If you are somewhat thoughtful and conscious of the choices you have (and many you don’t have) around how and where you spend your money, you might agree that conspicuous and excessive consumption is making our planet far less habitable and endangering lives of humans and animals it sustains.
I’m not going to pretend that buying locally produced, organic, fairly traded, good quality ethical goods are affordable for the majority of the population…..which is part of the problem, but what I can do is share some books, some ideas, and hey, you could chose just one thing to work on yourself.
Spend less, and chose carefully seems to be the mantra to adopt, if you have the means to do so.
I stepped back from dependance on fast fashion a few years ago now, motivated by a limited budget, lack of choice. I had access to my nanas sewing machine, some fabrics and notions to get me started sewing my own. I was interested in reducing the impact of my lifestyle on the planet, this is a comfortable idea…however, I still love clothes, the making, experimenting, and I still *want* more. But felt there was little impact I could really make, particularly with regards to my spending power.
When I had stopped working 9-5, even longer ago, I was able to get out to the op shops for clothing before I could make my own. Once you can move beyond the grim reality of (most of) our collective global / Western fashion habits, it’s fascinating as a problem. Here are some ‘best practice’ ideas that I have employed over the years, many require a change in thinking, an investment of time, and learning new skills. Lots of them are quite trendy now, the ideas, maybe more than the actual practice…
Use what you have and learn to care for it well
All that washing, tumble drying and leaving on the floor will wear your clothes out faster. Check the care labels on your clothes, you can probably wash your clothes in cold water, and if you can dry your clothes in the air inside or out, they will last longer, all that heat will perish elastic and eventually breakdown textile fibres. If you only wash clothes if they are soiled, rather than after every wear, they will serve you for longer. If you have a good pair of shoes, keep them clean and have them re-soled.
Make do and Mend
But actually learn to do it well, can you replace a button or repair a split seam? Take up a hem? Make sure you have the basic kit, a needle and thread, scissors somewhere at home. Then familiarise yourself with a few simple skills, you can find tutorials in books or the internet, or even ask someone you know to show you how.
Save to spend more on better quality
This can be a deal breaker for some, I’ve lived on a tight budget and had to go without and make do with second hand, I rarely buy anything new.. The thing is sometimes, those second hand garments may just last you longer than fresh of the rack. So look for quality pieces, second hand, and if you can afford to buy new, chose the best quality you can find, and if you have time, research those brands and find out who are doing well by their workers and the environment and give them your support (you can try this article for a place to start if you are in Aotearoa).
Think beyond the current season and trend
There are loads of ‘in my day’ anecdotes about clothing, for instance; there was that once or twice yearly shop for the family, that new winter coat, the new shoes, those long awaited upgrades to the wardrobe. The current fast fashion consumer model is based on FOMO (fear of missing out) and our desire to have it all (aspirational celebrity culture) and have it now. Think about – and look for – classics, tap into what you love to wear, what speaks to your heart and take care of those clothes.
Love your clothes
Having a few special pieces in the wardrobe used to be a real thing, the ball dress (or prom dress) maybe a loved pair of slippers, that really cozy winter jumper. I can look back and remember items of clothing that I loved as a child, I have one pair of jeans in my life at the moment, Lee jeans, I really love them, I have had them for ten + years (I’m also not a big jean wearer). If you own clothes that you love, maybe they bring back memories, or maybe they are just really comfy, maybe they just speak to your soul, you’ll probably care for them, and want to wear them often. Not leave them languishing in a bottom drawer or back of the wardrobe…
Learn to make a garment
There is only one way to really appreciate the work, skill and time involved in making clothes, and that is to make something to wear. There is little instant gratification from sewing. It is about the process, the materials, applying skills, learning and problem solving, then (hopefully) loving the result, flaws and all. If you don’t love it, maybe you’l learn from it. When you have given many hours or many days (ahem, weeks, months…) to a garment making project, you’re less likely to wear it while cleaning the car or toss it if a seam pops or a button falls off. You might even hang it up with pride at the end of the day, maybe, even, soak out a stain…
Buy second hand and preloved
Massive amounts of textiles are going into landfills every year, choosing second hand, breaks that cycle, and lets clothing give for longer, slowing things down a touch. The challenge is of course, that in recent years, lower and lower quality textiles and garment design and manufacturing has limited the lifecycle of garments. It’s hard to change that by the time the cheap t’shirt is in your hands. So, chose carefully.
Like buying second hand, clothes swapping has been around forever, and people have been doing it on the down-low as a way to get by, connect with their community and, circumvent the the mainstream fashion industry, intentionally or not. You could search for something happening in your city, or start your own, whether it’s just a few good friends or a large scale event, it is an effective way to ‘shop’, for clothes and have fun.
Fashion with a narrative
I came a cross this as a term in Lucy Siegle’s book, To Die For, is Fashion Wearing out the World? Like most of the antidotes to Fast Fashion, it’s not a new idea. It basically means, forming a connection with your clothes, like ‘Love your clothes’ above, it’s about reconnecting ourselves with our most intimate possessions. It’s not so much the “OMG I found this on sale for five bucks!” wear it for a summer and biff it. Siegle was specifically referring to ‘ethical’ fashion buying, choosing, say, jandals made from old tires, fashion items with a backstory, like garments made from repurposed textiles. Something I’ve noticed when I’m around real fashion and textile lovers, is that they know about the clothes they wear, it might be that coat a nana wore, or that pair of boots shopped carefully for, happily taken out each winter, or maybe a stunning second hand dress worn to weddings or work do’s. It might be that amazing second hand or op shop score, your size, style and a bargain price.
Want more to digest?
So here’s a reading list to get you started:
Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion by Elizabeth L. Cline
From a US perspective, Cline unpicks the fast fashion system and the unrelenting consumption of “cheap”, poor quality clothing, starting with her own wardrobe. You’ll read about the acceleration of the design – manufacture – on the rack process of fashion, where earlier generations may have planned with anticipation a buy from the new winter or summer season clothes, Zara, at the extreme of fast fashion these days, can complete the process of design to the store rack in two weeks (pp 99).
So what has changed? Consumers used to understand the composition of the textiles that made up with garments they were buying, quality, was upper most when buying, you would shop for the best you could afford, so you would go for the fabrics that would last, like wool, cotton or silk. Around the middle of last century, new developments in plastics and man made fibres changed clothing, while they were adopted by consumers, the new synthetic textiles never quite held the same cache as the luxury natural fibres, nor did they wear well. And when we are talking about fashion we are also talking about the possibility of purchasing status, the idea of crossing class barriers, at least on the surface.
In her book, Cline tries to understand the fast fashion machine through approaching manufacturers in China, this is an eye opener if you are unfamiliar with the back story of clothing. Still worth a read if you are… Cline talks about the obsession with buying and maxing out visas on shopping and the influence of Celebrities and television shows like Sex in the City.
But it’s not all bad news, Cline also connects with people pushing back against the machine, the make, alter and mend movements, slow fashion and designers at the forefront of future fashion.
It is a good read!
To Die For: Is Fashion Wearing Out the World? by Lucy Siegle
From a British perspective, this is a really comprehensive read, covering the scope of the fashion system, from the designers, makers and textile growers/manufactures. In the chapter, Fashion Crimes and Fashion victims, Siegle shines light on child labour and debt slavery behind some of our cheaper and more glitzy garments, that sequinned top? Those babies are hand stitched to create that design..Home workers are the least protected of the masses of people exploited by the rag trade. Work is outsourced to them via factory managers, and they do not enjoy any labour or health and safety benefits (if any) factory works may receive, such as minimum wage and overtime guidelines. Siegle takes us through a day in the life of a garment worker…
In Shop and Toss, Throwaway Fashion, Siegle brings up the uncomfortable question of what happens to the clothing we discard? Whether that be in the bin, via a ‘recycling’ network, like clothing bins we have here. Basically, our low quality cheap clothing becomes someone else’s problem, not the, ah, romantic ‘giving it a new life’ we might assume.
Siegle asks if there is a pace for Eco fashion in Big Fashion? Is it just an oxymoron? Are there any corporations making real changes in design and manufacture? What about ‘natural’ textiles, like cotton, leather and other animal products? Steal yourself for what really happens to animals, so we can enjoy a little furry glamour. Then there is the traditional and most common production of leather using Chromium, which rivals oil based vegan leathers when it comes to environmental damage and cost of human lives. It’s messy and complex, but with more information we can make better choices.
Siegel concludes with stories of people pushing back, looking at a range of designers and concepts to encourage consumers to be more thoughtful and how to buy better.
A little closer to (my) home, Clare Press writes from Australia, with another perspective on the whole mess. She brings to the table psychological aspects of fashion and consumption, how and why we love clothes, and why we can’t seem to get enough. From Conspicuous consumption and celebrity fashion, to Sumptuary laws established by an elite who understood the power of scarcity and symbolism in maintaining class and control.
Press takes us on a journey of how we, generations ago, would acquire the clothes we needed to live our lives, sweatshops are not really new, poverty is not new, and what we wear has always communicated to others our place, our aspiration and our creativity. In the chapter, Shopping, Seduction and Mr Selfridge, the shift from producers to consumers, and the luxury of time and money to shop for the sake of shopping has taken us to where we are now.
Press also takes us back to the growing of plants for textiles, the human and environmental cost and the challenges faced by designers who are going transparent and taking responsibility for the process and the people behind what we wear. We can learn about Buy Nothing New Month, and other fashionistas challenging the status quo and asking consumers to think about why and how they wear clothes.
Yet another great read!
As I noted above, many of the suggestions for challenging Big Fashion and changing our attitudes are not new, grandparents and great-grandparents could probably teach us all a lot, funny how things come full circle.
Do you have any ideas or good reads around the fashion system and consumption? I’d love a new recommendation!