Emily Kielthy: I gave up shopping for one year — you can too

For those of us with new year’s resolutions to spend less, decrease our carbon footprint, reinvent our sense of style or be rid of bad habits, this may be the ideal time to give fast fashion a miss
Emily Kielthy: I gave up shopping for one year — you can too

Emily Kielthy, who gave up buying clothes for one year, with some of her favourite jackets. Picture: Moya Nolan

I was in Aldo on Mary Street, Dublin 1, asking for the manager. One month previously, I had returned an unnecessary pair of over-the-knee suede boots and, on this afternoon in December 2019, I was still waiting for the €120 to appear back in my account. A 20-something at Christmas time in Dublin, I was stone cold broke.

An apologetic supervisor told me the return had been processed and sent me to my bank branch — AIB on Chapel Street — to check on the money. In the bank, a customer service agent talked me through my statement and pointed out to me exactly when the €120 reached my account. 

The embarrassing truth is that the money landed in my account one business day after I made the return, but I spent it again so quickly that I hadn’t noticed. I walked home mortified, dwelling on my own frivolity.

This incident shook me. How had I spent so much that I couldn’t even keep track of it? My shopping habits were not only placing me in mild financial distress, but also probably contributing in a large way to climate change and the abuse of millions of workers in the Third World, all sewing glitter to my party dresses for next to no money. They were probably underage; they were most definitely women. 

I had always been aware of it, but I had never assumed any personal responsibility.

I decided, walking home from the bank, that I would not buy any new clothes in 2020. Not a scrap — not even vintage or thrift shopping. Instead, I would re-wear the countless items I already owned, which amounted to more than enough for any scenario or season. My bank account needed a break and my mindset towards the material world clearly needed a drastic change.

The first thing I did was tell everyone. I called my mother, I committed to this loudly in front of my friends, many of whom didn’t have much faith in me (for good reason) and I put it on Instagram for the world (or my 300-and-something followers) to watch. 

My constant proclamations probably seemed dramatic, but their purpose was accountability. My fashion-free year needed an audience so that I couldn’t back out only a few months, weeks or hours in.

In January 2020, the decision still seemed novel. I missed the sales, but I had an interesting conversation starter and I realised that I would save up to €400 per month — which goes to show how much I was spending without batting an eye. 

 Emily Kielthy, who gave up buying clothes for one year. Picture: Moya Nolan
Emily Kielthy, who gave up buying clothes for one year. Picture: Moya Nolan

Another few months passed by with me being fascinated by old clothes in my parents' house, tailoring a dress from 2015 for my friends’ engagement party, and revelling in the opportunity to update my peers on my progress.

Simultaneously, I reached my breaking point over some long-term dietary issues. Unable to get through a day without writhing in pain, a dietitian gave me a list of foods to eliminate from my life, including everything I held near and dear — from wine to coffee and pasta to avocados. I had to give up cheese, onion and garlic; the foundations of all flavour.

Restaurants became impossible, but I needn’t have worried, because in March 2020 Ireland went into Covid-19 lockdown number one. Every social event of 2020, including a prepaid luxury holiday to Turkey, was gone. 

The young adults of Ireland began a cruel battle with mental health, induced by constant pressure to grow and succeed, while being unable to do anything due to life being completely paralysed. There were no new jobs, no nights out with friends, no fantasies of travel and emigration, no blossoming romances.

At first, lockdown brought a relief from the desire to shop. Quarantining in my parents' house, with only a small suitcase of loungewear and yoga pants, I looked on the bright side — at least now I didn’t need any new clothes for anything. 

But my peers coped with life being ‘paused’ by shopping online, while I lived the same day again and again and again, unable to even grasp at an ASOS package for fleeting excitement.

The day I bought those €120 Aldo boots was a bad day. I can’t remember exactly what had upset me, but I do remember feeling like utter crap. I bought those boots without even trying them on. 

Recognising this increasingly toxic tendency in my life had taken enormous embarrassment. I had a pattern of engaging in truly alarming retail therapy — a commonly accepted practice in which we shield ourselves from dealing with hurt or anxiety through the immediate reward of new material goods and fast fashion. 

Stripped back from this behaviour, I was left with only my own boredom, wondering when my life would return to normal. Without even comfort food as solace or a night out to distract me, I sat in my parents’ house for close to four months going insane.

Last year was nothing short of an infuriating lesson on how to live without abundance. When immediate comforts — food, clothes, alcohol, office banter — are taken away, what are we left with? 

The answer is time. Time and quiet to think about what else in life can make us happy. 

Short-term wins, professional successes, new shiny outfits and glasses of white wine so cold that condensation drips down the side can only make us happy on a shallow, surface level.

I’m not going to pretend to know how to achieve total fulfillment because I gave up the material things I love for a year, but I can tell you that when it’s all gone, you have to like and live with yourself without all the frills.

When I eventually came back up to Dublin from my parents’ house, there were outdoor pints, picnics in the park and sea swims to fill long summer days. 

Having been without joyous foods, new clothes or any semblance of a social life for so long, I quickly found that regaining time with friends and extended family in the summer of 2020, while Covid-19 case numbers were low enough, made me truly happy. 

I wouldn’t have traded it for all of the wine, cheese, garlic or bread, or Zara, Topshop, or ASOS clothes for one minute.

In 2020, my attitude toward what I wear changed. If my goal was to never go back to thoughtless spending on fast fashion, then the entire thing has been a success. Looking good might make us feel good, but shopping for the sake of shopping offers emotional reward that’s as fleeting as it is fake. 

When the high ends, we’re left chasing it again and again, draining our money and our mental state on material goods we’ll lose in the back of our wardrobes in a few weeks.

Near the end of the year, I had several tops and dresses from years ago that still had labels on them, never worn. 

With the choice of only what I already own to wear everyday, I always chose the same simple, comfortable items. Mom jeans, converse, and T-shirts became my uniform, not because they were new or because they contained emotional reward, but because they were timeless and a good authentic fit. 

Wearing what I feel most comfortable in has been the most valuable thing to come out of the year, freeing up my time and energy for the things that matter more.

Given that Covid cases are now at an all-time high, it looks like I won’t be hitting the shops anytime soon in 2021 either. As we all buckle down and isolate again, with a vaccine-driven end to this madness only barely visible in the distance, I take solace in knowing that I can definitely do without first-world amenities for extended periods of time.

Ultimately, my year of material deprivation has put my personal happiness in the spotlight. Every decision I make boils down to this: is this the best thing for me and does this make me truly happy? 

Boycotting the fashion industry was never going to be sustainable, but it will help me to make more sustainable, healthy choices in future. 

The next goal has to be setting challenges that benefit myself and the world, while remembering that life is short and that the universe will offer up its own challenges for us all too.

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