This is part of our series, Skin Deep, which explores women’s stories of self-perception, visual identity and the cultural forces that influence their choices.
Correction: An earlier version of this story included a quote that attributed the #PayUp campaign to Fashion Revolution. It was started by Remake.
Lily Fang has been blogging about fashion since she was 13. Back then, she was still layering her tank tops, mixing different patterns (like stripes and houndstooth, she said), pairing shorts over skinny jeans and donning large flower hair accessories — including one she wore nearly every day for two years.
It was 2010, and her middle school hallways were decked in a fast-fashion frenzy for brands like Forever 21, where young shoppers could score a new trendy dress for $5 or $10. “At that point, I really was not considering the environmental or ethical impacts,” said Fang, now 25. “I was just buying a lot of stuff just because it was cheap.”
Over the years, as her style evolved and she began college, Fang grew more conscious of her shopping habits — observing the heaps of clothes she hardly wore and others that still had tags on them.
“It just seemed so unnecessary,” she said. “So I really started slowing down my consumption, trying to buy things that I knew I would wear.”
In 2020, she completely ditched fast fashion, opting for “pre-loved,” or secondhand, clothes and tracking her purchases on a spreadsheet. A thrifted turtleneck and pants in rich earthy colors. Vulva-shaped earrings handmade by a small creator on Etsy. Plain white sneakers from a Canadian sustainable fashion start-up. A vintage concert T-shirt of a progressive metal band from Boston, where Fang is currently based.
Fang’s transformation highlights a growing trend among young consumers: People want to make more environmentally and socially conscious decisions. The movement, known as sustainable fashion, refers to an all-inclusive approach to sourcing, manufacturing and distributing clothing in a way that is environmentally and socially responsible — from how much companies produce and the materials they use, to factory-working conditions and wage compensation.
But “it’s not about changing your wardrobe,” said Kimberly Guthrie, an associate chair and associate professor of fashion design and merchandising at Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts. “It’s about changing your mind-set toward what you have.”
A number of reports and social media posts signal that the coronavirus pandemic has created space for more people to practice sustainability. As quarantine upended social life and retail businesses shut down, many were forced to halt their spending habits, with some wearing sweatpants, leggings and pajamas. Growing conversations about climate change and social justice issues over the past two years have also helped propel the ethical fashion market, experts say.
For Fang, this time allowed her to focus more on her blog, Imperfect Idealist, which she said aims to debunk misconceptions about sustainable fashion and advocate for it in a way that’s accessible to everyone — given the criticism that ethical clothing often comes with a higher price tag and fewer size options.
“A lot of what is truly sustainable is stuff that people without a lot of resources … poor people, immigrants, people of color … have been doing all this time,” Fang said, such as buying as little as possible, passing down clothes, altering or repurposing them and minimizing wash cycles.
“I always say that the most sustainable outfit is the one that you already own,” said Natalie Binns, a fashion buying and sustainability consultant based in London. “Overall, just thinking about what you own, do you actually need anything new at all … that’s the starting point.”
Fang traces her journey back to Dijon, France, where she moved in 2018 for a teaching fellowship at a local university. Living with sustainably minded roommates and immersed in the country’s eco-conscious culture, she said she began to reflect on her own lifestyle.
“It was in France that I started thinking more about sustainability, what I could do to live more sustainably, and how I could advocate for larger-scale change,” Fang said.
Slowing down consumption has been a key strategy to her approach. “Nowadays, I think about the gaps in my wardrobe, and I try to find that secondhand if I can,” Fang said. “But I honestly don’t acquire new things very often because, again, I don’t have a lot of reasons to get dressed all the time.”
“It’s because they’re so agile and able to react to what’s happening,” Binns said. “They were able to change their business model, almost overnight, to the detriment of suppliers.”
According to Binns, as some companies began to pivot their inventory from dresses to sweatpants and other pandemic-related demands, they abandoned their commitments to materials that suppliers had already bought, leaving factories shorted.
Poor labor conditions are a big reason behind Fang’s advocacy for sustainable fashion “because I think that’s something that’s sometimes left out of the conversation,” she said. “You’ll see brands that talk about how they don’t use a lot of water and they have really sustainable materials. But they don’t tell you anything about the people who made your clothes.”
That’s something Fang wants to see change. “I’d love to see less emphasis on consumption because … you have a lot of influencers who are kind of constantly talking about new brands and new clothing,” she said. “And while it’s great that it’s better brands, it’s still consumption.”
Rapid consumption and overproduction in the fashion industry have stressed resources and contribute to 92 million tons of waste dumped in landfills each year.
And as mounting backlogs, shipping delays and shortages are threatening the global supply chain this holiday season, a few brands are encouraging shoppers to put their wallets away, Binns said.
On Black Friday, a British clothing brand disabled its online shop and replaced it with a second-life clothing platform. One brand locked down its website. And another tripled its prices to discourage shoppers. ”There’s some amazing people out there, just kind of really trying to break the mold and send a message that you don’t need to buy, buy, buy from us,” Binns said.
There’s a misconception that practicing sustainability can mean sacrificing style, Fang said. And though she said she can see where the concern comes from, the two can coexist. “You can be fashionable without shopping constantly,” she told her followers in an Instagram post.
In fact, Fang added, it’s helped her better understand her personal style and get creative with discovering new outfit combinations from old clothes.
Her wardrobe, for instance, is sprinkled with vintage pieces. She loves wearing silk scarves, including one she thrifted in Paris, drawn to its burnt orange hues and 5 euro price tag. Her color palette is a mix of burgundy, deep greens, browns and mustard yellows. And followers have mused that she has a preppy chic style with quirky touches reminiscent of Zooey Deschanel in “New Girl.”
“Slowing down has helped me curate a wardrobe I actually like,” Fang said. “The fact that I want to keep wearing the same clothes for years and years is a testament to that.”