Confessions of a shop-a-holic – the beginning of the ugly truth

I wish I could look as beautiful as Isla Fisher in the midst of a credit fuelled fashion spiral. I wish my own addictions to shopping saw me prancing along fifth avenue in New York, toting designer bags bearing contents that would inspire the envy of Miranda Priestly. It would be nice to have a Hugh Dancy to support me along the righteous path of a shop-a-holic in recovery. But my own tale of shopping addiction isn’t as cinematographically perfect as a Hollywood movie.

Isla Fisher looking picture perfect in Confessions of a Shopaholic film (2009)

You might be thinking: at what point does shopping online become an addiction? Where does one draw the line between being a fashion savant with a budget, and being a hoarder of wasteful textiles taking advantage of that ASOS free delivery membership in an unsustainable, unethical and, on reflection, unhealthy way? Full disclosure: I am a self-acclaimed shopping addict in recovery. I am privileged enough that my actions have never been able to bankrupt me, mostly due to the liberal returns policy of the online outlets I shopped from that made sending back £300+ worth of clothes the easiest thing in the world. But I intend to write on my experiences with fast fashion. An irresponsible and unsustainable habit that I suspect I sustained as a by-product of other mental illnesses. The cocoon of mostly cheap, polyester garments and plastic shoes I surrounded myself with when in the throes of emotional crisis. And the final realisation that I needed to quit fast fashion forever.

The ‘quitting cold turkey’ isn’t an approach I would advocate to everyone – boycotting is a privilege I am well aware of. But for me it got to a point where shame facedly lugging a 10 kilo H&M return to our local post office on an almost weekly basis was becoming untenable. I had no need for the clothes I was buying and, as it turns out, when I tried on the items I had no desire for them either. I was shopping to fill a hole that opened in my pre-teen years and grew wider with every disappointing purchase, every instance of low self-esteem, every social media post sporting streamlined models who made a career out of being considered beautiful. If even the women who worked tirelessly to conform to the fashion industry’s impossible standards weren’t “pretty” or “skinny” enough to survive the editing/photoshop studio intact, how was I supposed to sit comfortably in my skin? I can’t even imagine the level of body dysmorphia felt by people who don’t conform to the whitewashed or gender binary standards of the industry. I had at least been told growing up that my anglo saxon features – my light hair and blue eyes – were acceptable. Empty diversity campaigns and tone-deaf self-love campaigns have never been enough to diminish the resounding message that fast fashion sends to all folx struggling with their body image: buy this, it will make you feel better. Personally, it took me a while to figure out happiness doesn't come neatly packaged in an ASOS parcel.

Image Source: The Lovepost, Illustration by Rin Carin

It’s almost embarrassing to admit that it took numerous articles highlighting the real human consequences of fast fashion - the women who were working below minimum wage, the exploitative and unfair working conditions, the environmental repercussions of a fashion so fast that next seasons big trends lasted for one editorial cycle before began discarded – to force me to change my habits. I knew all of the above long before I was able to make the change. I knew that the industry exploited my weakness and relied on me to continue making the conscious decision to put a few moments of a shopping-fuelled endorphin rush above a growing aversion to the fast fashion brands I loved. This knowledge sat uncomfortably with me, but was outweighed by the discomfort and lack of confidence I felt about my own image. I, like many, was content with my complacency, happy to remain ignorant of the terrible practices I suspected but hadn’t had confirmed. It was the growing light shined on the unethical and outright disgusting business practices of certain retailers that finally encouraged me to put my cheaply-made-espadrille clad foot down.

Reaffirming this lifestyle change was the growing realisation that fast fashion contradicts any efforts to practice environmentalism, feminism, and anti-racism There is a post circulating on social media from @remakeourworld calling out brands for their performative support of the BLM movement. 

@remakeourworld post calling out fashion retailers for coopting #BLM

These brands have co-opted the BLM hashtag whilst failing to provide their garment workers, who are often black, brown, or POC, with a living wage. @remakeourworld has similarly called out celebrities for their ‘feel-good philanthropy’ drawing attention to the murky ethics behind businesses that brandish celebrity names but don’t share the principles the celebrities seemingly call to on social media. Closer to home are places like Boohoo, who own Nastygal one of the cheap brands I doted on, taken in every time by their near constant 40-50% discount. 

These culprits are aptly named, as Boohoo’s lack of transparency on their environmental policies, their appalling track record of labour treatment past and present, is enough to make one cry; similarly, Nasty Gal is downright nasty. Boohoo of course posted the mandatory BLM support posts, but there is no credit due here. On one post, customer service went into overdrive addressing complaints for delayed orders or faulty items. On another, complaints about the exploiting of workers both in the UK and abroad go unanswered. Empty words are met in the comments with the derision they deserve, but worryingly the rest of the posts attract the likes and 😍 comments  of their 6.6m strong following. 

Nasty Gal homepage on the day of publishing

Check out Nasty Gal's home page on the day of publishing this piece. Everything is designed to lure you in, and I've been ensnared many a time by the false prospect of scoring a valuable deal. This pretty-in-pink veneer has come to stand for everything that I now avoid. It was the decision to cut out these kinds of unethical brands from my life that incurred the domino effect that sees me where I am today – advocating the manifold merits of abandoning fast fashion for good, trying to avoid a holier-than-thou tone in my pleas to all to reconsider that basket full of Pretty Little Thing, or just one more Miss Guided crop top. Admittedly, I have a decade’s supply of clothes stored in my cupboard to shore against my ruin – that is, a relapse into fast fashion.  

Although my own social media has become an echo chamber for sustainable fashion, independent retailers, and ethical lifestyle advice, venturing outside of this cultivated zone bursts this bubble. The hordes of people flocking to Primark on its reopening last week was a depressing reminder of the reality. The sustained popularity of fast fashion exists outside of my own personal lockdown, propped up by people just like me. As lockdown rules relax people are bouncing back into unsustainable habits, and who can blame them? Fast fashion is made easy, alternatives made to seem out of range in terms of both price and possibility. I hope to prove that the opposite is true by sharing my own story. 

I’m going to continue tracing my reflections in a series of articles, rambling on about the ups and downs of my transition from fast fashion to independents, the remnants of addiction that still linger when I dwell for a couple of minutes too long on the targeted ads blasted at me from all corners of social media that, like 

a devil on my shoulder, whisper constant reminders of an aggressively unsustainable and irresponsible past relationship to fashion. Pending instalments will include exposés on fast fashion, the potential utopic future of independent fashion retailers, serviceable advice on how to identify and curb unhealthy shopping addictions, and more. 

I look forward to baring all on this journey of shame, low self-esteem, confidence, and eventually (hopefully), empowerment. 

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