Before COVID-19, Stephanie A.*, a corporate lawyer from Washington, DC, considered herself an impulse shopper. Her office was located close to the city’s premiere shopping district and she often found herself popping into H&M or Ann Taylor to browse for clothes, leaving with a new, office-appropriate skirt or dress.
But after five months of stay-at-home orders, A. has successfully reigned in her spontaneous approach to shopping. Not only does she no longer have the temptation of stores beckoning on her way home from work, A.’s mother passed away in April due to COVID, which caused her to seriously reflect on her life. “It made me realize that my impulse buying was me trying to find some kind of joy or happiness whereas now, I feel, what do clothes even matter when we’re surrounded by death all the time?”
“Coronavirus has forced us to be more intentional about every aspect of our lives,” she continues. In tandem with the pandemic, the moral reckoning caused by the George Floyd protests affected A. deeply, and she now makes the effort to research every company she intends to purchase from, prioritizing Black-owned and sustainable businesses. “It was always my goal to purchase sustainable clothing but now that COVID and the protests force us to reflect on how our actions impact vulnerable people, I find myself thinking more, ‘How I can try to do as little harm as possible?’”
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In fact, “do as little harm as possible” has emerged as a crucial guiding principle since COVID-19 appeared. From wearing face masks to prevent the transmission of infectious droplets to protesting against the disproportionate number of Black people killed by the police, we’re currently living through a moment in history where it’s of utmost importance to consider how one’s own actions affect those around us. This moment is one of dual pandemics—COVID-19 and anti-Black racism. “As Black people, we’re all we have,” emphasizes A. “We can’t really rely on the government or other groups to support us, so it’s important that we support ourselves.”
While A.’s pandemic-induced volte-face feels warranted given her circumstances, she’s far from the only recovering shopaholic who has used the pandemic as an opportunity to reflect on how their consumer tendencies intersect with their values. According to a study by global professional services company Accenture, 83% of Canadian consumers are limiting the number of times they shop and 45% report making more sustainable choices when shopping. “The notion of disposable clothing and buying a different outfit for every occasion has certainly gone out of people’s minds,” Kelly Askew, Managing Director of Accenture Strategy in Canada told Retail Insider.
Melissa Mendes, a producer at an ad agency in Toronto, describes her pre-pandemic shopping habits as “average”; somewhere on the spectrum between shopaholic and Benedictine monk. But after the pandemic threw her job security into question, Mendes refrained from spending money on anything besides rent and food for the entire months of March and April.
Mendes’ fear of losing her job did not come to pass, but her period of financial uncertainty allowed her to completely reevaluate her spending habits. Now, Mendes will only purchase an item of clothing if it adheres to three qualities: versatile, timeless and compelling. Using this criteria, she’s been able to pare her shopping back significantly and has only acquired only three new items since March—a Maryam Nassir Zadeh bag and two vintage dresses from Etsy.
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“I used to treat shopping as a coping mechanism for whenever I feel anxious,” says Tatiana Tenreyro, a culture editor in Brooklyn-by-way-of Puerto Rico. “If I was going out at night with my friends, I needed an outfit that made me feel good, so I spent hours shopping online, basically spending a lot more money than I should have on clothes. Now it feels strange to even think about that.” Tenreyro cut back her emotional spending and now only buys staple wardrobe items she is confident she will wear multiple times. But what began as a conscious choice has turned into a necessity—she recently found out her contract position isn’t being renewed and estimates she’ll need to cut down on spending even further.
It was #BlackoutTuesday that galvanized Kirstie Gerrard, a stay-at-home mom from Thousand Oaks, California, to shift her shopping habits. “I feel like public policy has really let us down and the government isn’t necessarily doing enough to lift these communities up so if we can each contribute by using our purchasing power, then I think that’s really important.” The pandemic has lessened Gerrard’s urgency to acquire clothing and she now takes the time to research each item she likes to find out if there’s an ethical or sustainable alternative. Currently, she’s in the early stages of setting up her own online boutique dedicated to stocking exclusively POC- and women-owned brands.
Rachel Romu, a model, musician and accessibility advocate with Mast Cell Activation Syndrome from Thunder Bay, Ont., isn’t sure when they’ll ever shop again. As an immunocompromised person, they’re simply not comfortable going into stores not knowing how many people have touched the clothing, and with their tall, willowy frame, shopping online isn’t a reasonable option. While supporting Black-owned businesses was always on their agenda—the last purchase they made was five pairs of stilettos in different colours by House of Hayla to wear for modelling gigs—Romu notes that shopping can be a form of escapism. “Shopping can be an avoidance-type pattern that stops you for recognizing what is going on, whether it’s instability in your own life or instability in the larger community due to injustices that folks face,” they say. For many of those who previously shopped to avoid the realities of the world, that’s no longer an option. The heightened awareness of how police violence disproportionately impacts Black people’s lives has strengthened many white people’s ability to sit with discomfort, Romu suggests, and they are beginning to unravel the ways in which they’ve been complicit with racism.
“At the beginning of the pandemic, it seemed anecdotally like there was a big shift going on with the way people consume clothes,” says Elizabeth Cline, a New-York based journalist and sustainability expert whose latest book, The Conscious Closet, provides the building blocks to achieving an ethical wardrobe. “But according to the US Department of Commerce, retail spending was back up to pre-pandemic levels in July so I actually question that there’s been some wholesale shift away from fast fashion towards ethical consumption.” In other words, conscious consumers newly armed with spreadsheets listing Black-owned businesses may not be quite enough to create lasting change in an industry well known for its tenuous relationship with accountability. (It was only February 2020 when Prada agreed to put staff through racial equity training after an ill-advised window display featured items depicting racist blackface imagery.)
Cline’s predictions mirror a study by consulting firm EY suggesting that nearly half of Canadian consumers expect their spending to return to normal over the next few months. 25% of consumers are expected to be “cautiously extravagant” in their purchases in light of the ongoing pandemic, 23% will opt to stay frugal and 15% will continue cutting down expenses. The smallest number of consumers—only 9%—intend to go “back with a bang” and increase their spending habits once the throttle of the pandemic releases.
What Cline has found heartening, though, is the upwelling of consumers willing to go further than examining their own habits and engage in political activism bargaining for change. On #BlackoutTuesday, when countless brands posted Black squares on Instagram as a way of silencing themselves to make room for Black voices, many consumers refused to be placated by an empty gesture and instead demanded companies demonstrate a tangible commitment to change by opening their pursestrings and donating to anti-racist causes.
Other initiatives, like the 15 Percent Pledge, which asks retailers to commit to stocking Black-owned designers as 15% of their inventory, and the #PayUp campaign, which pressures brands to pay suppliers for stock they had already ordered, further demonstrates that consumers are beginning to fight back against the firmly-entrenched racism and inequality in the fashion industry.
“I think the lasting impact of the pandemic is going to be people examining the systems and structures behind fast fashion and calling them into question,” says Cline. As far as outcomes go, this one isn’t so bad.