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I stopped buying clothes. Here’s what I learned.

Cutting out buying new clothes could seriously help your budget—and the planet.

If you can, think back to a far-away place: Earth, circa December 2019. It feels like a long time ago, but back then, the most urgent global crisis was the growing impact of climate change. The nation’s economy was robust, and the only epidemic was that of consumerism.

Right now, many of us are longing to go out and support the community by shopping or dining out. But back then, those were the kind of things many of us vowed to cut back on in the coming year. Indeed, my new year’s resolutions included a simple vow: During 2020, I wouldn’t buy any clothes.

For some, this might not seem like that big of a challenge—perhaps you are the type of person who loathes clothes shopping, which in turn means you generally limit yourself to stocking the occasional much-needed replacement for your underwear drawer. That’s not me. I worked for years in fashion or fashion-adjacent media, and have long enjoyed both the craft and the aesthetic of clothing. As one designer says, quoting the legendary clotheshorse (and two-sport athlete) Deion Sanders: When you look good, you feel good. When you feel good, you play good. And when you play good, they pay good. Dressing well helped me feel better about myself, and I truly believe that in turn helped me succeed in my career.

But a lot has changed in the past few years. I moved to a warmer, more casual city. I began working from home more than half the time (and eventually, 100% of the time). I had kids, who tend to have zero compunction about running up to you and hugging your legs no matter how much spaghetti sauce is smeared across their crimson cheeks. I went from having a dependable corporate job to freelancing, which, when combined with the cost of child care, meant my income became more feast-or-famine. So while I didn’t habitually have bespoke three-piece suits in my closet or anything—I’m not a dandy—it stopped making sense to wear expensive trousers or sports coats for an audience of zero, on a ninety-degree day, with messy children to take care of.

And yet, the clothing habit remained hard to kick. The final straw was reading an interview with Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard, who pointed out that while it’s great to buy an electric car, it’s better for the environment to drive your current car until the wheels fall off. Essentially, the environmental cost of manufacturing a new automobile is greater than whatever damage your current car is doing. (You can also take steps like driving less, etc.) I also came to the grips with the reality that a dollar spent on a new sweater was a dollar I couldn’t save for, say, a family vacation or my child’s education. And so, I vowed to spend a year not buying clothes. (After stocking up on a few essentials, of course.)

Here’s what I’ve learned since I stopped buying new clothes.

The definition of clothes is flexible

Do shoes count as clothes? It would violate the spirit of the resolution if I were to drop a few hundred dollars on, say, a pair of suede wingtips. But what about functional footwear, like hiking boots or running shoes? I decided to classify some wearable items as “tools,” and gave them an exemption to my policy. That said, I try to use that rarely (and so far, I haven’t used it at all). My baseline is this: If I need something wearable to participate in an activity, it’s allowed. So if someone invites me to hike up a mountain, I can get boots. But if someone invites me to a black tie gala—which, much to my surprise, actually happened—I need to make it work with the clothes I already have.

I’m saving money

After so many years in the industry, I have a decent sense of what specific clothing items cost and why. If you’re spending five bucks on a t-shirt, chances are, you might not be comfortable with how that t-shirt was made. (Let’s just say the human beings who make the shirt probably don’t have a lot of protections in the workplace.) And while it isn’t always the case, a higher price usually correlates to higher quality. Between wanting good value for myself, and not wanting to contribute to the environmental glut caused by fast / disposable fashion, I have been trying to buy fewer, better things for a few years. (Marie Kondo would be so proud.) This has been good for both my wardrobe and perhaps the planet, but not so much for my bottom line.

This is some serious back-of-the-envelope math, and your mileage will vary based on your personal budget and tastes, but the average American spends $150 per month on clothes. I would estimate I average spending (and now, saving) more, though not much more, than that. Some investment advisors would suggest I put that money immediately into savings, perhaps automatically via an app. This additional liquidity from clothing savings turns out to be extra-useful given the state of the world right now. (In ordinary times, though, I would have earmarked for an unofficial vacation fund.)

I still look good (Or at least my wife hasn’t said otherwise.)

It turns out that Deion Sanders’ adage still applies, and you don’t actually have to buy new clothes to embody it. I’m doing what fashion experts call shopping my closet—digging out old stuff I haven’t worn in a while and finding new ways to wear them. I’m also paying attention to the things I just don’t wear that often and am putting them in a separate pile to be donated or sold on a resale site. (Another nice cash boost in uncertain times.) I still don’t want to give up on my suits, because you never know. But that button-down shirt with the playful all-over tiger print? It had a good run, but it’s time for someone else to rock it in a way I never quite could.

I’ve ended global warming (Ok, not yet, but …)

According to Sustain Your Style, a German nonprofit that studies fashion’s impact on the environment, the clothing industry is the second-biggest polluter in the world. Much of that pollution is water-based—for example, textile factories dumping toxic wastewater into rivers. The clothing industry supposedly generates between 8 and 10 percent of global emissions, all while producing between 80 and 150 billion garments annually. (If the higher number is accurate, that means each of the world’s roughly 7.53 billion people could get 20 new items annually.) But as a recent report from Vox shows, quantifying the impact of fashion on the environment is borderline impossible. Many of the numbers I’ve just cited are based on dubious research and reportage, though few dispute the general reality that manufacturing and discarding clothes has a negative impact on the planet.

Fashion is cyclical, we all get that. That’s how the same brands can get you to buy new pants (or jackets, or shirts) year after year after year. But if you step back, you’ll see how wasteful, even harmful, it really is. And not just to the planet, but to those of us who inhabit it—while that mean average is roughly 20 garments per year per person, the reality is that, wealth inequality being what it is, the fortunate few are likely buying up far more than that, while those in need are going without.

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So, is giving up buying new clothes for a year right for you? I’ll be honest: I’m hesitant to recommend it right now, just because there are so many wonderful small, independent clothiers who could use your business. (Perhaps not coincidentally, those same brands are often the most forward-thinking in terms of planet-minded innovation, whether coming up with fabrics made from recycled plastic or greener ways of washing and dyeing their clothing.)

That said, if you are looking for an easy way to save money, while also doing a small favor to the planet, it’s a great place to start. And you don’t have to wait for New Year’s 2021, either. Earth Day makes a perfect time to start.

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About Louis Wilson

Louis Wilson is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in a wide array of publications, both online and in print. He often writes about travel, sports, popular culture, men’s fashion and grooming, and more. He lives in Austin, Texas, where he has developed an unbridled passion for breakfast tacos, with his wife and two children.

Read more by Louis Wilson

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