A few years ago, after watching The True Cost and learning more about the truth of the fashion industry, I made an earnest commitment to beginning my slow fashion journey. At the time — like most people who have recently decided that they want to take a more conscious approach to their style — the majority of my closet was fast fashion. There were both impulse purchases and some very well-worn garments.
Whenever I opened my closet and looked at my clothing, I had a constant and unshakeable feeling of guilt.
This guilt stuck around every time I got dressed, every time I was out and someone asked me where I got my shirt, and every time I got a compliment about something I was wearing.
I felt guilty that I was wearing clothes made in an industry rife with suffering. I felt guilty knowing that I had worshipped these brands a few years before. I felt guilty that I was not wearing my values – my past decisions made me feel ashamed.
What is eco-guilt and sustainability shaming?
Now, I can look back and acknowledge that those feelings of shame and guilt are called ‘eco-guilt’.
Eco-guilt is the feeling of guilt, shame, remorse, or regret that you experience when you feel you haven’t made the most ethical or sustainable choice possible.
This article by The Kit explains that eco-guilt is very common among “ethical” consumers because they tend to shoulder the blame for systemic issues such as environmental degradation and unjust labor practices. They try to contribute to the solution by making lifestyle changes, but end up feeling guilty when they make a purchase that is less than perfect.
Often, this eco-guilt stems from a fear of being called out for not doing “enough”, which is known as ‘sustainability shaming’.
Sustainability shaming prioritizes perfection over progress. It is fueled by social media and the illusion of perfectly sustainable lifestyles, and it refers to the act of criticizing or shunning an individual for making a lifestyle choice that may not be the epitome of sustainability.
But, there are many reasons why someone may not be able to make the “perfect” choice when it comes to slow fashion. This could have to do with financial access, health conditions, where they live, lack of sizing, and the list goes on.
Sustainability shaming creates an exclusive movement
Not everybody has the privilege of choosing the most sustainable and ethical alternative, every time they purchase something, but that does not mean they should be excluded from the slow fashion movement.
Slow fashion is about a lot more than just changing where you buy.
It is much more about redefining your relationship with your clothes, avoiding overconsumption, and learning skills that allow you to make the clothes you have last for much longer.
The act of shaming people for their consumption choices – or past consumption choices – is inherently divisive and creates an exclusive movement, in a space where we need as many people to show up as possible in all of their imperfect ways.
Instead of shaming, we should always be aware of our privileges and celebrate the different ways people can show up, which will make others more likely to make shifts in their own lives too.
So, what should you do when you begin your slow fashion journey and feel the feelings of eco-guilt creeping in when you look at your closet full of imperfect choices? First and foremost, resist the urge to do a closet purge.
Resist the urge to do a closet purge
In a Who Are You Wearing? podcast episode with Aja Barber (as well as in her episode on the Conscious Style Podcast), Aja mentions that she is always suspicious of people who start their slow fashion journey with a closet devoid of fast fashion pieces, because up until a few decades ago, everyone was shopping from those brands.
How is it possible to have no imperfect purchases? Well, it probably involved an almighty closet purge.
At the beginning of my journey, there was a point where I considered doing a closet purge – it felt like an opportunity to get rid of the eco-guilt all in one go. But I had to stop and realize that this out-with-the-old-in-with-the-new mindset is fueling fashion’s waste crisis.
Clothing purges are disposability culture disguised as conscious consumption.
People are getting rid of pieces that are still perfectly wearable, just because it is as convenient to replace those with new items. Even if all the pieces they are replaced with are from ethical and sustainable brands, this is still perpetuating the systemic issue of overconsumption and waste.
The bottom line is: the most sustainable garments are the ones you already own. So, love them to bits and make them last.
Aside from avoiding unnecessary wastage, actively working through your eco-guilt by continuing to wear – and love! – the fast fashion pieces you bought in the past is an important step in your slow fashion journey because it is an embodied acknowledgment that slow fashion does not look the same for everybody. Everyone should be welcome in the movement, regardless of how many pieces they own from sustainable and ethical brands.
Turning eco-guilt into positive action
Elizabeth Cline, activist and sustainable fashion author says it best, in this article by The Kit: “We should expect less of ourselves in terms of where we shop, and ask more of ourselves as citizens. There’s so much we could be doing outside of our lives as consumers.”
This is an exercise in redirecting your energy – endless guilt about past fashion choices doesn’t change anything, but doing something different might just.
Here are a few ideas for how to turn your eco-guilt into positive action:
- Continue to educate yourself: A continuous learning journey will deepen your commitment to the causes you believe in, within the slow fashion community, and will allow you to better understand the systems at play as well as your role in them. This Conscious Life & Style article shares a whole lot of free resources – from courses to podcasts and newsletters – where you can learn about sustainable fashion.
- Learn a new skill that allows you to define yourself beyond your identity as a consumer: A lot of eco-guilt comes from us perceiving our purchases as “wrong”. But, slow fashion is about a lot more than consumption. So, try learning a new skill like how to repair your clothing or a few ways to make your clothes last longer.
- Sign a petition or join a grassroots organization: Learning about ways to extend your slow fashion advocacy beyond just the clothes you wear is a powerful step in letting go of misplaced eco-guilt, because it allows you to participate in collective action and larger reform in the fashion industry. Signing a petition, joining a grassroots organization, or getting involved in a campaign such as the #PayUp Campaign are great first steps to extend your impact and become a fashion activist.
We can give ourselves grace by accepting that these systemic issues are not our fault, but we can also take responsibility and do what we can within the system.
Learn the joy of outfit repeating
As I’ve mentioned, truly sustainable fashion is about getting creative with what you already have. This means focussing on developing your personal style. One way to develop your style is through outfit repeating and resisting the urge to buy new things.
Outfit repeating allows you to discover what pieces you cherish most in your wardrobe, which pieces are most versatile, and allows you to learn how many different ways you can creatively wear one piece of clothing.
As soon as you dictate what you wear, you dismantle trends and consumption cycles – it doesn’t get much more sustainable than that.
Here are just a few joy-filled, proud outfit repeaters to follow on Instagram if you are looking for some inspiration for how to style the clothes you already have in different ways:
So, it’s time to get creative and challenge yourself to fall in love with what you already have. You can let the eco-guilt overwhelm you, or you can lean into it, acknowledge it is there, accept that you can’t change what happened in the past, and choose to do better now that you know better.
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About the Author
Stella Hertantyo is a slow fashion and slow living enthusiast based in Cape Town, South Africa. Stella finds solace in words as a medium for sharing ideas and encouraging a cultural shift that welcomes systems change and deepens our collective connection to the world around us. She is passionate about encouraging an approach to sustainability, and social and environmental justice, that is inclusive, intersectional, accessible, and fun.
Stella holds a B.A. Multimedia Journalism from the University of Cape Town, and a PGDip in Sustainable Development from the Sustainability Institute. She currently works as a writer, editor, and social media manager. When she is not in front of her laptop, a dip in the ocean, or a walk in the mountains, are the two things that bring her the most peace.