The fashion industry primes us to reinvent ourselves every season. Don’t fall for it.

Final Image Medill Reports Fashion Feature
Kathleen Fialka, a Chicago-based personal stylist, specializes in helping clients build long-lasting wardrobes (Grant Viola/Viola Visuals)

By Julia Gordon

Medill Reports

CHICAGO — Ali El, a vintage seller in London, recently encountered a paradoxical nightmare: a massive royal blue Ikea bag overflowing with used clothing, “gifted” to him by a neighbor. You would think this is a dream come true, a heap of free secondhand clothing. But there was no designer in sight. Nothing was older than a few years.

“I realized that (the entire bag) was fast fashion,” El said. “This  person had spent 1200 pounds (on) fast-fashion pieces to use for a few months and then throw away because they’re not cool anymore.”

The fashion industry thrives on volatile, cheap trends that propagate a wasteful cycle of buying and disposing. Though sustainability and climate change capture today’s zeitgeist, we continue to fall for the industry’s marketing manipulations and greenwashed promises. While production is undoubtedly unsustainable, the root of the issue is overconsumption. According to Kenneth Pucker, a professor of sustainable business dynamics at Tufts University, we need to change the way we shop, and we need to shop less. And we have to do it on our own volition.

A toxic cycle

The average American produces 82 pounds of textile waste annually — about 262 T-shirts — according to a 2018 study by the National Center for Biotechnology Information. That same year,  11.3 million tons ended up in U.S. landfills, where colorful mountains of cheap fabrics bleed toxins into the environment. If those statistics feel hyperbolic, consider how often you glimpse advertisements for “must-have” pieces or scroll past influencers brandishing three-part clothing hauls.

Pucker explained that the dangerous cycle of overproduction and overconsumption is coupled with complicated global supply chains that are hard to trace and make transparency tedious. And disclosure regulations are near non-existent.

He noted that when fashion companies release emissions reports, the majority of these reports include only Scope 1 and Scope 2 emissions, as characterized by the Greenhouse Gas Emissions Protocol. These emissions encompass activities like driving to work and purchasing electricity. They’re not reporting on the big stuff, which is everything else.

“(Companies) don’t want to do any of that,” Pucker said. “It costs money, it’s hard, it’s detailed, and the planet is burning.”

The power of consumers

Shifting to an eco-friendlier future likely will not start from the top. Psychologically, fashion corporations have us exactly where they want us; always craving more, our fingers constantly  hovering over a purchase button, hungry for the next hot trend. One avenue for change is through legislation, though a slow and grueling road. Pucker has been working on the New York Fashion Act, which would hold apparel companies accountable for greenhouse gas emissions, for more than three years. Another way to tangentially be kinder to the environment is to shop secondhand. But while buying used does not increase production demand, it also does not tackle the root issue of overconsumption.

An untapped solution lies in the power of consumers. “What if ‘cool’ is having legitimate, individual style and not buying a lot of shit?” Pucker said.

What if instead of buying into disposable trends dictated by avaricious corporations, we discover and invest in clothing that we actually like, and keep it? Unravelling the consumer mindset from decades of cunning marketing is not a simple fix but it is as plausible a solution as any. And it can be done without sacrificing style.

Retail therapy

Let’s redefine the meaning of retail therapy. Instead of adding to your wardrobe, learn to trim it down to only the pieces that have timeless appeal. As counseling can reveal the cause of your commitment issues, Kathleen Fialka, a Chicago-based personal stylist, explained that a “closet edit” can help unpack your closet (literally). Fialka begins her process with a piece-by-piece examination of her clients’ wardrobes to determine what stays and what goes. Although discarding clothing seems counterintuitive, it creates space for better-suited, longer-lasting pieces, which is ultimately the key to shopping less.

Like any transformation, this will not happen overnight. A forever wardrobe takes time and commitment. Mya Gelber, a 28-year-old content creator known for her cohesive wardrobe, said it took six years to construct her current collection. She describes her closet as “a perfect mix and match.” This is clear from her Instagram, which is freckled with primary colors and reiterations of the same sweater-denim-ballet-flat combo.

“I’m pro outfit repeating,” Gelber said. If you love your clothes, why wouldn’t you be?

Mya Gelber Image

Gelber’s Instagram celebrates her love for primary colors and timeless styles (Mya Gelber/INSTAGRAM)


Basic is better

“I literally have the chills,” said Krista Lavrusik, a fashion content creator, as she described her favorite white button-down.

She is head-over-heels for basics, like white and black T-shirts, flattering jeans and a comfy crew neck, and credits her “thrift boyfriends”: Eddie Bauer, Levi’s and “Mr. Bean of  the L.L. variety.” Basic doesn’t have to mean monochrome or sulky silhouettes. It refers to those versatile pieces you reach for often.

“When people feel like they have nothing to wear, it’s usually because they have so many (statement pieces),” Fialka said.

That doesn’t mean you can’t experiment with unconventional styles, just do so thoughtfully, in a way that still feels like you.

Shop intentionally, not impulsively

“I would like to see people do more of their own research,” said Jabari Sandifer, a style consultant from Chicago. “It’s like looking for a car, right? You’re not just going to buy a car because you  saw it on TV. You’re going to test drive the car, you’re going to go to the store and see it.”

If you can, feel the cashmere before you commit to the price tag. Try out different materials and styles to discover what fits you best. Consider what pieces will serve you long-term.

“That’s how we make more conscious spending decisions,” Sandifer said.

When shopping online, content creator Gelber admits she often waits an entire season before buying something and by then either feels confident in her purchase or proud of her patience. There is also a strong chance the thing in your cart won’t be trendy next month.

“If you like it when it’s not cool anymore, that’s how you know,” Sandifer said.

Hold influencers at a distance  

Gone are the days of spending hours in a store or online searching for a shirt you saw someone wearing on the train. Today, an accessible Instagram link takes you right to the checkout button. While influencers make shopping easy, Sandifer is wary of social media’s contribution to a culture of uniformity. When brands shell out pieces to influencers, “stuff spreads like wildfire,” Sandifer said. Everyone ends up wearing the same things.

This doesn’t mean you have to go on an unfollow spree. But keep in mind that influencers are profiting from your purchases. Before buying, ask yourself, do I like this piece? Do I think it will look good on me? Remember, if a content creator is advertising something they were gifted, they might not even like it.

Lavrusik, who uses her platform to promote secondhand shopping and tips for building a capsule wardrobe, advises using social media as a tool, not a means to an end.

“Go on Pinterest and see what you’re drawn to,” Lavrusik said. “Make boards, organize it, play around.” Then, you can go hunt for that discount code.

It all circles back to personal style, to creating your own preferences instead of obeying what brands and influencers command you to wear.

“I can’t accept that people wear just random, cheap stuff nowadays,” El said, in an Italian accent as alla moda as his leather collection. “We are living in the golden era of styling.”

Julia Gordon is a magazine graduate student at Medill.