Forever 21, the fast-fashion retailer that filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in late September, announced this week it will be shuttering 200 stores—a fourth of its total worldwide. For a time, founders Do Won and Jin Sook Chang, who established the company in 1984, brilliantly capitalized on American teenagers’ taste for flocking to the mall and buying the latest fashion—-on the cheap. At the company’s peak, they had a combined net worth of $5.9 billion.
But times changed. Foot traffic to malls has declined. Moreover, some Millennial and GenZ consumers are pushing back against fast fashion and looking for more sustainable ways to dress.
The appeal of fast fashion has always been the ability to dress stylishly at a low cost. But dressing sustainably doesn’t have to break the bank—particularly if you think of clothing costs on a Cost Per Wear (CPW) basis. After all, while fast fashion items may be trendy, they’re not exactly known for durability.
Here are five ways to move on from fast fashion, without breaking the bank on a CPW basis.
1. Start Buying “Investment Pieces”
If you’ve ever pulled some new fast fashion find out of the washer to find it’s shrunken, discolored, or otherwise unwearable, you know: Cheap clothing means cheap quality. Fast fashion is inexpensive up front, but it makes you continuously pay to replace defunct items, meaning your overall savings likely diminish (or vanish) over time.
Instead, start purchasing “investment pieces,” or higher-quality clothing items (which often means more expensive) for your closet staples.
If you’re struggling to justify a $100 work blazer, do the CPW math in your head: Divide the item’s total cost by the number of times you expect to wear it. For example, if you wear the $100 work blazer twice a week (or 100 times per year, assuming a two week vacation) that means the cost per wear is $1 per wear—-if it only lasts a year. Assuming it lasts two years, you’re down to a $0.50 CPW. That’s the same CPW as a $25 blazer that lasts six months.
You get the idea. A quality blazer could end up with a lower CPW than the cheap version.
2. Take Advantage of Rewards, Cash Back and Loyalty Programs
There are ways to save on more costly clothing items—-not only looking for sales but also being strategic in how you pay for purchases. Using a cashback rewards card, for example, will give you instant savings. The Citi Double Cash Back card, for example, grants 2% back on every purchase.
If you really want to maximize your savings though, you could super stack your purchase with an online cash back portal, like Rakuten (formerly eBates) which can sometimes offer as much as 10% cash back while shopping.
You could even take it a step further by enrolling in specific stores’ loyalty programs—-which are making a comeback. After a certain amount is spent at the store in a given time period, you could be eligible for a discount on your next purchase. The North Face’s loyalty program, VIPeak, rewards members with 10 Peak Points for every $1 spent online and in retail stores. Points can be redeemed for discounts on purchases.
3. Don’t Shy Away From Consignment
If you don’t frequent thrift and consignment stores, let me tell you a secret: You’re missing out.
I used to be someone who hated thrifting—not because I’m too pompous to wear secondhand clothes, but because giant thrift stores overwhelm me. After moving to New York, however, I’ve learned that they are worth the extra effort (and hour) to sort through their massive collections.
I recently bought five cashmere sweaters for $3 each. Last year, I managed to find a vintage little black dress by Dolce & Gabbana for $80—with the tags still on. If you take the time to really dig through those racks, you can find high-quality clothing for low prices. (Just imagine the CPW on those sweaters!)
4. Sell Items You No Longer Want
Fast-fashion contributes to the appalling amount of clothing discarded each year. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, the main source of textiles in municipal solid waste is discarded clothing; in 2015, it comprised 6.1% of total waste that year. Synthetic materials found in this clothing can take hundreds of years to biodegrade.
If you buy quality items, and at some point they no longer suit you, you can sell them.
Apps like Poshmark, OfferUp and Facebook Marketplace make selling unwanted goods a breeze. I personally use Poshmark, mainly for its convenience; instead of having to coordinate busy schedules with someone, I just pack up the item and drop it off at the post office instead. (This convenience, though, does cost money: Poshmark takes a cut of your sale.)
Old jeans too worn to sell? Recycle them at Madewell and the retailer will give you a coupon for $20 off a new pair, while turning the denim into housing insulation. (Look for more such initiatives as the fashion industry confronts its sustainability problems.)
5. Rent One-Time Outfits
Special events usually call for one-time outfits. As ridiculous as it sounds, be realistic: Things like wedding guest and formal gowns are often worn just once.
Instead of spending hundreds on one-time outfits—and then letting them collect dust in your closet—consider renting these pieces instead. Online services like Rent the Runway and Le Tote pride themselves on sustainable fashion. For example, a $750 Badgley Mischka gown can be rented on Rent the Runway for only $130. Most offer monthly memberships, too, which means you can swap out trends in your closet for a fixed cost each month.
Since many consumers are renting a single item, in theory, the demand for clothing production will lessen, which makes these items “sustainable.” (A new peer-to-peer rental app in England aims to take this one step further by arranging for customers to rent each other’s clothing, so no new items are bought by the service.)