When I committed to only adding five things to my wardrobe at the start of 2023, I wasn’t particularly daunted. If anything, I was worried it wasn’t ambitious enough. After all, in my role as British Vogue’s sustainability editor, I’m always telling people to buy better and buy less—and being allowed five new pieces sounded pretty generous to me.
Why five? Well, according to a report by the Hot or Cool Institute published in 2022, everyone in the world needs to reduce their annual fashion consumption to that figure for the industry to stay within its carbon budget—ie reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by the amount needed in order to keep global warming to 1.5C—if nothing else changes.
Small items such as underwear, hats, scarves, socks don’t count, but bags and shoes do. Gifts count (“the person who bought it is tricking you, because they’ve bought above their own five [items],” jokes Lewis Akenji, Hot or Cool Institute’s managing director), and so do second-hand items, even though the latter can have a lower footprint than new pieces (more on that later).
Judging by the reactions of every single person I told (which ranged from a nervous “Good on you” to “I definitely couldn’t do that!”), I quickly realised the challenge—dubbed “the rule of 5” by Tiffanie Darke—wouldn’t, in fact, be a breeze. From the outset, I wasn’t being honest with myself about my own shopping habits. You see, despite writing about fashion’s many, many problems day in and day out, I am not immune to the power of the marketing machine and the constantly changing trend cycle. Shocker: I, too, am tempted to impulse buy when I see someone in a cute dress on Instagram, or when, say, everyone starts wearing red (influences we often find ourselves absorbing subconsciously).
Working in the industry also brings with it a whole host of events, along with the unspoken pressure to present yourself in a certain way. With fashion month looming at the start of the year, I was experiencing the old-age cliché of feeling like I had nothing to wear. Blame it on the street-stylers, but everything in my wardrobe felt too “normal” for show season.
That’s where I made my first (and biggest) mistake: giving in to my angst, and my whims, way too easily. After seeing several colleagues in the office wearing denim maxi skirts, I thought it’d be the perfect staple to add to my wardrobe. So, I took the plunge and bought Raey’s version, made from organic and recycled cotton. Around the same time, I spotted a pre-loved tie-dye turtleneck from Proenza Schouler on Vestiaire Collective—a piece I thought would go perfectly with thwae skirt, and with jeans. By the end of fashion month, I’d also bought a leather skirt from Iris & Ink (side note: while leather may have a large carbon footprint, this was a classic piece that I knew would be long-lasting).
After buying three of my five things so quickly, I reassured myself that these were cornerstones of my closet that I could bring out again at the end of the year, and—importantly—for years to come. It’s fine, I thought, that leaves me with two more pieces I can invest in for the warmer months.
But when I was lucky enough to be invited on a press trip to visit a Pandora factory in Thailand in April (full transparency: yes, I do fly but try to be as conscious about it as possible), I realised I didn’t have a suitable swimsuit for the hotel pool, having not gone anywhere tropical for the past three years. So, I bought a classic black swimsuit from Mara Hoffman, made from Tencel (a sustainably sourced wood-based fibre). A sensible purchase, I thought.
Do swimsuits count in the five-thing rule? “It depends on whether you want to count it as sports equipment,” Akenji, one of the report’s lead authors, tells me. Doing a few laps around the pool before retiring to a sun lounger doesn’t exactly sound like a sport to me—so I duly note it down as my fourth purchase of the year.
The final addition to my wardrobe was by far the best: Gabriela Hearst’s Demi bag—an accessory I’ve had my eye on for a very long time. Since the summer, I’ve already used it countless times (check my Instagram page, and you’ll see me carrying it with pretty much every single outfit). It’s versatile, it’s timeless—the ultimate investment.
But of course, that meant that I’d used up my five items by June, forcing me to go cold turkey for the rest of the year. In many ways, this was a useful reset. It meant I no longer found myself mindlessly scrolling on the likes of Net-A-Porter, Matches and Farfetch, or Vestiaire Collective and eBay. When I had a big event to go to, I rented a dress or wore something already in my wardrobe.
Nonetheless, I did still feel conflicted. Knowing that independent and eco-conscious brands are struggling in this challenging economic climate, I felt guilty for not supporting them with my wallet. Given that all my purchases are made with sustainability in mind, whether new or second-hand, shouldn’t that count for something?
“(The five things) is really meant to give guidance,” Akenji says. “This is the problem with averaging even more sustainable garments with a lower (carbon) intensity do not get a pass.” As for second-hand clothing, it’s difficult to work out how much lower the footprint for that might be, considering there are so many variables. “There’s no fixed time after (which) we call it second-hand; it’s the change of ownership [which] tells us nothing about the longevity of the product itself,” he explains. “I wouldn’t consider it a full item [in the five things] but I also wouldn’t say it’s 50 per cent. It’s really up to your judgement—you allow yourself a little more allowance.”
Impressively, Akenji only bought one pair of jeans this year (“looking at my wardrobe, I realised I could go several years without buying anything”), but emphasises that the five things stat isn’t meant to “guilt trip” anyone. Instead, it can help us question the way we consume clothes, both on an individual and collective level. Considering that the average person in the UK buys 28 items a year, according to a recent report by WRAP, any reduction is a start. Meanwhile, policy change remains the biggest tool in slashing fashion’s carbon footprint—meaning, in theory, the five item allowance could actually increase in the future.
As for me, I’ve learnt a lot from this year’s challenge. Firstly, the importance of staying true to your personal style when trying to buy less. I am very much a dress person, so the separates that I bought earlier this year naturally don’t get as much wear. Seems obvious, but as someone who’s always hankered after that perfect capsule wardrobe—the white shirt, the jeans, the blazer—it took this year’s challenge for me to get clarity on that.
Secondly, the amount that we buy per year will undoubtedly change over time. Like many people, I didn’t make many purchases during the pandemic, and have, quite literally, grown out of the pieces that were previously in my closet. Treating the five things stat as gospel doesn’t necessarily take into account our changing bodies, or the baseline number of clothes that we had to begin with.
Going into next year, I still plan to keep my five-item allowance in mind, while giving myself some flexibility if I do buy second-hand items, or want to champion a brilliant, eco-minded designer. After all, we need more of these businesses moving forward, not less. As they like to say in the environmental movement, it’s all about progress, not perfection.
This article was originally published on British Vogue.