We all know it can be difficult to broach the subject of fair fashion because matters of sustainability can feel personal and are often layered with guilt and anxiety, but research shows that our behaviour is more influenced by friends than social media influencers, politicians, and celebrities when it comes to the environment.

If a friend is showing off a new jacket they picked up from a fast fashion favourite, no one wants to bombard them with facts about pollution, garment worker wages, or waste and dent their spirits. It’s likely they would feel ambushed and shy away from talking about fashion again in future.

So, how exactly do you kick off the conversation and influence more environmentally-focused decisions when it comes to fashion? Use these tips to break the ice and start talking.

1. Let your outfit do the talking

In my personal experience, the easiest route into a conversation about fair and sustainable fashion has been via people complimenting my outfit and asking where I’ve bought pieces from. “Oh it’s secondhand!”, often results in requests for tips for the best charity shops or what to search on resale or rental platforms. And when I’ve named a sustainable brand someone’s never heard of, more often than not they either make a note of it or search them on Instagram and follow them on the spot.

There are no scary stats or criticisms involved but if you’re walking proof that you can wear beautiful, fun, stylish pieces without resorting to fast fashion, you lead by example, and engender a natural curiosity about a new approach to fashion. And it could have more of an impact than you think. Lecturer, researcher and fashion psychologist Dr Dion Terrelonge advises sharing information regarding sustainability that’s interesting to you, without trying to influence. “Psychological theories of change state that insight and understanding are key to promoting change,” she says.

2. Ask, don’t tell

“Ask your friends their opinions on sustainable fashion. Find out what they have tried, would try, and what have been barriers to them engaging more with sustainable fashion,” suggests Terrelonge. “Be curious, not convincing. Doing so will draw out your friend’s intrinsic motivations, and according to psychological theory, it’s this type of motivation that is most likely to lead to real or actioned change.”

3. Don’t push too hard

Asking questions rather than launching into a lecture also allows you to see whether your friend is open to a conversation on the subject in the first place. If they express no interest in the subject, Terrelonge warns you’re entering the territory of unsolicited advice, which no one likes to be on the receiving end of. “In order for your words to be truly heard, the friend needs to feel able to reject your advice,” Terrelonge says. So if they’re clearly not interested, don’t keep pushing.

4. Focus on the benefits

If your friend is interested in the subject, try not to lead with doom and gloom. A lot of the conversation surrounding sustainable fashion is about what you need to give up. With so much focus on ‘going cold turkey’, ‘doing a fast fashion detox’, ‘giving up shopping’, and ‘purging your wardrobe’, it’s made to sound punitive and, honestly, totally boring.

But instead of taking a puritanical stance and focusing on everything a friend would need to ditch, home in on the many, many benefits. Here are just a few:

  • Dropping out of the trend cycle is (after the initial shock) a huge relief, and it gives you the time and mental space to work out what your personal style really is.
  • Shopping less often could save some serious money which could be spent on experiences.
  • Buying secondhand is a great way to find unique pieces that no one else will have, on a budget. (I’ve found the most amazing floral blazer, outrageous 80s blouses, berets in every colour under the sun, and, perhaps best of all, the same cardigan Lisa Landry wears in Sister, Sister.)
  • Swapping, sharing with friends, and renting all increase your style options exponentially without having to find the extra space to store it all.
  • Mending your clothes will teach you creative skills, plus you’ll gain a new appreciation of the value of what you own.

5. Listen and understand

Fast, disposable fashion is a multi-billion pound industry. The idea that it only exists because of ‘poor people’ just doesn’t stand up. However, there are many barriers, including financial ones, to making sustainable purchases and choices so it’s important to hear your friend’s point of view.

Price, time, size availability, sensory needs, and many other factors come into play when buying clothes and sometimes the brands that are considered to be unethical or unsustainable are the ones which answer those needs. Where it’s wanted, it’s OK to point your friends in the direction of suitable alternatives, but be prepared to listen to them and understand their needs and concerns.

6. Avoid shaming

“Consider that your advice, although coming from a good place, may carry with it the suggestion that the friend is not doing enough and falling short,” says Terrelonge. Your friend could be at one of many different stages, such as pre-contemplation (not even thinking about it), contemplation (starting to consider it) or action (beginning to make changes but unsure where to start), she explains, so it’s important that you accept where they’re at, as any friend should. Remember, it’s your role to reassure, not shame.

7. Don’t shy away from the realities

While being gentle with your friend and avoiding judgement or shame is the way to go, it doesn’t mean you have to shy away from the details. Sometimes people will ask me, “well, how bad can it be?” or “what’s going to happen in future?” While I’m sometimes tempted to sugarcoat it or brush it off, it’s an opportunity to relay the reality of the situation. We are in a climate crisis, we are over-consuming, and people are suffering as a result.

It’s not about throwing everything at someone within the first 30 seconds, but if it’s an ongoing conversation, it’s absolutely OK to tell the truth. After all, pretending this isn’t happening doesn’t help anyone. However, be sure to follow up with positive, proactive steps they can take, both individual and collective. Knowing there is meaningful action to take part in, and a friend to rely on, can help with feeling defeated.