Why We Should Stop Buying Clothes We Don't Need

06/01/2012 17:10 GMT | Updated 17/04/2012 14:55 BST

I have a confession, and this is it: I buy too many clothes. I will also admit that more often than not, I will buy lots of cheap clothes in one foul credit-crunching swoop. I will also buy something just because it's on sale. And yes, this means that sometimes I don't even like it that much. Bad I know, and the worst part is that the rush is temporary and I will normally end up wearing hardly any of it.

In keeping with the theme of 'New Year, New Me', I aim to turn over a leaf and begin a new chapter by predominately cutting down on unnecessary clothes purchases. To incentivise myself I began with a wardrobe spring clean.

It was then that I realised just how much of my wardrobe I actually wore, and how much was gathering dust and had been forgotten about completely. Then I felt a bit sick. An evening top comprising of about a thousand delicate hand-sewn sequins was just wedged down the side of my wardrobe which had probably taken several days to make. I had bought it at a jumble sale in Hackney and had never ever wore it.

Before long I had bin-bags of garments piled so high that instantly I felt a huge pang of guilt. In these bags were clothes I'd immediately disliked when getting home and looking in a different mirror, clothes will labels still on, clothes still in the shopping bag and clothes I had bought because they were on sale and didn't bother to return because they were so cheap. Half of this mountain of material I managed to sell on Ebay and the other half I took the clothing bank. The sheer mass of material that I lugged out of the house was quite frankly appalling.

I didn't quite realise the impact of how this common consumer behaviour of 'always wanting more' could be so damaging to the world around us until I spoke to my old school friend Polly, who studies Fashion.

I was shocked to hear just how much it takes of not just manual labour but how an unbelievable amount of resources such as water, petroleum, time, electricity, space is needed just to make one item that can end up going straight to a landfill site. I've heard horror stories from Polly's various internships where she saw first-hand how companies would cart a truckload of bags, shoes, clothing to a dumping ground if it didn't sell. We hear about this constantly in the news, stories of retailers just throwing away garments that have used so many of the planet's valuable resources, for ultimately, nothing. Surely the production lifecycle can be better planned in order to avoid rendering such materials useless by such simple ways: recycling, reusing or reselling. So why is it still happening?

To find out a bit more on the subject, I asked Polly a few questions on the subject which you'll find below. Polly is currently in her final year of the University of Glamorgan, studying Fashion with a fresh and investigative eye on the industry, all-knowing of what actually goes on behind the scenes and about the full production journey, from the manufacturing to the marketing of clothing. Her interest and passion for raising awareness of the overconsumption of clothes led her to start the fashion logbook 169days which documents what she wears each day, with a ban on purchasing any new clothes to show how it is possible to reuse the clothes we already have, with the hope to kill off this innate need to satisfy our cravings with impulse retail fixes.

What made you realise the overconsumption of clothes was something important/needed to be addressed?

Well, as a third year university student my dissertation was looming and so was graduation. I was struggling with not only a topic but also in all honesty falling out of love with fashion, after multiple internships I was bitterly disappointed by the myopic nature of it all. So I started to think about the things that bugged me about the fashion industry and on top came the fast paced, unforgiving nature of the way society consumes clothes.

Now I am no angel, I have pandered to the fashion ideals, I have shopped in Primark and I have bought things I never wear but I began to think about this...Did you know that Oxfam estimated in 2009 that one in 10 of us only wear 10% of our wardrobes and it is likely 2.4 billion garments are unloved and unworn? Why do we all buy so many clothes and why do we feel we need to? So I decided to write my dissertation on the topic and focus my final major project on addressing the over consumption of fashion and the future of the fashion consumer mentality.

So, tell us a bit about your blog and why you're doing it?

The blog 169days is one of the visual and research aspects of my final major project, which is a discussion of how can the tools of promotion can be utilised to shape the way society relates to the consumption of fashion.

The blog is in essence a logbook, charting what is worn each day, but taking into account, where it is from, what it is made of and how long have I owned it - which is intended to address the history of clothes and learn to appreciate them more. The average number of times a garment of clothing is worn in before it is thrown away is six times. And we now buy on average 4.1 garments a month. I wanted to challenge this average and so within the 169 days there is also a ban on the purchasing of fashion, old new or otherwise.

On a personal level I wanted to challenge myself. I was going to have to start practicing what I had been preaching.

What shocks you the most about the retail industry at the moment (i.e. sweat shops/ impact on environment)?

As a fashion promotion student you have to know the full process of clothing production, from design, sourcing raw materials, through manufacture, distribution, promotion and retail. God knows there are multiple cans of worms when you look in to topics such as 'who sewed these sequins on my £3 top' or the water consumption of the fashion industry or even the pressure on cotton production but my focus is on the second half of this chain, what shocks me is the relationship we have with our clothes; this may seem odd but let me explain. I remember when I was younger having tantrum after tantrum over a pair of red polka dot leggings, they were my favourite. My Auntie Liz bought them for me and I wanted to wear them every day. I can't really think of any clothes in my wardrobe now that I would want to wear every day. Can you? What is interesting is that in 2011 it was estimated that 1.72 million tonnes of brand spanking new clothes was purchased and yet at the same time almost the exact same quantity ended up in landfill. I recently completed a focus group with twenty odd second year fashion students. They all had to do a questionnaire asking them about their outfit of the day.

Similar to my blog they had to identify where it was from, when they bought it and what it was made of etc. Interesting the majority of the garments had been bought in the last three months. BUT here is the catch, there was a final question: "how long do you think you will have this garment for". Nearly every single answer was a variation of "forever." How can a society purchase every three months and keep all of what they buy forever? This indicates that society is perhaps uneducated in the relationship we have our clothes, it is undeniable that we should grow tired of clothes or they go out of fashion, everyone loves to have something new but we must be responsible for this and deal with it in a considered and environmental way. I wonder if when they bought those garments did they ask themselves the same question: "will I wear this forever?"

Do you think there is a psychological part involved in purchasing decisions in shops? Should be more wary when navigating around stores as we can be influenced into certain actions?

Psychologist James Williams said in the 19th century that humans have an inherent "intent to acquire", suggesting that the human race has been preprogrammed to shop. This may well be true but it is also important to consider that the highly commercial world we live in is also extremely influential. We tend to assign esteem, identity and status on to physical things and fashion is an easy way to do this. Fashion can change the way you feel about yourself, a new Little Black Dress (LBD) can instantly boost your confidence, but why? And, for how long? Perhaps because you are having a bad day and you need something for that blind date on LBD is known to be slimming, it has connotations of glamour, and maybe if you wear it you might meet that perfect man? These subconscious associations can be attributed to why you felt the need to but that LBD even if you already own six or seven. Retailers undeniably pump huge sums of money into creating the perfect space to spend. Hollister and Abercrombie are known to pump that infamous fragrance, All Saints keep their lights low and M&S have wide walkways all in order to attract target customers and keep them in their shop. The more time in a shop, the more likely a customer will buy.

Similarly the spend at which retailers rotate stock is phenomenal, the ability to have a lead time (time between design and delivery) of 15 days is quite implausible due to the amount of ecological resources that would indirectly and directly effect and yet it happens all over the high street. The continuous changing stock creates a buzz for consumers, and offers them new goods to purchase every week.

I do think one should be wary about navigating around shops but I also think it is important to enjoy the shopping experience, if we cut down on the amount we consume then those times we go should be enjoyable, don't frantically buy something in your lunch hour...consider, wait and plan when to go shopping for that something that you will cherish and will wear for a long time.

What are your three top tips for people wanting to cut down on buying clothes?

Now not everyone is a whizz with a needle and thread and I am a firm believer in there being a place and time for customisation so these three tips are easy and do not involve searching for a thimble:

A. Spring clean your wardrobe. This will ensure that what is in your wardrobe are all things you wear, but you are also likely to uncover some old gems you have forgotten about. Also if you find items you don't want please donate or recycle.

B. Don't go near the shops. If you can't see that red sequin crop top you won't want it - which is better for all concerned!

C. Visit your parents. Some of my most loved pieces are from rifling in my Mum and Dad's wardrobe.

169 days blog will run from the 12th of November to the 28th of April. The length of Polly's final major project.