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Lucy Siegle on ethical shopping – a somewhat late response

Shirts in yummy colours

This is a post I started writing months and months ago, but then life went a bit crazy and I never finished it. I do think it’s worth revisiting, because it’s about some issues that never really go away – sustainability and ethics in the fashion industry. I was reacting to an article written by the Observer’s ethical columnist, Lucy Siegle to promote her book To Die For: Is Fashion Wearing Out the World?. The article itself has now sadly been removed, as it was a section from the book, and the copyright has expired. This is of course a bit annoying, because now I am talking about something that people can’t actually read themselves (I haven’t read the book). But hopefully the quotes and information I have included will be enough.

Anyway, as the book’s title suggests, she talks about how the garment industry has moved towards ‘fast fashion’ and how cheap and fast copies of current designer trends have encouraged many a consumer to buy lots of stuff at a very low price per item to the point where they have no idea what they own any more, or why they own what they own. Lucy (or should I say Siegle? I never know!) counts herself as one of these women, despite it being her actual job to think about sustainability, including sustainable fashion day in, day out. Methinks her behaviour may be slightly exaggerated to make herself seem more everywoman. But lets ignore that, because it’s a journalistic tool and everyone does it.

Fast fashion and it’s ethical implications is of course a very important issue to raise, and I agree with much of what she says in the article. But what struck me as extremely odd was the complete absence of any discussion of reusing clothes. Consider for example this opening paragraph

Every morning when I wake up I am confronted by my fashion history. Mistakes, corrections, good buys, bad buys, comfort buys, drunk buys: they refuse to go away. This is because my wardrobe is opposite my bed, and the door, like a broken zipper, will no longer pull across to hide the tale of excess. In the cold light of day many of the micro trends I’ve “invested in” – T-shirts with chains, a one-shouldered jumpsuit, and other designer lookalike items – merge to form a type of sartorial wasteland.

My immediate reaction was: Take it to the charity shop! If you can’t be bothered to list things on ebay, just donate! Then you don’t have a cluttered wardrobe any more and the clothes are actually getting used. You might be over the chain trend, but I’m sure there are plenty of people out there who are not so concerned with currentness and would happily fork out a few quid for it.

I think Britain is so lucky to have such a good coverage of charity shops, my parents who live in Luxembourg have nothing like that, because reusing is just not the done thing there, probably because everyone is so rich. So when my parents want to declutter, for most things their options really are throwing it in the bin, or keeping it. I sometimes even take back random crap to Scotland when I visit, with the sole purpose of donating it. It is such a great thing to be able to do that, it makes it so much easier to let things go when you know they’ll be sold for a good cause. But charity shops need donations, and they need people to buy stuff from them, or they’ll disappear. So why is Lucy not supporting this system?

Vintage shop

I’m not keen on the conclusion of the article either, which is that if you are on an average income, you should increase your clothes shopping budget:

It might seem counterintuitive in these cash-strapped times, but the questions to ask are: is our budget big enough, and are we directing that money to the right places? I would suggest that if you are on an average income, the answer on both counts is no. I would even dare to say that you should beef up your budget if at all possible, spending nearer to 6% of your total weekly income

Her point is that people should buy less frequently, and focus on buying things that are made better and last longer. If you buy less cheap stuff on impulse, you have more cash to play with for well-considered expensive stuff. Makes sense. But doesn’t explain why you should then also expand your budget.

I have two issues with her line of reasoning. The first is that she conflates stuff being cheap with it being poor quality. While it is true that a lot of H&M/Zara level stuff is indeed very badly made, this is by no means a straightforward relationship. I have things from both shops that have lasted me for more than a decade while being worn weekly at least. If you know how to judge fabric quality, stitching etc. you can easily find things within the fast fashion mountain that are well made and durable. You just have to hunt them down. (The exception is Primark. I’ve yet to see a well made thing from there.)

And conversely, being expensive is no guarantee for lasting or being more socially responsible whatsoever. For a while at uni I used to have a bit of a French Connection habit, and some of the stuff I bought has disintegrated just as quickly as stuff costing a fifth of the price. And the same applies for social responsibility. Expensive brands use sweatshops too. You do have to remember that a lot of this stuff is made in the exact same factories, by the exact same people, and the only difference is the label they sew in at the end.

Vintage furniture shop

If you want to buy new stuff that is sustainable, you do have to go out and seek that out specifically. It goes far beyond just going for more expensive brands. And you’ll have to decide which bits of sustainability are important to you. Is it organically produced fabrics? Fair trade products? Supporting local businesses? Or women’s cooperatives in the non-Western world? Because all those things don’t always go together, and it requires some time and brain space to disentangle and prioritise them all.

The second thing that bothered me about the article’s conclusion is how it just assumes we need to buy new stuff regularly. I know there are many reasons why one may wish to continue to acquire new clothes. There is nothing wrong with wanting to update one’s wardrobe and use clothes to create or maintain an identity. There is great joy to be found in clothes and in shopping. I am the last person to advocate a buy nothing stance as the only way, I love new things, unworn, used or handmade. Getting dressed for me is a creative outlet and I wouldn’t want to give it up.

But really, we don’t NEED to buy anything. For the vast majority of us, if we actually had to stop buying anything at all (including no charity shopping or sewing of clothes, which are really just other ways to feed our need to acquire new things) we would be fine for years. Maybe after 3-5 years or so some things would start falling apart and we would get to the point where we actually needed something new. But really, 21 items at £60 a go per year (which is what she is suggesting as her preferred option)? That’s a hobby, not a need.

Which is fine or course. But lets please make that explicit and talk about how we can find a balance between what we as a society still consider to be rightfully ours and what we should be doing if we *really* wanted to reduce our environmental impact.

What do you think? Is doing something better than nothing? Or should we stop kidding ourselves that we can save the world through shopping?

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Pennydreadfulvintage 26 October 2011, 9:10 am

    I would highly recommend reading the book Franca, as first of all it is really interesting and secondly it addresses some of the points you've brought up in greater detail – for instance she talks about what actually happens to some of the clothes we give to charity shops, and it isn't all going to the places you'd expect. Another point is that one of the reasons to spend more is so that there is a better chance the person who made your clothes has been properly paid. It is hard to find any true guarantees in this world, but you can be sure that if your clothes cost a pittance from Primark or H&M, then the person who is really paying is the maker. By spending more we send a message to retailers that making clothing as cheap as possible isn't the way to lure in buyers. It is all much better explained in the book anyway, I do think it is worthwhile reading xx

  • oranges_and_apples 26 October 2011, 10:57 am

    That's good to hear, maybe it was just the extract that was chosen, which I felt sent the wrong message. Maybe an introduction would have helped to put some of it in context.

    I do hear spending more being described as a solution in itself all the time, not just here, and it really bothers me and maybe my annoyance at this extract is a wider reaction to that. I just feel people think there is an easy way out and are making themselves feel good when it is so complex and I wish that complexity was communicated better by the media and the ethical fashion blogs.

    I will order the book from the library now if they have it so I can come back to it.

  • northwest is best 26 October 2011, 1:12 pm

    Interesting points, Franca. I'm not sure Lucy has forgotten about charity shops. I think her point is more that there shouldn't be so clothing produced in the first place because so much of it ends up as textile waste. Charity shops are great but there are tonnes and tonnes of textile waste generated every week. A Much of it is fit to be worn, but a lot of it is damaged/stained beyond repair. The lowest grade textiles donated to Oxfam are shredded for mattress filler or carpet underlay, but there's still a shameful amount of textiles ending up in landfill.

  • oranges_and_apples 26 October 2011, 4:16 pm

    I'm sure she hasn't, but I don't like the way the opening paragraph in this extract goes 'I've bought lots of silly things, and now I feel awful every day' when something pretty positive could come out of it in the forms of barely worn donations. There were pictures that went with that article where she was wearing things she doesn't like any more, with a big heat-style crosses next to them, and many of them I would happily have given a fiver to Barnados or whoever for.

    I do think though what is missing from the discourse around charity shops (I have never read a single person write this) is an appreciation of how closely the charity shop sector and the retail sector are connected. Certainly the thrifting-as-lifestyle trend would be nothing without people donating stuff that is still current and in good conditions on a fairly regular basis. You can bet that if charity shops started just carrying worn out, smelly tshirts, the hip middle class clientèle that has been pushing up the prices (in Edinburgh anyway) would disappear in a snap.

    Like I say, I don't disagree with anything of substance really, but maybe the choice of extract (which is all the majority of people will read) could have been better.

  • Marie 27 October 2011, 2:36 am

    Years ago people bought clothes as investment pieces and wore them literally to death. We are so obsessed with replacing with new that we have lost that value. Interesting article and post…I am all for supporting my local charity shops instead of the mass produced mall chain clothing lines.

        Marie @ Lemondrop ViNtAge
     I'm having a giveaway… 

  • Hope Adela Pasztor 27 October 2011, 3:09 am

    I love all the clothes! =)


  • Ceri 28 October 2011, 12:02 am

    Some interesting points. Yes I definitely think doing something is definitely better than nothing and perhaps the small steps will get us to where we want to be eventually. I have recently posted about my ethical fashion conundrums, as whilst calling myself an ethical fashion blogger, I still find it difficult to know what to buy for the best. Like you say, not buying anything is usually the best choice and a change in attitudes is what is needed. The difficulty is ignoring the constant marketing and advertising that we are subjected to.
    Funnily enough, I have just read the Safia Minney book, Naked Fashion which was a really interesting read but amongst all the talk of possible solutions charity shopping was not mentioned at all (although there was a bit about vintage).

    I have just set up a new platform/ community http://www.ethicalfashionbloggers.com which you might be interested in. Would love to have you join!

  • The Waves 29 October 2011, 6:29 pm

    Lots of stuff to think about here, Franca! I'm definitely drawn to thinking that we can't save the world by buying more stuff. That's just not going to happen. We can try to buy more responsibly, but that takes a lot of time and effort, because especially now that "green fashion" is sort of trendy, there's an awful lot of crap out there that claims to be somehow sustainable. Whether it is garment workers endangering their health in the middle of toxic fabric dyes, or Indian cotton manufacturers mixing organic and traditional toxic cotton in the same storages without labels, or Chinese migrant workers getting paid less for sewing Dolce & Gabbana clothes in an Italian sweatshops than what Bangladeshi H&M workers get paid, the ugly truth is that garment manufacturing is, simply put, evil and not sustainable. I recently saw an article in a Finnish newspaper regarding ethical jeans (they had several parameters, ranging from the environment to working conditions for factory workers), and the most ethically produced jeans came from – shock! – H&M. Diesel, for example, scored much, much worse, and their jeans can cost ten times as much. So I guess that means (and there are other studies that I've seen which seem to support this) that spending money doesn't mean that you are buying something even remotely ethical. The thing is, I guess, that companies like H&M have been getting so much bad publicity in the past that they have had to make some changes. Not that buying stuff at H&M is ethical necessarily, but it might not be nearly as bad as we might think.As for charity shopping, I think that it is the most ethical way to shop. Thrifting just makes common sense. Buying new can never be as ethical as buying something that's already been used, because if you buy new, you always create demand for more new stuff. And yes, charity shops rely on stuff being donated to them, but if you've ever seen the inside of a charity shop storage, you know that there is no shortage of stuff; none. If everyone stopped donating stuff to charity stores, I think it would take an awful long time before we started to have problems. Besides, maybe if there were fewer clothes for all of us to buy, we'd actually demand clothes that last rather than the one-season-crap we buy now, and we'd wear the stuff more than once.I could go on forever about this topic, but I guess what I really want to say is that buying stuff that's more expensive is definitely not ethical by any standard. We need to be buying less, and it has to be stuff that lasts.

  • Karenina 30 October 2011, 1:42 am

    Nice post! BTW, always refer to an author by her last name, unless you know her personally.

    I think Siegle might be trying to say that most shoppers need to increase their shopping budget in order to get out of the "almost always junk" category and buy at the "made to last" category. For example, I do not expect shoes that cost under $100 to last very long, and I would not hesitate to spend over $300 on a coat that I know I will wear for years to come. On a pay-per-wear basis, I know I an going to win buying the $300 coat I wear for six years, rather than the $70 coat that has a broken zipper and fraying edges after one season.
    Right now many North Americans are constantly on the hunt for a bargain rather than an investment; that badly needs to change if we are ever going to stem the tide of fast fashion and shopping addiction.
    Personally, I stopped shopping thrift stores/consignment years ago when I realized I was not only frittering my money away on $5 buys, but had nothing but a closet of poorly made crap to show for it. At least now I have allowed myself to shop in stores where I can compare quality, read labels and return unsatisfactory items.
    Just my two bits worth, great blog!

  • tanïa 30 October 2011, 11:40 am

    Hallo Franca!
    Ich finde diesen Artikel inhaltlich sehr spannend und stimme Dir in vielen Punkten zu, z.B. sage ich bei meiner Arbeit in einem Klamottenladen immer wieder: "Nichts von alledem, was ich hier verkaufe, brauchen Sie oder ich wirklich. Unsere Schränke sind voll, alles ist da. Wir kaufen zumeist etwas Neues für die Seele." Was insofern natürlich ganz offensichtlich verzichtbar ist, weil man diesen Seelen-Bedarf ja auch anders decken könnte. Es ist in meinen Augen aber nicht verwerflich, seine Seele auch mal schnell mit dem Kauf eines Kleidungsstücks zu erfreuen, bin aber gleichzeitig der Ansicht, es könnte nicht schaden, wenn eine Vielzahl Menschen etwas bedachter und vielleicht auch wesentlich gemäßigter ans Konsumieren ginge. Denn selbst mit Kleiderspenden tut man inzwischen bei dem Verbrauch an Bekleidung nicht immer Gutes, ich sah darüber schon einige Dokumentationen im TV, wie viel zu billige Spendenkleidung den 3.Welt-Markt überschwemmt und einheimischen Produktionen den Garaus macht. Dennoch sind Unmengen an aussortierter Kleidung schlicht zu gut und zu schade zum Wegwerfen, also sollte man sie natürlich in den 2nd-Hand-Gebrauch bringen, bevor man sie einfach wegwirft.
    An Deinem Post hat mich aber noch was anderes fasziniert und das ist das untere Foto. Ich war dieses Jahr nur einen einzigen Tag in Berlin, aber ich habe just da an der Stelle auch ein Foto gemacht und im Café dahinter eine Pause eingelegt. Strange, oder? ;o)

    Bildbeweis hier:

    Liebe Grüße!