One of my nicknames used to be Camiseta (meaning top or shirt in Spanish), because as a little girl I was not able to pronounce the word correctly. This made my grandma laugh every single time when she would dress me up, so she decided to call me that way – for me to learn the word quicker. Growing up as a kid in my family, it was crystal clear to me that clothes were more than just something functional. We dressed to impress, both ourselves and others. I remember in elementary school I would notice kids wearing the same outfit a couple of days in a row and would want that too (don’t ask why. I just wanted to fit in and be cool). But at home is was very clear ‘’that we don’t do such a thing’’. A new outfit everyday and preferably with a different pair of shoes. So for me, growing up, it was highly normal to possess a diverse set of items, to put it mildly. It was something I gradually started to enjoy, having this sense of variation.
Ever since my first sidejob, at the age of 15, I would spend the little money I earned on buying clothes. It served as a social activity as well: shopping with friends and exploring different styles on a path to find my own. Always with the same urge to buy new clothes, driven by change and the emotional desire to do so. Change in season, change in feeling, events, travel destinations, new fashion brands – basically with every month’s salary there was an excuse to expand my already piled up closet.
‘I am that consumerist monster. And I am fully aware of it.’
Now, 13 years later, I noticed that my shopping behavior hasn’t change much: Yes, I have a specific style now and know exactly what color, which items work perfect on my body and represent me at best. I am comfortable in my own skin to dress the way I like, purely because it represents myself. I prefer and am able to really invest in items that are quality wise better, but also much more pricey (then I really ask myself the question: do I need this?). Over time I developed an irritation to shopping, because I don’t have the patience with consumers in shops just looking, touching and taking up space. 98% of the time I know what I want, I can envision it and then I simply google and order it; which is not good for the environment either (transportation wise). And yes, I also give away clothes as a means of reducing its waste. BUT! Other than that: my shopping behavior did not change much. I still love to posses new clothing items, new bags and shoes.
As we speak I have items in my closet with tags on it and will receive a package with new items in the next few days. Ironically put comments such as ‘’do you ever wear an outfit more than twice?’’ I receive on a regular base for a reason.
This is a long introduction for saying this: I am that consumerist monster. And I am fully aware of it. Yet, my thirst for new items isn’t quenched. As an individual who considers herself activist and on a lifelong mission to eradicate inequality and foster sustainability in our world, this unsaturated consumerist hunger is pretty contradicting. It is easy to just pinpoint at the fashion industry and that, as an individual consumer, you don’t have any power to change the status quo. This is a classical argument that we also hear within i.a. the vegetarian/vegan, race, gender debate. If we all think like that, sooner than later there will no longer be a planet earth to live on.
Although there is no scientific consensus on details, climate change as a phenomenon, driven by human behavior, is very much a fact. On an institutional level this industry is driven by capitalism, characterized by consumerism growth. Selling more and more. And, even if, as a consumer, you decide to solely buy from the organic line within a brand: is that the solution to this bigger problem? Subsequently: is the problem not embedded within our own psyche? More, faster, better and still not happy in the end. Will we ever be? Different questions on different levels of analysis. Let’s start with the context we are currently in: the industry.
Within the fashion industry there is a phenomenon referred to as Fastfashion, with highly efficient production processes and the purpose to produce and sell new trends as quickly as possible for a cheap price. Traditionally speaking, fashion brands used to design four collections a year, in congruence with the seasons. In Fastfashion many more (mini) collections are produced, with the purpose of always catering the consumer – keeping them on the edge of their seat and wanting more and new stuff to stay in style. Almost every other week new items hit shops display cases or weekly newsletters with discount codes and free delivery offers. The artificial creation of a sense that to be ‘in fashion’ means to be ‘fast’; on top of things, with ever-changing trends to make sure people continue to buy.
So what is the problem actually?
- The fashion industry enables and maintains unethical labor conditions (capitalism, right?);
- Is responsible for a mass portion of global pesticide usage;
- Is the world’s second largest contributor to gas emissions;
- Has a tremendous impact on global industrial water pollution.
To provide an example to illustrate this: a basic cotton t-shirt is nowadays produced on the basis of 7 tablespoons of pesticides and 2,500 liters of water (Interview W. Green, 2016); and this is without considering emissions of transporting the t-shirt across the globe.
Thus, it is bad for our environment and maintains a system of oppression and inequality: the people desperately trying (!) to make a living out of it and people who are addicted to it (consumerist addiction can develop to a severe psychological/ mental health issue. Oops).
‘Until you find out that only 20% of recycled clothes are useful…’
Ever since the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh in 2013, with a shocking death toll of 1,134 people, the fashion industry has been under more, justified, scrutiny than ever before. As a reaction to this, more collaborations between different partner organizations have been initiated with the purpose of fostering a more sustainable and ethical value chain. Initiatives such as clothing lines within a brand that only utilizes organic cotton, or giving incentives to consumers who offer their (old) clothes to be recycled. These initiatives are a good step in the right direction. Until you find out that only 20% of recycled clothes are useful and that, by the way, the recycle sorting process a lot of energy requires (Behind my closet, 2018). Another dissapointment when you find out that the organic cotton is still produced into clothes under bad labor conditions. Not so fruitful after all, those set intentions and declarations, right?
Hereby a sad case / example: a large Fastfashion chain signed a declaration in 2016 whilst at the same time opening several factories in one of the poorest countries in the world, where they haven’t established before, with inhumane labor conditions. So the question then is: can a brand ever sell 600 million clothing items on an annual basis, in a sustainable, fair and ethical way? I am not an expert to answer this question. But it is simple mathematics to conclude that if you produce more than you are able to recycle, you end up with a disbalance – not even taking the exploitation and environmental waste into account. It requires basic reasoning to understand that as long as the capitalist and sales driven business model remains dominant, the system’s core won’t change.
From consumer to conscious citizen
Ok, now what? As an individual we cannot change a system entirely, but making each other more aware and changing expectations of what it means to live a stylish life, will allow us to, together, make better decisions and, ultimately, will shake up something within that system. The next few words are deeply and loudly directed to myself before anyone else (I mean, you read the introduction to this blog…I am the last person to preach on this). But let me in the process share what I learned and perhaps remind you in case you forgot. Hereby some tips to not just be a consumer, but a conscious citizen of the world. So to you and myself I say:
Dear Anissa (note to self), and dear BB&B reader:
- Stop sticking your head in the sand. Read about this topic. Educate yourself and open discussions about it with people around you. For instance check the Clean clothes campaign.
- Save money and invest in ethical brands that exist purely for that purpose. I recently discovered Matt&Nat (vegan bags and shoes).
- Challenge yourself to not buy a new item for a period of time and reflect on that. Did you actually need something new? Probably not.
- Sharing is caring and not disgusting (just make sure to wash first): check out whether there are clothing swap events in/ around your city. Or swap with your friends/family every once in a while.
- Meditate on why you feel the urgency to buy something new. Is it an emotion? What do you feel? Why?
Do you have more tips? Please comment below!
- Interview W. Green; OneWorld, 2016.