and follow."