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Take the Challenge! Buy Just Five Pieces of New Clothing a Year

Can you do it? It could dent the climate crisis and spur unlikely connections. Tell us in the comments.

Dorothy Woodend 20 May 2024The Tyee

Dorothy Woodend is the culture editor for The Tyee.

Is it possible to buy only five articles of new clothing per year?

In January, the Guardian introduced a new initiative with a challenge to readers. Because a radical reduction in global fashion consumption is critical for making any meaningful progress in addressing climate change, the U.K. news organization asked readers if they could commit to buying just five new items of clothing per year.

Having tried different methodologies to curb the shopping habit, I was skeptical at first. But given that there’s a clothing landfill in Chile so large that you can see it from space, I gave it a go.

It’s been almost five months, and so far, so good.

The experience reminds me strangely of “The Sponge,” a memorable 1995 episode of Seinfeld in which Elaine buys up a box of contraceptive sponges before they’re taken off the market. She tallies the pros and cons of prospective romantic partners to decide whether they’re “sponge-worthy” or not.

Standing in clothing stores this year, I’ve found myself muttering “Are you sponge-worthy?” to certain sartorial items. More often than not, the answer is no.

I’m not exactly sure what makes the Guardian’s “five items” campaign easier than simply swearing carte blanche to stop buying new things. But it has forced a form of judiciousness that makes me think hard about whether I need yet another navy jacket.

It’s the pause before the storm, if you will: a moment to gauge one’s level of desire for a given piece of clothing before spending money.

I’m certainly not alone in trying to silence the siren call of impulse shopping. We’ve all been there, because our shopping habits extend far beyond fulfilling basic needs: we buy stuff to soothe boredom and to seek novelty and simply because it’s available at a deep discount. Last month, the controversial fast-fashion juggernaut Shein opened a downtown Vancouver pop-up store that attracted a massive lineup of people. It was another reminder of the fact that we humans have a long way to go before we stop shopping.

So, is there a way to crop our collective need to shop, if not entirely pop it altogether?

The answer is a definitive yes.

How to commit to the five-item challenge

Before we get rolling, it’s helpful to establish a few parameters on how to properly embark on the challenge for people to buy only five new articles of clothing per year.

Are underpants excluded from the five-item list? OK. What about shoes? Well, second-hand shoes aren’t all that great, so sure. Earrings, hats, scarves? Now you’re just taking this as a licence to abuse the idea. Accessories are easy to find second-hand, so, ’fraid not!

Draw up a numbered list, and you’re off to the sustainable fashion races.

If you need any additional incentive, I suggest reading author Alec Leach. He has written a manifesto about trying to escape the impulse to buy lots of stuff. His approach advocates searching for items that will work for years, as well as those that give you a flare of joy every time you put them on.

Although Leach’s manifesto is harder to put into practice than one might think at first glance, that’s actually a good thing. Those long-lasting, life-giving pieces are rare. But when you do find them, you quickly realize that they’re worth all the time, effort and care invested in the hunt.

While you’re panning for long-term fashion gold, there are plenty of additional options that exist outside the world of brand new clothes, including thrift stores, consignment shops, vintage stores and clothing swaps. Plus, things you steal from your sister when she’s not looking. Heh heh.

First stop: thrift shop

A few years ago, I wrote about a visit to my favourite Value Village establishments. It turns out that the Village is not what it once was. Price hiking to ridiculous degrees has made it something of a joke in the books of genuine bargain hunters. Also, it is a for-profit business, and not an actual charity.

Thankfully, there is a variety of other options in Metro Vancouver.

Wherever you are in B.C., please share your favourite thrift stores in this story’s comments section. I live in Vancouver, where it’s largely easy to stay in your own neighbourhood and find repositories of good finds. A hot spot is Main Street, which offers a wealth of options, some of the best clustered within a few blocks.

Start at My Sister’s Closet. I cannot count the number of scores I have found here. While designer fare can be on the pricey side, the $5 rack has consistently offered some terrific options. You will also have the added benefit of supporting a good cause.

A recent visit yielded some primo stuff: a straw-coloured linen jacket from Banana Republic in perfect condition, and an Alexander Wang T-shirt, both for the grand price of 10 bucks. Even the woman working at the front counter was impressed. We gave each other two cheery thumbs-up!

A couple of blocks down from the Closet is Front & Co. The designer section is well stocked with hipper fare, from Rachel Comey to the Frankie Shop, but prices are on the higher side and the fastidious discernment of the cool cats working the consignment counter can be intimidating to those looking to clear the skinny jeans and Old Navy cardigans of yesteryear from their closets. There’s nothing quite like a moue of distaste from a 20-something sales clerk to make you slink away in shame, your bag of castoffs clutched to your chest.

Turnabout Luxury Resale, again while somewhat on the pricey side, offers a large assortment to choose from. Turnabout has different locations across the city and caters to respective neighbourhoods’ different price points.

If you fancy some fancy fare, the Turnabout location in South Granville is a gold mine of designers: you’ll find Chanel, Dior, Givenchy et al. I place the emphasis on gold, because you will need to break out the bullion to afford the clothes and bags on offer. Conversely, if you want to flip stuff and make bank, it’s the place to go: it’s possible to make serious money by taking designer items to Turnabout that you’ve purchased for only a few dollars at a local thrift store. So, if you have a Hermès bag or Louboutin shoes that you don’t want anymore, get paid.

Farther down on Main Street, there’s a wide variety of vintage shops as well as an honest-to-goodness old-school thrift store on 12th Avenue. There are also plenty of other options sprinkled around the city, including HOB Thrift Boutique in Kerrisdale and the Good Stuff Connection in North Vancouver.

A bonus of shopping in a well-run thrift store is getting to chat with the lovely folks who volunteer their time to work there. It’s a welcome reminder that shopping is also a social activity, a chance to laugh, commiserate and help other people.

I’d be curious to know about other repositories of genuine cheapness around the province. I’ve been to the legendary free store on Hornby Island and the thrift store operated by the Creston Valley Gleaners, but surely there must be other similar establishments scattered across the province. Pipe up in the comments!

Swap some clothes, get free

If thriftiness is next to godliness, then free is the ultimate in sustainable fashion.

The City of Vancouver regularly organizes clothing swaps. The next one is taking place on May 25 in East Vancouver. There is something distinctly liberating about the process of packing your things up and giving them away. It frees up mental and physical space and makes room for other things.

You can also organize a clothing swap yourself with your friends and family, with the added benefit of seeing a close friend out in the world wearing a jacket that you gave them. It’s a very good feeling indeed.

The one caveat about buying second-hand is that it’s better to do so in the flesh than online. Almost everyone has had the experience of ordering something on a whim, and having it arrive as altogether different than expected. You can’t gauge weight, true colour or texture from looking at a photo.

There are other considerations as well, such as seeing and occasionally smelling things in the flesh. Take it from me, if it’s musty or mothball-scented, don’t bother. It’s almost impossible to remove intractable odours. Lord knows I have tried. All the internet hacks, like laying a piece of clothing outside in direct sunlight, did nothing to budge stubborn aromas. If anyone has any suggestions, let me know.

Once you take a step into the circular economy, regular shopping seems thin and wan by comparison.

You might very well find that by the end of the year, the list of five new things stands empty. That’s when you know that you are truly free.

So what do you think? Are you ready to take on the five-item challenge? Let us know in the comments below.  [Tyee]

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