The Zero Dollar Clothing Year
I’m a fan of experiments, particularly ones that test boundaries and challenge complacency. In the past I’ve hit step targets and weight loss milestones (decent), skipped eating meals out for 100 days (manageable), and waited to purchase a new cell phone for a week after the previous one died (torturous).
Last November I decided to push another boundary – no clothing purchases for an entire year.
Why I Stopped Purchasing Clothing
A few factors led to my decision to stop buying clothing for a year:
- I had recently purchased a work wardrobe and wanted to focus on enjoying these items rather than being distracted by anything new.
- I had finally let go of all of my too-small clothing and needed time to adjust to the idea that I’d probably never wear that size again.
- I was in the early stages of learning more about the dark side of the fashion industry and the impact that our purchases have on the world.
My Clothing Spending
One of my biggest discretionary spending categories last year was clothing. I was in a new career and buying professional clothing for the first time in my life, and I wanted to buy pieces that I knew would hold up over time. In total, I spent $3,069.37.
Most recommendations give three to ten percent as an appropriate amount of your net income for clothing, which would have been between $1,400 and 4,800 for me last year. I fell around six percent, which isn’t terrible but it wasn’t exactly a number I was proud of either. I hoped that the initial cost of quality, versatile pieces followed by a few years of lower spending would decrease my average.
I knew I wanted to maintain a capsule wardrobe of carefully selected items, but I needed to break through years of impulse shopping habits before I could begin purchasing clothing more intentionally.
Clothing My Aspirational Self
I’ve never been a natural at selecting clothing. I would buy almost items. They almost fit, they almost worked, they were almost perfect. Except that they were a little tight around the waist so I never wore them. Or the patterns were beautiful but the fabric was 100% polyester so I never wore them. Or they looked great for the first wear but as soon as I washed them once the shape was gone – so I never wore them.
If your body isn’t suited well to fashion industry sizing, you’re pretty much out of luck unless you find a clothing line that fits off the rack or a great tailor. Having a full closet but nothing to wear is a struggle for many of us. We wear 20% of our clothing 80% of the time – I wanted to wear 80% of my clothing 80% of the time.
Last year I focused on letting go of thin, stylish, aspirational me and only purchased perfect items for real life, casual, comfortable me. They had to fit perfectly, they had to drape perfectly, and they had to suit my lifestyle perfectly. This was not an easy task, especially considering other factors like longevity and sustainability, but I persevered!
The fashion industry has created a seamless disconnect between our clothing purchases and the manufacturing process. We see the price tag and the item, and then it’s basically a race to the bottom. The reality is that the price tag is only a fraction of the cost. We don’t just pay for clothing with our money. We pay with our time, our environment, our values, and even the lives of others that we’ve never met.
Imagine if the number of garment workers killed or the amount of water wasted or the volume of toxic chemicals dumped was listed right beside the care instructions on every garment tag. The information might not be right in front of us, but the reality is still out there.
More than 1,100 people died in the Rana Plaza collapse of April 24, 2013, and experts warn that there are still dangerous factories like it – everywhere. A typical pair of jeans takes 7,000 litres of water to produce and the indigo dye has turned Chinese rivers blue. The apparel industry is the largest employer of women, and approximately 80% of garments are made by women aged 18-24 earning low wages while putting in long hours and dealing with unsafe working conditions, discrimination, and sexual assault. These garments are then worn a few times, sit in our closets, and eventually maybe get donated. Even donated clothes aren’t reducing harm in the way that we thought – in the U.S. only 10 percent of donated clothes are resold; some countries have stopped accepting our donations altogether because of the impact on local industry. In reality, about 75% of our garments end up in a landfill or incinerator, where toxic chemicals and dyes contaminate soil and groundwater and contribute to CO2 emissions.
This is just a sampling of the reality behind our clothing – to learn more about the impact of the fashion industry, check out the documentaries The True Cost and River Blue. You might also want to head over to Fashion Revolution, an organization advocating for greater transparency, sustainability, and ethics in the fashion industry.
The objective was to avoid purchasing any clothing for one full year. No work clothes or casual clothes. No underwear, no bras, no tights, no pyjamas, no socks. I even abstained from purchasing footwear or accessories because they were too clothing-adjacent!
I’m happy to report that I spent $0 on clothing in 365 days!
I did purchase some outerwear, specifically for snowboarding, which I excluded from my challenge. The reason I created an exception for snowboard equipment was that I didn’t want to limit my experiences or activities, just my unnecessary shopping for clothing. Since this was specialty equipment that I wouldn’t be wearing unless I was snowboarding, I gave myself a pass!
Keys To Success
It was difficult at first to switch off that instinct to purchase something when it looked appealing. The habit of wanting to bring an item home right that moment or risk losing out was a tough one to break.
Stop Browsing & Unsubscribe
I had a habit of visiting stores occasionally to ‘see what was new.’ The act of walking into a warm, brightly lit, well organized space and browsing soft fabrics and interesting combinations was comforting to me.
Following brands by email wasn’t much easier. Some of them – you know the ones – seemed to have a sale every month. I struggled with passing things up, because in previous moments where I hesitated the item was sold out when I was ready to purchase.
I needed to reinforce the idea that there is an endless supply of new products, and missing one isn’t a big deal when there are new items just like it moments away. Retailers try to create a false sense of urgency by offering sales and limited edition products. My rational brain knew this, but my lizard brain didn’t. By restricting the flow of information, I made sure I wouldn’t feel like I was missing out on anything. If I didn’t see the products, I wouldn’t have to use precious reserves of self-control to resist them.
In the early days I learned that I needed to completely switch up my routine. I got off at a different bus stop and walked a different route home to avoid the shopping areas. I unsubscribed from every email and unfollowed every company on social media. I told friends not to invite me shopping. I deleted my credit card information from websites. I put up barriers everywhere I could to set myself up for success.
It was also important for me to find ways of self-care that evoked the same emotions as browsing. I needed a replacement for these activities or I would have to rely solely on willpower – side note: willpower is so not effective and we need to stop putting it on a pedestal. You are not a weak person if you struggle to change your habits – you’re a person. The emotions around an inviting space and a sense of accomplishment can be created by getting a massage, taking a walk outside, meeting a friend for a drink, or talking to a therapist.
Create A Capsule Wardrobe
For a while, I thought my problem was that I didn’t have enough items of clothing. My real problem was that I bought individual pieces rather than items that would work well in the context of my entire wardrobe. I had items that I could only wear with one other item. I had items that didn’t go with anything else. It was a jumbled mess of other people’s styles obscuring my own.
Now when I consider clothing purchases, I ask myself how often I would wear them – not per year.. per week! If I don’t plan on wearing an item at least once a week, it’s a lot tougher to justify that purchase to myself. There are exceptions, of course. I have a dress I wear for special occasions that I might put on only a few times a year. Back to the 80% rule – most of the clothing I own is worn regularly and only a few pieces are worn occasionally. I usually rotate through almost my entire wardrobe every couple of weeks. For a year I’ve worn 6 dresses about 50 times each, with a few skirts and tops or casual outfits thrown in.
A side effect of this capsule wardrobe is that I always know what to wear, I always feel comfortable in my clothing, and I have so much more decision-making capacity for the important things.
Let Go Of Your Aspirational Self
Have you ever bought an item of clothing in a smaller size, as ‘motivation?’ I have, and let me tell you – it was the furthest thing from motivating. It was guilt-inducing and discouraging. I felt like a failure every day I opened my closet and saw items that no longer fit or never fit. What do many people who struggle with their weight do when they feel like a failure? Eat more and move less. Not the desired effect!
I didn’t start losing weight until I donated all of my smaller clothing. Suddenly, I wasn’t getting frustrated with myself for not fitting into a certain garment or an ideal size. I didn’t have a closet full of items but nothing to wear. Everything I owned fit well and made me feel confident.
Sometimes my aspirational self nudges back in, but at least she looks a lot more like me.
Now that I’ve finished my Zero Dollar Clothing Year, I want to continue to develop a healthy relationship with clothing. I’m not planning on repeating this challenge anytime soon, but I do want to carry with me everything that I learned as I make more intentional choices with my wardrobe.
After a year of wearing quality fabrics, I feel more confident in my choices and I don’t think I could ever go back to most conventional brands. They fit differently, wear differently, and launder differently.
Buying used clothing to keep it from the landfill is a great way to reduce our impact. I haven’t had much luck finding garments in my size and preferred fabrics, but I know second hand stores can be a treasure trove if you have a good eye and the right body shape for it!
If buying second hand isn’t a feasible option, I think it’s just as important to support retailers who are doing it right as it is to avoid ones who are doing it wrong. That’s why I plan to continue to purchase new clothing from a select list of retailers that I’ve curated based on my values. My aim is to focus on Canadian companies who either make their garments in Canada or have strict and transparent supply chains for garments manufactured in other countries. I prefer to shop with retailers who design versatile basics, rather than attempt to keep up with trends or cycle through multiples styles every season. With smaller, local companies it’s easier to meet the designers and stay connected with their process.
Emotions & Motivation
I don’t think conscious, deliberate purchases should evoke a sense of guilt. I’ve struggled with the guilt of consumption my entire life. At first, it was self imposed because I felt wasteful with my money and our resources. Then, the internet stepped in and gave me a whole new way to feel guilty, either by comparing my spending to someone else’s or by me posting and receiving virtual feedback from others.
I know some people thrive on the accountability, but I had to stop participating in certain areas online because I’m already in the habit of making myself feel guilty enough and I don’t need laser-focused stranger guilt too. There’s a continuum in terms of spending money and I am not on the frugal end, that’s for sure! Now I try to connect with people who are only slightly more frugal than me and aren’t into shame-based encouragement. I’m not discounting motivational masochism – it’s just not for me; I prefer the carrot.
In the spirit of intentional spending, I’ve implemented a wish list system where I keep a note of any items I’m interested in purchasing. If they stay on the list for at least a month, I know they’re probably a worthwhile purchase. Here’s a sampling of my clothing wish list, which has stayed mostly the same for the entire year!:
- black dress pants
- underwear & bras
- black hoodie
- basic short and long-sleeved shirts
Clearly I haven’t built myself up into a spending frenzy during my period of self-deprivation. In these categories I currently own one pair of pants – jeans that I’m unable to wear to work, two pairs of tights that have seen better days, some threadbare undergarments, a worn hoodie, and two basic shirts that lost their shape months ago.
Knowing exactly what I do have (and wear regularly) and comparing that to my wish list has been extremely useful. Ideally, I’ll purchase these items when I find the perfect ones over the next few months. Stay tuned!
Have you done a zero dollar clothing month – or year? What do you consider when shopping for clothing?