Slowing Down: Breaking the Fast Fashion Mindset
A Disclaimer and Note from the Author
Before we get started, let me be clear: The goal of this article is not to convince you of anything. I’m not going to tell you why you should divest from fast fashion and put in the effort to shop more thoughtfully and with longevity in mind, as that approach has historically gotten me in trouble (at least on Twitter)—I’ve already written about the many ills of fast fashion, anyway and how to fix them:
And for those who simply cannot afford to spend more on clothes, I’ve talked about sustainable choices that are free for everyone to make:
This article is for those who have already come to the conclusion that shopping fast fashion exclusively is not conducive to building a wardrobe they love. It’s for people who find themselves underwhelmed by what the endlessly trendy, extremely rapidly-moving, downright overwhelming retailers geared toward teenagers (let’s be honest…Shein’s primary target is not 30-somethings or even those old enough to have graduated college) have to offer and simply want better for themselves and their closets.
Above all, this article is for those who are ready to shift their mindset and habits away from the excessive consumerism that fast fashion encourages and toward being more intentional with where they spend their hard-earned money, even if the actual brands and retailers they’re actually shopping at aren’t perfect pillars of sustainability and ethics (spoiler: the perfect fashion business simply doesn’t exist).
So, Where Should You Shop?
The first question I hear whenever I mention shopping more sustainably is always “then, where should I shop?” The answer is that you should shop wherever you find things that you love and can afford. Sustainability is about how you shop, not where, and people who need affordable clothing are not the biggest overconsumers of affordable clothing: it’s the people that can afford better but want to buy large quantities rather than the best quality.
However, for those who are actively looking for new options, and can afford to spend a little more up front in order to save money in the long run, here’s two methods to find non-fast fashion brands and retailers that align with your tastes.
Method One: Keep reading. I wrote this article to serve as a guide to locating what you want, as well as how to avoid what you don’t. But remember: consuming thoughtfully is not about convenience or quickness—quite the opposite, actually—, nor does it just end at the brands you choose (you can consume thoughtfully no matter where you choose to shop.) At the end of the day, shifting away from the fast fashion mindset means shifting away from an industry that is perfectly tailored to make you want to spend with little effort, and moving into a world where you’re encouraged to learn what you want, as well as look for it on your own; to stop, think, and evaluate before every purchase; and even occasionally walk away without buying anything at all. Shopping with intention is a skill, and it’s one worth learning. However, if the idea of searching far and wide across the internet is daunting to you, I have created another solution.
Method Two: As a stylist with a wide array of clients, I am constantly seeking out and vetting new sources for cool clothes that reflect the person wearing them. I work with a variety of styles, sizes, and budgets in order to find things that work for whoever I’m working with. As you can imagine, that means I know a lot of brands, designers, and retailers, and I have to keep them organized.
I started my Where 2 Shop spreadsheet when my Bookmarks folder(s) had become overwhelming and difficult to navigate. I divided everything up by style (Basics, Minimalist, Eclectic, Feminine, Boho, etc.) and took note of the average price (from under $75 to well over $500 per item), as well as the size range (with special consideration for inclusive sizing). The result is a constantly growing list of 100+ brands at my fingertips and now, I’m bringing it to yours. Click here for lifetime access to the list and all future updates for just $1.99 (price is subject to change).
Step One: Shifting How You Shop
If escaping fast fashion seems difficult, don’t worry: it kinda is. Fast fashion has normalized a world in which keeping up with every passing fad, owning mountains of clothing, and constantly buying more is not just attainable, but expected, and it’s done so by falsely deflating the cost of clothing so drastically that many people—including those my age (29) and older can’t hardly remember that just over a decade or so, the average mall brand was selling T-shirts for $20 and jeans for $50+. In fact, the ubiquitousness of labor exploitation, cheaper and cheaper materials, incessant trend churning, and shoddy construction have made it so clothing is the only consumer good we spend less on than previous generations, while simultaneously having closets several times bigger on average than our parents did. Brands with growth in mind have adopted the super quick turnaround and poor quality control of behemoths like Zara and Forever 21, making the fast fashion model one that afflicts even the retailers we’d least expect. It’s simply inescapable if you don’t know where or how to look. So, I’m gonna teach you where and how to look.
If you’re used to logging onto sensory overload-inducing websites, knowing that everyday there will be dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of new arrivals in a multitude of different styles and aesthetics, being able to shop mindlessly for only a few minutes before filling your cart to the limit for less than $50 and receiving everything within a week or less, you’re going to be in for a bit of shock.
That said, while you may find yourself spending more money per item, you’ll see, over time, you’re spending much less overall by virtue of not constantly shopping for the sake of shopping.
Shopping with intention means not browsing shopping sites as a hobby. It means knowing what you want and searching for it, rather than searching until you find something you want. There’s five major pillars of fast fashion that create the bad habits you’re currently trying to unlearn. Even if you still find yourself shopping at H&M or Uniqlo because it’s what you can afford, these are philosophies you can apply to every purchase to still make the best choices. Before you make a purchase, ask yourself:
Is this something you can get plenty of wear out of, or is it already on its way out? This is not just a question of quality (though that is a huge part of it) but also of trendiness. Do you only want it because it’s the newest, hottest thing, or will it be a long-term addition to your wardrobe?
Sometimes, adding something to your wardrobe will ultimately help you create more looks, however, do you need it right now? As someone who spent two long years looking for the perfect black skirt (and now wears it nearly everyday), trust me: taking the time to find something that checks all your boxes is worth it, especially when the alternative is wasting money on things that ultimately won’t work out.
Another question of trendiness: is this something you actually like, or do you just want it because you saw it on someone else? How does this fit into your actual style?
It’s okay to just not buy something. Beyond that, instead of shopping in “hauls,” buying less—say, one, maybe two pieces at a time—is a great way to start being truly happy with what you have.
Once you have established what you like, it’s okay to stick to it. That’s not to say you need to adopt a uniform, but, constant experimentation can make us feel inadequate. Learn what works—what brands you like, what silhouettes look best to you, what styles you feel the best in—and build more of that rather than trying to reinvent yourself and your wardrobe every time you go to the mall.
Step Two: Identifying the Problematic Companies
The decision on where to spend your money is ultimately and entirely up to you: I make no moral judgments about where people shop out of necessity*, and acknowledge that even attempting to be shop better can be difficult for those new to the concept. This guide is meant to be just that: guidance. You can make your own decisions about what matters most to you, and whether you want to support a company based on your personal value system.
*Excessive shopping, regular “hauls,” buying a new wardrobe every season, and staying on top of every trend as it comes is not a necessity.
First, an incomplete list of some of the most well-known fast fashion companies, along with some you may not have guessed qualified as fast fashion:
Zara and their parent company Inditex’s other brands: Stradivarius, Bershka, and Massimo Dutti. H&M and their other brands including & Other Stories, COS, Monki, Arket, and Cheap Monday. ASOS, and most brands featured on their site. Urban Outfitters and most but not every brand that’s featured on their site as well as brands they own including Free People, and Anthropologie. Boohoo and their brands including Nasty Gal, Karen Millen, Pretty Little Thing, Warehouse, Dorothy Perkins and Miss Pap. Mall stores like Express, Garage, Cotton On, Uniqlo, Topshop, Mango, River Island, Victoria’s Secret, Guess, Old Navy, GAP, and Hollister. Shady but astoundingly huge online stores like Zaful, Wish, Romwe, and, the worst of the worst: Shein.
When the fast fashion (and what constitutes it) conversation comes up, I don’t blame the average person for feeling overwhelmed by just how many of these brands exist and how much harm they do. It can seem almost unavoidable, and, to be fair, it kinda is, especially if you have limited resources or time to seek out better options. For those that cannot, again, I don’t blame you. But, at the very least, you should be receiving what you spend your money on. Here’s what to look for when considering whether a company is fast fashion, scammy, or just not worth your time (or dollars):
Thousands of styles/items. Constant newness and trend churn is one of the biggest hallmarks of fast fashion, as is having hundreds if not thousands of styles available at any given time. If you’re looking at hundreds of pages of things that all seem to be in stock, it’s probably fast fashion (unless it’s vintage/resale/secondhand).
Inconsistent photography. If you never see the same model/background twice or all the models’ heads are cut off, they’re probably stealing photos. Also, if they offer several colors of an item but they photoshop the colors onto the models, big red flag.
Fabric content. Some things need to be synthetic: Selkie’s dresses and any highly saturated digitally printed garments; lingerie, swimwear, and athletic wear; items with metallic fibers; or anything with stretch, for example. But if a brand has an abundance of things that can be made from cotton, linen, or silk, but aren’t, that’s a quality red flag. Especially avoid items like summer dresses and T-shirts that contain no natural fibers. And if a garment claims to be recycled polyester, tread lightly: these items often need to be washed more, degrading the quality and releasing microplastics into our water sources. Do your research!
Too-good-to-be-true pricing. This is where things get controversial. To be frank, the absolute least you can expect to pay for an ethically made garment is about $25 for a basic cotton T-shirt. From that base level, you must remember: everything costs extra. More sizes costs extra, more seams cost extra, more fabric costs extra, even a zipper costs extra. Using a woven fabric (no stretch) instead of stretch fabric costs extra (because fit is more complicated). So, say we take that T-shirt and just sew a skirt to it to make a dress: it’s gonna cost more than $25, probably closer to $40. I say all this to say that if you’re on a site where they’ve got complex corset tops or gathered and ruched dresses for less than or even close to that $25 baseline, and it’s not secondhand or on extreme discount? It’s definitely unethical, and possibly fast fashion. Basically, if the price seems “too good to be true,” it is, and if it looks amazing in the photo but costs next to nothing, it’s probably a scam.
Lack of transparency and/or vague sustainability “goals.” Anytime I personally want to try a new brand for myself, I tend to check to make sure they have some sort of write-up about their production: where they manufacture, who makes it, how they take care to negatively impact the environment as little as possible. Ideally, these things are readily available in the “About” section of the website. But, with “sustainability” becoming such a hot topic, many brands that do not have sustainable ethos woven into their business models have started throwing together vague sections of silly platitudes like “we use eco-friendly packaging!” or “our goal is to use at least 75% organic cotton by 2025!” This is a course correction, and it’s not enough. At least to me. You are allowed to seek out this information for yourself and make your own judgments, but, if your focus is “better,” actual transparency and tangible sustainability measures is the goal. And, remember: a company that is at least trying to do good will not hide that information. If you can’t find any info on a brand’s sustainability or ethics, chances are, they’re not doing the best at either.
Zoom in on photos online (not foolproof, but if there’s issues with the fit and the construction like loose threads or misplaced seams online, there definitely will be in person)
Don’t buy from brands that do not model their items on real people or mannequins and exclusively use digital renders instead.
If a brand does not have a size chart, or has a generic one that seems lifted from Google (blown out, blurry), do not buy!
Step Three: What Are Your Options?
Shopping with intention doesn’t mean you have to switch to only buying from bland “sustainable”-marketed brands. It doesn’t mean you have to switch your entire wardrobe to muted linen basics. And it definitely doesn’t mean you have to spend $200 on a blouse. In fact, you’ll find that there’s plenty of ways to obtain genuinely good clothing at the same price point as a Zara or Aritzia. Naturally, the easiest way to do that is by shopping secondhand, but it’s not the only way.
It’s a common misconception that those who encourage buying less super-cheap fast fashion are implying that we should all switch to super-expensive high-end luxury brands like Gucci or Prada with the assumption that they’re inherently more responsibly made (they’re not). But, the world of fashion is vast, and, while many fashion companies do have shady or exploitative practices, not all evils are created equally, and there are, in fact, hundreds of other options out there to find quality clothes in your price range without supporting the worst of the worst. So, how do you find them?
Resources like Good on You, Remake, Dressember, and Fair Trade exist specifically for finding ethical and responsibly made businesses, as well as rating well-known companies so that you can be informed about harmful practices but it’s not an end-all be-all guide: you should still make a habit of checking a brand’s site for information about what they do not actively harm the earth or the people on it. And, indeed, there’s thousands of brands that are doing the right thing that haven’t made it to any database. So, how do you find them?
ALERT: If you are seeking plus-size/size inclusive options, skip to the next section header.
My favorite way to start is by seeking out marketplaces or multi-brand retailers that emphasize up and coming/independent designers. The ones at the top of my bookmarks are Verishop, Garmentory and Wolf and Badger for a wide range of styles and pricing. From the Lobby and Lisa Says Gah, for more colorful and youthful brands. Maimoun and Cult Mia for contemporary ($200-400) priced investment pieces. Folklore, specifically for African brands and Chela, for the minimalist/androgynous. And Shopbop, which is essentially a cooler Macy’s with lots of affordable styles from up and coming designers.
Now, for most of you, this will be enough. You can follow Maimoun or Wolf and Badger or any of the others on Instagram and/or sign up for emails and find plenty of designers that resonate with you. Some of you may opt to search the brands you find on secondhand outlets like The RealReal or Poshmark and I heavily encourage that, too (Check out my guide to secondhand shopping here.).
For those of you like me, however, that won’t be enough, so, let’s take it one step further.
The first thing I do when I find a brand I like, after I’ve researched whether they’re cool and complementary to my values, is follow them on Instagram. From there, I do two things:
I look at who the brand is following. Typically, they’re gonna be stockists of the brand, similar brands and perhaps a few influencers or photographers that frequently work with the brand. I check them out and follow the ones I like.
I look at the brand’s tagged photos for who’s wearing and promoting them, and follow the coolest ones to see what else they’re wearing and tagging. I’ve found a lot of killer style inspiration this way, as well as some designers I never would’ve heard of otherwise.
Step Three-Point-Five: Sizing Up
Unfortunately, the fashion industry makes it very easy for those who wear straight sizes to find unique options, and frequently leaves people with larger bodies in the dust to deal with unstylish leftovers. For that reason, I don’t recommend the above method simply because you’ll end up spending a lot of time looking at brands that may not offer your size.
Instead, I suggest starting on the influencer side, and searching first for other people with your body type. Start with a Google or Pinterest search, or a hashtag search on TikTok or Instagram for “plus-size” or “curvy” fashion influencers (I personally adore Simi Moonlight and April J), and look, not just for those who are close to your size, but who share your sense of style, or wear pieces you like (even if they don’t wear them the same way you would). Check out articles like this one by Harper’s Bazaar and blogs like The Curvy Fashionista or curated Instagram pages like The Fat Fashion Book to find profiles to follow of real women who look (and shop) like you. If you already know of a brand you like that carries your size, look it up on Instagram and see who’s tagging them, or who they’re reposting.
For those on a budget, don’t hesitate to search the brands you find on secondhand outlets that are more size inclusive like ThredUp or Poshmark. My guide to secondhand shopping has tips for finding plus size clothing, as well.
Step Four: What to Do With Your Old Stuff
The most obvious answer, of course, is to wear it: as long as an item of clothing still fits—both your body and your style—there’s no real reason to get rid of it, even if it’s not quite of the quality you aspire to—you can always replace it when the time comes. Personally, I still have plenty of fast fashion pieces in my wardrobe from years ago and I will keep them until they can no longer be worn, repaired, or repurposed.
For the things that simply can’t be salvaged, however, you have a decision to make.
Unwearable items should not be donated under any circumstance, nor can they typically be sold. There are textile recycling facilities in most major cities, but, they’re not always accessible and not all garments can be recycled to begin with.
Truth be told, there’s no one answer. But, you will find, as you shop more mindfully moving forward, at least you won’t have to ask the question quite so often.
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