How To Talk To Friends About Sustainable Fashion

By Lauren Bravo

Do friends let friends buy Boohoo?

We are living in divided times, and I don’t just mean H&M t-shirts. As more of us make the effort to change our fashion consumption, it’s fast becoming a social minefield. 

You want to school your mates on the true cost of their Zara habit, but you don’t want to be the eco-bore who makes them feel terrible about their new outfit. You feel exasperated when they show off their latest haul, but you know that a scornful lecture never changed anyone’s mind. 

Or maybe they assume you’re judging them, when you’re not in the slightest. “Don’t ask me where it’s from!”, I’ve had more than one friend yell in panic when I complimented their dress. As though I might up-turn the brunch table and storm out at the word “ASOS”. As though I hadn’t just ordered eggs and halloumi, like the world’s worst amateur vegan. 

“It can be tricky,” says Becky Hughes, a reformed fast fashion-lover who’ll you’ll find on Instagram as @beckymaryhughes. “When I was living with friends, there was a time that they were hiding their fast fashion orders from me.”

It’s especially tricky, I think, because enabling each other’s shopping habits is culturally hardwired into womanhood. In a capitalist society where we’ve been carefully groomed to equate ‘buying stuff’ with self-care, it’s become the job of a good mate to cheer on every purchase. We know the drill: when a friend says “should I buy this [madly impractical/overpriced/doesn’t even quite fit] thing?”, we’re supposed to reply “do it! Dooooo it!” without a moment’s pause. We’re supposed to sweep away their doubts with a tidal wave of ‘Treat yo’self’ gifs and heart-eye emojis. It’s in-built social code, and it needs rewriting.  

Not just for the good of the planet, but for our own good too. Because those of us who’ve made the switch from fast fashion know that while it might feel like a noble sacrifice at first, in time there are all kinds of individual benefits to a slower pace of consumption; financial, mental, emotional. We know that on the whole, slow fashion makes us feel better in our clothes and happier with our wardrobes, so of course we’re evangelical about sharing that good news. Perhaps it’s really the job of a good friend – a better one – to remind us that we cannot shop our way to self-worth. And PS. you have three near-identical dresses in your wardrobe already. 

But first, education. It’s easy to believe that by this point, ‘everyone’ knows about the industry’s myriad problems, but the truth is, the message still hasn’t permeated beyond certain bubbles and demographics. In 2019, a survey by Oxfam found that 53% of UK adults were not even aware that fast fashion is damaging to the environment.  “Encouraging fast fashion-loving friends to engage with these issues starts by making them aware of the issues,” says Becky. “It’s important to educate, and encourage people to change their opinions when presented with new information.” 

Her approach involves recommending slow fashion advocates for friends to follow on social media, so that they can learn the facts in their own time, in a neutral space, rather than feeling ambushed in a group chat. Instagram educators like Aja Barber, Venetia La Manna, Mikaela Loach and Talia contributor Sophie Benson are a great place to start, as are podcasts like Common Threads and Remember Who Made Them. And it’s hard to imagine anyone watching seminal 2015 documentary The True Cost without pledging to shop differently in future.   

If your friends won’t come to sustainable fashion voluntarily, you might have to bring sustainable fashion to them. Rosette Ale, AKA @thriftqueenlola, founder of reworked clothing brand Revival London, uses social media as a way to spread the word without needing to have those awkward conversations one-on-one. 

“Sharing graphics and easily digestible information is a good way to engage fashion-lovers with issues,” she says. “If you make it simple, clear and concise, anyone is able to understand the information and therefore will feel empowered to make better decisions. I’m not a fan of long captions (and I don’t think most people read them anyway) so I’m all about graphics and images.”

With a grid full of incredible thrifted ensembles, Ale also takes a ‘show, don’t tell’ approach. “My current strategy has more of a focus on making secondhand fashion look stylish so that my followers give it a try, rather than telling them off and shaming them for shopping fast fashion brands.” Behavioural psychologists call it positive reinforcement. We might think of it as the carrot versus the stick, in which the carrot is a cute outfit that just happens to be ethical. As Rosette says, “People won’t listen and change their behaviour if you always have a negative standpoint and don’t offer easy step-by-step solutions for positive change.”  

Which is not to say we need to operate on a ‘good vibes only’ basis. The climate emergency isn’t going to wait for billion dollar brands and billions of consumers to come gently around to the idea. And let’s be clear, outrage is an entirely reasonable response to the brutal injustice suffered by garment workers in the claws of mass consumption. 

But while hard truths can be an important catalyst for change, there is a difference between guilt, which is associated with a certain action or behaviour, and shame, which is believing that we ourselves are inherently bad. The former in small doses can be a motivating force, the latter can be the opposite. As the almighty Brené Brown puts it, “Shame corrodes the very part of us that believes we are capable of change.” Remember, it is the system that is toxic – not your friends.

There’s an extra layer of shame at play when we factor in privileges like size, budget and lifestyle. It is crucial to recognise that this isn’t a level playing field, and not everyone can make the leap from fast to slow fashion easily. Personally, I try to seek out and share brands who specialise in inclusive sizing or affordable pricing, so that I’m not just sympathising with the problems, I’m offering solutions. 

In every case, it helps to make your friends feel seen. If they’re a label lover with a penchant for bodycon, sending them links to your favourite genderless line of minimalist beige separates ain’t going to cut it – but Vestiaire Collective might. “One friend sent a link to a fast fashion site asking if we liked a top,” recalls Rosette. “I simply said that it was cute but recommended Depop as an alternative.”  

Becky finds it best to start with baby steps, rather than expecting anyone to go cold turkey overnight. “I recommend to friends that they unsubscribe from fast fashion emails. It is easy to do and helps us cut ourselves off from the subliminal influence of fast fashion and resist the temptation to be hauling a load of clothes we don’t need just because we’ve been sent a ‘one-off’ discount code.”

*Guilty*,” she admits.

Let’s face it, most of us have been *guilty* at one time or another. But joining the conversation around ethics and sustainability can make us feel vulnerable and open to criticism, as though every aspect of our lives is suddenly up for scrutiny. Oh, you’ve quit fast fashion but you still drive a car? Oh, you boycott Boohoo but still use Amazon Prime? Oh, still haven’t weaned yourself off cheese, Lauren? There persists a culture of ‘catching out’ anyone trying to make better choices, as though hypocrisy isn’t an inevitable part of being human. As though we don’t all have to start somewhere. 

But I like to think that as recovering hypocrites, we’re better positioned to help others see the light than an eco-saint in a sackcloth shirt who has never set foot in Primark.

“As someone who has knelt at the altar of fast fashion in the past, I have previously felt I needed to be ‘perfect’ in order to be accepted into the realms of sustainability,” says Becky. “But it’s simply not true. It is okay to not be perfect, but you can still advocate for change. Whether you have been buying fast fashion for the last five years or the last 20, it’s never, ever too late to join this movement.”

She is proof that leading by example can work. “Now friends will message me things like, ‘I nearly bought this top today, but your post made me stop and think’ or ‘I signed that petition you shared’,” she says. “It’s amazing to think that just two years ago I was also hauling clothes and not treating them with the respect they deserve.” 

As the late, great and very persuasive Ruth Bader-Ginsberg once said, “Fight for the things that you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you.” 

Making slow fashion look like a joyful choice rather than a miserable prerogative might be the best way to recruit more people to the team. After all – as we know only too well – influence can be a powerful thing. 

Lauren Bravo

Lauren Bravo is a journalist, digital editor and copywriter who writes for the Guardian, Refinery 29 UK, Grazia, Stylist, Cosmopolitan, the Telegraph and more. She is the author of How To Break Up With Fast Fashion: A guilt-free guide to changing the way you shop – for good.