"Let’s just say, wearing an outfit more than once is seen as a fashion crime," says presenter Sukaina Benzakour. The 24-year-old is not alone in her opinion. Perhaps surprisingly, since sustainability seems to be on the tip of everyone’s tongue right now, one in three young women in the U.K. consider clothes to be 'old' after just one or two wears. Research carried out for Barnardo's earlier this year revealed that Brits were set to spend over $ 5 billion AUD on 50 million summer outfits that would be worn only once — on holiday or at events such as festivals and weddings.
"I only wear clothes once because usually if I have bought an outfit and gone out in it then I would’ve most definitely taken a picture in it," Benzakour says. "I don’t like to be seen in the same outfit [twice]. I guess that’s shallow of me?"
Rachel* agrees. She sells her clothes on Depop after just one wear, stating in her bio: "I love all of these clothes but I hate wearing things more than once." When asked why she hates it so much, she explains that she sells "the clothes I have photos in or that lots of people have seen me in at a big event. I like to take every chance to wear something different each time."
While the stats focus on women, this is not a women-specific issue; a point that should not be overlooked given that the growth of the menswear market is set to outperform that of womenswear over the next three years. Zack Smith, a 24-year-old entrepreneur and socialite, cites the same reasons for ditching his clothes as the women I spoke to. "With social media, it's always [about] posting new content and you don't want your followers to see you wear the same outfit," he says. "When you attend any event it's good to feel good and wear a new outfit."
Like Rachel, Smith intends to sell his clothes on Depop, with more than 20 bags of garments in his loft waiting to be listed. A quick scroll on the popular resale app reveals endless listings which reassure potential buyers that an item has only been worn once or, sometimes, just for a single photo.
While the resale market grows and many people do sell their clothes in order to make some money back, thereby giving them a new lease of life, plenty of others simply throw them away. Benzakour is one of them. "I usually just throw them out. It’s so bad of me I know but I just hate having so many clothes lying around and I know I’m not going to wear any of them. I literally have so many clothes just waiting to be thrown out as we speak," she says.
She is aware of the impact of her actions. "It’s really bad of me to just throw clothes away," she says. "It’s a waste of money and also bad for the environment as it means those items will end up in landfill. And to make matters worse, manmade fibres such as plastics or nylons don't break down nearly as easily as natural fibres, such as cotton or wool."
According to WRAP, $267 million worth of clothing is sent to landfill each year — equating to around 350,000 tonnes of unwanted garments — and Benzakour’s concerns about manmade fibres are not unfounded.
"Something which isn't considered often is that since the rise of fast fashion, when polyester fabric use exploded, a lot of the clothing which is being sent to landfill is made from polyester," says Rob Williams of clothing manufacturer Hawthorn. "Synthetic and non-biodegradable fibres, such as polyester, are used in around 72% of garments and can take 200 years to decompose. This polyester can now be recycled and reused by clothing manufacturers and other industries, so it's a real shame that garments are getting sent to landfill when they can be easily recycled."
Most of the people I spoke to for this article are intelligent and generally pretty aware that wearing something once and then getting rid of it isn’t great for our planet (the words 'admit' and 'guilty' came up a lot). So what exactly is driving such a throwaway attitude to their wardrobes?
In news that will surprise no one, social media is a key factor. "Social media plays a huge part," says Smith. "You don't want negative comments and messages from people saying, 'You've worn that top before or outfit before,' as I've had in the past."
Alice Gividen, editor of WGSN’s global trend edit The Feed, echoes this. "Once an outfit has been 'gridded', there’s a real reluctance for shoppers to share the look again," she says. "The gratification that comes with a new outfit is gone, as the compliments stop coming."
As well as creating an expectation for ever more new outfits, by sharing a look once and once only, people are feeding into a never-ending cycle. They share an #OOTD for the likes or compliments, they scroll, they see another look, they buy that look... and so it continues.
"The concept of FOMO is sort of intrinsic to social sharing – and it’s impacting clothes and shopping habits," Gividen continues. "Following the #OOTD hashtag introduces us to clothes we don’t have, or can’t afford – and fuels further consumption. As Instagram works to reduce friction on in-app paths to purchase, with the ability to now shop, checkout and manage orders all within the app, it makes buying this product easier than ever. While it is exciting that [Instagram] has democratised who actually is a tastemaker, with trends emerging from unlikely places, it just introduces us to, and creates demand for, even more product."
And it can get expensive. Research by Nutmeg found that the average cost of an #OOTD on Instagram came to approximately $1396.10. Admittedly, they reached this figure by totting up totals based on influencers’ posts, which often feature donated designer gear, but even those who aren’t on the receiving end of generous #gifts can find themselves shelling out a fair bit. "Let’s just say it's a very expensive habit. I would buy two outfits a week or even more. I couldn't even tell you how much I've spent on clothes," says Smith.
While Instagram certainly plays a part, there are psychological factors driving this hyperconsumerism, too. Professor Carolyn Mair writes in her enlightening book, The Psychology of Fashion: "As humans have developed and their basic needs are met, they experience greater motivation for belonging, esteem and self-actualisation. Fashion and fashion-related products can satisfy these needs... Comments and evaluations from others provide self-knowledge and can influence self-concept, self-identity and self-esteem." In other words, clothes are important to how we see ourselves and how we believe others see us.
Clothes can ease social anxiety, act as a canvas for self-expression and engender a sense of belonging in the wearer. And the type of people who take these benefits from clothes — people who are concerned about their appearance and being 'fashionable' — tend to be more receptive to adverts which emphasise image, and willing to pay more for clothing than others, according to Mair.
We now see more advertisements in one year than people 50 years ago saw in a lifetime, which means we’re faced with constant prompts to buy new clothes. When we give in and buy these new clothes, we get a surge of dopamine, the 'feel-good hormone'.
The habit of wearing clothes once and then chucking them may seem indefensible but when you begin to explore the reasoning behind it, a portrait of social pressure, psychological drivers and hormonal rewards emerges and it becomes easier to understand. Of course, understanding isn’t a free pass to carry on being wasteful but it should prompt us to look beyond the individual to the wider causes and potential solutions.
Wearing something once doesn’t seem so bad if it’s rented or borrowed from a friend, for instance; it’s throwing it away that’s the problem. In a shift that Business of Fashion has called "the end of ownership", more and more brands are experimenting with rental models, tapping into the growth in popularity of dedicated rental platforms such as HURR and Onloan. "Rental, resale and refurbishment models lengthen the product lifecycle while offering the newness consumers desire," said BoF, pointing to a potentially more sustainable solution than buying and chucking.
The individual isn’t off the hook here — it’s imperative that we reconsider our wasteful ways as well as questioning our motivations for buying. Yet systemic changes could help ease the overbearing social pressure to constantly acquire new stuff while allowing us to express ourselves through style and try new looks without leaving the planet drowning in discarded clothes.
*Name has been changed