There’s a term for people like me*. Once we learn something, we can’t unlearn it. It’s like when I discovered one of my all-time favouritist pleasures included unsustainable palm oil. I just couldn’t consume it anymore. Ditto fast fashion.
The system by which we consume is broken. We are encouraged to get out there and buy, buy, buy. Those fortunate enough to get their first jobs, know the exhilarating rush it is to be able to get out there and participate in consumption, tracking down the latest micro-seasons trend, bringing it home and wearing it until the next new trend comes along. Consumption has become a hobby, its become a panacea for people’s feelings (hello, I’m looking at you ‘retail therapy’), a mindless habit, a solution for problems that we could otherwise use imagination, ingenuity or borrowing, a product of thoughtlessness (looking at you disgusting baby wipes and disposable nappies) or laziness (looking at you fast food). Everyone is at it.
It wasn’t always like this though. For most of human history people had little and what they did have was passed through generations, reused and repurposed. Clothing and most goods in people’s homes were expensive. At the end of the lifecycle, because the goods were made of natural products it could be broken down.
Prior to fast fashion ramping up in the post war era, around the 1960s, the methods of production, but also the living memory of the need to be frugal with money and resources meant that people had less. These generations (let’s face it, probably women) had skills to make things last, they aired their clothes, they wore clothes multiple times before washing it, they could repair or alter clothes. Make do and mend was the motto. Although I certainly don’t envy these women on many fronts (including early washing machines or that medieval torture scrubbing device) I do envy them the capabilities and self-reliance that the production system encouraged. Things were made by hand and often close to home (or even in the home). The cost of production was borne close enough that the cost of purchase was acceptable, particularly if you knew you were going to keep that coat for a decade.
I couldn’t find a figure for comparison in Australia, but in 1930 the average American woman owned nine outfits but now, women in the USA buy on average 60 new items per year. Australians are the world’s second largest consumers of textiles, buying on average 27 kilograms of new clothing and other textiles each year, most of which is produced abroad, and contains synthetics that leech out through the wash, or cannot break down in our lifetime. It’s estimated that there has been about a 400% increase in the consumption of clothing over the last two decades globally. Hidden from this is that most garment factory workers couldn´t hope to afford the garments that they produce on the wages they are paid. Not to mention the horrifying conditions. Also hidden is that fashion is the second biggest polluter….
The thing that is really heartbreaking in all this is of the 100 billion garments manufactured, with the attendant environmental and human toll is about 50% of these goods will be disposed of within the year. With that largesse, charity stores cannot possibly get this out their doors (because everyone’s already buying more new clothes), so what happens – third markets (closing down local producers) or landfill (where the synthetics prohibit them from breaking down). And don’t think that the majority of luxury branded items are any better than high street cheap brands. They know that they need to keep up with the demand and that reducing costs, whilst keeping higher prices that used to indicate quality and care in the supply chain, means more profits.
When I first started working, I had just returned from my first stint in Tonga, a formative experience where I understood for the first time deep in my bones that not all people lived like where I grew up in suburban Victoria. I had taken mostly op-shopped clothes with me to Tonga, to fit with the dress code that had been described to me by well-meaning previous travellers to the Island Kingdom. I lived within my means and bought little. When I returned to Australia, I was a nomad for a while, interning first in Western Australia and Sydney, and had no money for anything.
Come 2012, and my first, full time, fully paid job. I had it made. All of the sudden I felt a subtle pressure on me to “look the part”. Confession, I did not continue my op shopping ways and neither did I carefully peruse the racks for the “perfect capsule wardrobe that would last forever”. I had money, but not enough to be fussy, or so I thought. I ended up consuming a lot of fast fashion, which was “good enough” for me. I became known for having “lots of clothes” and that I had “good taste”, see early notes on this blog for evidence. I loved the self-expression that fashion afforded me and pursued this to the detriment probably of my living space, my storage and to the environment. I was limited in many ways by clothing companies that would sell to me which had shady AF supply chains, but I hadn’t done all of the reading on that yet. I read about the awfulness of the Rana Plaza disaster, but felt confused about what it was that I could do about it.
It was not until that I really deeply understood my feminism (I’ve always been a feminist, but it wasn’t cool to launch at your friends in 2003 for participating in the debutante ball, and I only really came to grips with active liberation feminism later) that I understood that in order to be a proud feminist I had to go beyond what it meant my own narrow life, and think about how my actions were continuing to perpetrate harm on other women.
Couple this with the massive amount of personal upheaval that putting our household on a low-waste pathway and there was a lot of thinking to do indeed. In 2017-18 I consumed all the books and articles that I could that talked both about the environmental and ethical impacts of modern capitalism, and came to the conclusion that I would work to not be complicit. It’s a process and I’m not going to have a tiny jar of waste anytime soon, but it really made me think. It’s made me read and reflect on minimalism, fashion, the food industry and a simpler life. Like most, I started with looking at the stuff I had, and slowly but surely, we’ve been repurposing things that no longer serve us, replacing things we do need with better alternatives and generally slowing our roll on consumption.
When I have seen the outpouring of stuff in the latest wave of Marie-Kondo cleaning (the first wave was impressive when the book hit the Australian stores too), I fill myself up with compassion for these people who are inspired about their living spaces. I have been there, looking at the piles of stuff, for me it was clothing, but who knows what the poison is for others. My worry is that people are focusing on the decluttering but not the process and the system in which their clutter was produced. There is no point in doing a weekend of decluttering, just in order to find more ways to consume more stuff. I wish that social juggernauts like this educated people on the whole lifestyle of their things. If we all slow our roll on consumption at the beginning and ask for better transparency about where the “things” come from, who made them, from what and how is the waste managed, consumers can push back on fast corporations to change their practices.
What I haven’t figured out yet, is how do I reconcile my love for clothes and accessories, with the feeling of self-expression it gives me, with all of this? I’ve got part way there, but I’m still not immune to the gentle nudge toward consumption. At this stage, its meant taking much better care of what I do have, constantly checking in on myself “I have plenty” and being really thorough in when I assess my upcoming needs. I allow myself to browse op-shops freely, but I have removed shopping as a leisure activity. When something breaks or becomes unrepairable, I check in, whether I “need” to replace it or whether I “want” to replace it. If it’s the former, I research the best possible option. Then I use my own personal “bird cardigan” measure. Once, I had procrastinated on buying a lovely red bird cardigan, not once but twice, but it haunted me. It eventually came back on sale, and I got it and have loved it since 2014. If I’m going to buy something now, it has to both pass the ethics and environmental test, but also the bird cardigan test. All of which is to say, this shit is hard but essential.
What can you do?
- Take better care of what you do have, learning skills to keep the things you do for longer.
- Be considerate of where your waste goes, and picture that moment of disposal next time you pick something up in the store.
- Take a look at the brands ranking on Good on You, before purchasing (there is literally an app for that).
- Unpack whether you actually need a thing, or whether its about self-expression, feelings, status or boredom. Go do something fun instead!
Great books you could read:
- Wardrobe Crisis by Claire Press: it was the first time that I really understood the enormity of the supply chain and the many many issues with it. Just so well researched. I felt a bit sad about it all at the end, so have a good fluff book to enjoy afterwards. Sad is ok though!
- Give a Sh*t: Do Good. Live Better. Save the Planet by Ashlee Piper: A really aces book that introduces sustainability and ethics in a way that doesn’t feel overwhelming.
- Slow by Brooke McAlary: unpacking what it means to live slower and reject the pace. It wasn’t all relevant for me as a DINK but I really appreciate that she’s out there thinking about how we can reject the Joneses. I listened to her podcast in my 2017 Tonga stint and I reckon it may have hyped me up for the low waste challenge.
*If anyone can tell me what the term is THAT WOULD BE GREAT! I’ve read something somewhere about this in a psychology article but I couldn’t re-find it.