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?
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.
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?