A Realistic Woman’s Guide to Quitting Fast Fashion

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I no longer remember which incident it was that made me want to pay more attention to where exactly my clothes were coming from, but I do recall being suddenly very aware of what my money was paying for beyond the cute sundress I came home with. Thus began my own personal journey into the complicated world of ethical and sustainable fashion, and a decision to try, to the best of my abilities, to stop buying fast fashion.

Reader, I won’t lie, it was hard. At the time I was making very little money, with 70 percent of my income going toward rent, and working in the fashion editorial closet of a fashion magazine. I was constantly surrounded by the latest clothing that I very much could not afford, but desperately wanted (so I could keep up with the ever-changing trends), and so I bought fast fashion. A lot of fast fashion. Zara, ASOS and H&M were my everything. And although I’m now a much more conscientious shopper, I still find myself lusting after Target’s limited-edition designer collabs and the incredibly fun pieces being churned out at ASOS. But as I’ve learned, quitting fast fashion isn’t about going cold turkey or swearing it off forever. The more important thing to know is what’s behind the clothing you’re adding to cart so you can make informed choices about the things you buy.

And so, I present to you a Realistic Woman’s Guide to Quitting Fast Fashion, with advice from the experts and my tips on what worked best for me, for anyone who’s hoping to make their wardrobe a little bit more eco-friendly.

Meet the Experts

  • Amelia Trumble is the co-founder of Retold Recycling, a mail-in subscription service for recycling unwanted household textiles and clothing, responsibly diverting waste from landfills.
  • Whitney Cathcart is the co-founder and chief commercial officer of the virtual fitting room company 3DLOOK.
  • Bev Sylvester is the vice president of marketing and communications for UNIFI, the Makers of REPREVE
  • Abby Hepworth is a fashion editor for PureWow. She’s worked in the industry for more than ten years on primarily shopping-focused publications like PureWow and People StyleWatch.
woman holding a pile of clothes how to quit shopping fast fashion
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First, What Is ‘Fast Fashion’?

According to Good On You, a website that helps rate clothing brands on how good or bad their practices are for the environment, people and animals, fashion can be defined as “cheap, trendy clothing that samples ideas from the catwalk or celebrity culture and turns them into garments in high street stores at breakneck speed to meet consumer demand. The idea is to get the newest styles on the market as fast as possible, so shoppers can snap them up while they are still at the height of their popularity and then, sadly, discard them after a few wears.” There’s a classic model used in marketing that features a triangle, the points of which represent quality, speed and cost. It’s meant to demonstrate that you can only have two of the three at once—i.e., you can have high-quality clothing at a lower price, but only if you produce them slowly. Fast fashion lives on the line connecting speed with cost, opting to sacrifice quality instead.

And Why Is Fast Fashion Such a Bad Thing?

The issues with producing lots of super trendy clothing at a rapid pace fit into two categories: environmental and ethical.

Environmentally, fast fashion uses up a lot of resources more quickly than they can be replaced, which leads companies to embrace harmful chemicals and cheap materials that can more easily keep up with demand. And because these clothes are intended to be trendy, not long lasting, they’re more likely to end up in a landfill after just a few wears. “Unfortunately, [the issue is] a mix of volume and quality,” explains Trumble. “A lot of fast fashion companies can output great volumes of clothing in a short amount of time, and therefore it leads to a numbers game with more items in the market that could potentially end up in landfills. Further, a lot of these items aren’t great quality and therefore you will need a replacement sooner.” Cathcart adds, “Fast fashion relies on cheap and unsustainable production practices including the use of non-environmentally friendly fibers and materials as well as harsh chemicals.”

On the ethical front, “brands need to find ways to offer low prices, and fast fashion companies outsource production to countries with weak labor laws, leading to poor working conditions, low wages and child labor,” says Cathcart. “It’s hard to believe, but in 2023 many fast fashion brands are still using child labor, treating not only their clothes but their factory workers as disposable.”

woman out window shopping how to quit shopping fast fashion
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So What Can a Gal Do to Limit, and Eventually Stop, Her Fast Fashion Shopping?

Breaking a habit is no small feat, especially if it involves totally upending where and how you shop. But rather than try to go cold turkey, I found that taking small steps is a much more effective way to make the change. Here are some of the best tips that worked for me and our panel of experts.

Choose One Place to Start

Rather than cutting yourself off from all your favorite stores at once, pick one or two to avoid. Then really make a concerted effort to avoid them altogether. Remove their apps from your phone, delete their websites from your “most visited” short list and avoid tempting yourself with window shopping by walking or driving right on by brick-and-mortar stores without going in. After a few weeks or a month, add another brand to your blocked list and repeat. Soon enough you’ll find you’ve stopped having to fight the itch to check out their “new in” section on the daily.

Educate Yourself

Cathcart stresses the importance of doing some research on the brands you love, including those that claim to be sustainable, eco-friendly or ethically made. “Consumers are not purchasing fast fashion and contributing to environmental and ethical disasters out of bad intentions—in fact, 96 percent of Americans claim they try to behave sustainably to protect the planet, while 70 percent of Gen Z are influenced by commitments to fair wages. Many are simply unaware that their seemingly harmless shopping habits cause terrible damage. For example, 88 percent of consumers think that returns go right back on the shelf and are resold—which is rarely the case. Education is the first step to making the change.”

I’d like to add an asterisk here that says “but don’t overwhelm yourself.” Knowing how your favorite clothing brands make their products before you encounter them in stores or online will help you make more sustainable choices, but if you’re anything like me, trying to analyze everything at once also carries a risk of making me feel like I’m in an insurmountable pit of existential despair. (No? Just me? Cool, cool.) You don’t need to have mapped out the entire chain of production to know whether or not you feel comfortable buying from a brand. And if you can’t find any information at all? That’s a pretty good sign things are not up to snuff.

woman holding up clothes on hangers how to quit shopping fast fashion
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Double Check What You (or Your BFF) Already Own

If you find yourself lusting after a hot new trend online, Trumble suggests giving your existing wardrobe a once over to see what you already own that might work. “It’s a good sense check to see if you really need that additional T-shirt, or whether you already have something similar to what you are buying.” Ask your friends, too. They may be thrilled at the idea of lending you a trendy new skirt if it means they can, in turn, shop your enviable collection of handbags. Recreating an Instagram ‘fit may not require you to buy anything new at all.

Give It a Minute

I’ve often employed this tactic, whether I’m looking at a fast fashion item or a high-quality luxury piece. If you’re totally head-over-heels for something, bookmark it in your mind and then step away. Think about how you might style it with what you already own and how many different places or ways you can wear it, but don’t look it up again for at least a few days. If you’re still in love after a week (or even two) and you know for a fact you’ll get lots of use out of it, then you can go back. “Forcing myself to think on something for a week rather than impulse buying has led me to make better long-term fashion choices,” says Trumble. “If I’m still pining for an item after seven days, I’ll allow myself to make a move.”

Have Fun Exploring All the Options for Replacing Your Fast Fashion Favorites 

Shopping and fashion should be fun—it’s what drew you to those flashy, trendy fast fashion retailers in the first place. So rather than think of finding replacements for your current go-to brands as a chore, make it fun. Look up lists of “stores like [insert beloved brand here]” to find cool, new places to shop. Plus, if you’re not shopping the same big-name retailers as everyone else, you’re much more likely to find clothing that feels unique to you and that will have you hearing a refrain of “omg, where’d you get that?!” all the more often.

two friends shopping together how to quit shopping fast fashion
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What If Fast Fashion Is Really All You Can Afford?

I’ve been there, and I hear ya. When I first decided to limit my fast fashion intake, I had extremely little disposable income. It was disheartening to be unable to buy all the things I wanted, either because they came from companies I no longer wanted to support or because their price tags were so much higher than I was used to. If shopping at these stores is truly all you can afford, then your goal should be to shop them smarter. “I would encourage shoppers to focus on the material makeup and quality of a garment,” says Sylvester. “Shoppers on a budget should focus on core quality products that will last forever and can form the base of their wardrobe.” Read up on which materials are more durable (natural fibers are typically your best bet) to ensure the things you are purchasing will last for as long as possible. You can also look up DTC (direct to consumer) brands that can offer higher quality items for a lower price by cutting out middleman distributors.

Shopping secondhand is also a phenomenal way to find higher quality pieces for less, and helps keep clothing waste out of the landfill. “Check out thrift stores and flea markets,” Cathcart says. “You can find advice and inspiration on TikTok—the hashtag #thriftshop has already clocked 4.7B views!” And for those we prefer shopping online, there are great things to be found at ThredUp, Poshmark and eBay. “I’m also a fan of secondhand shopping and have bought some amazing pieces on both The RealReal and Vestiare Collective,” says Cathcart, though those two sites are definitely on the costlier side.

My last tip? Rather than engaging in frequent monthly or weekly hauls, consider saving up and shopping seasonally. You’ll have more to spend on higher quality pieces and it gives you lots of time to map out exactly what you want so you may even be happier with those pieces in the long run.

three shopping bags how to quit shopping fast fashion
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Any Suggestions for Fast Fashion Alternatives That Are Worth Checking Out?

Cathcart currently has summer sundresses on the mind. “I think Reformation makes beautiful dresses—they’re high quality and well-priced and many of the styles have timeless silhouettes that I love.” Reformation tracks and lists carbon and water footprints for every item, recycles and reuses materials and has been carbon neutral since 2015. Cathcart adds, “Many multi-brand and marketplace sites like Revolve are also now promoting sustainable brands.”

“I love Rothy’s for shoes—they’re not cheap but have amazing cost-per-wear,” says Trumble. She also recommends Boody bamboo underwear, Vitamin A for swimwear—"all sustainable and amazing quality, but shop when they occasionally go on sale!”—and seconds the Reformation shoutout. “For everyday pieces, our friends at Whimsy & Row use deadstock for a lot of their production, which is awesome to see!”

If you’re really not yet ready to break from your old favorites, Sylvester stresses again double checking the materials before you buy. “At REPREVE, we work with many ‘fast fashion’ brands to incorporate our sustainable fiber into their clothing, including H&M and Inditex. We would encourage shoppers to check the labels to see if a product uses more sustainable materials.”

As for me, half the joy of quitting fast fashion has been discovering smaller, eco-friendly brands to expand my wardrobe and pass along to PureWow friends. Right now I find Cider, Outerknown, Amour Vert, Sézane, Eileen Fisher and, my long-time favorite, Patagonia are at the top of my roster when I find myself catching that shopping bug.

Remember, quitting fast fashion all in one weekend is a pretty overwhelming undertaking. Baby steps are the way to go. Because the reality is that every little bit, even the absolute smallest step, counts.



Abby Hepworth is an RRCA-certified running coach who has worked in fashion for over 10 years. Want to know what shoes are in this season? She's got you. Need recommendations on...