Fashion is in turns captivating, distracting, satisfying, sometimes bringing a bit of the extraordinary to every day life, and often connecting people and cultures with wonderful results. It is amazing to think that an industry that has often been described as frivolous spans so much of the world and impacts so many people and places – perhaps more than most industries. It is not known exactly how many people currently work in the multi-trillion dollar global fashion industry, but it reaches far into the millions, encompassing dozens of supply chain stages from fibre cultivation through to garment production and sales.
Unfortunately much of its impact is negative, from the shocking violation of human rights we see both far away and close to home, to the increasing degradation of our natural environment. John Thackara has even observed that there is a direct link between GDP and environmental degradation – this impact in the fashion and textiles industries is something that initiatives like the Future Fabrics Expo have been seeking to address.
But with the approach of Fashion Revolution Day on 24th April to mark one year since the Rana Plaza factory collapse, the production and consumption of fashion has been on my mind more and more, and so I wanted to look at the way I approach and interact with fashion, which more often than not starts when you buy.
For many people, one of the most seductive aspects of fashion, along with its enriching capacity for self-expression, is shopping. The act of shopping can be both pleasing and rewarding, but at the same time dangerously addictive, often so subtly that we barely realise we may be being coerced into handing over cash for products we don’t really want or need (it is estimated that there is over £30 billion worth of unworn clothing in British wardrobes alone), or that we think will satisfy emotional needs that would be better met through other means.
As economic historian Avner Offer recently put it, “products in the fashion industry mostly appeal to our need to assert ourselves, which leaves out getting support from and interacting with other people.” He raises a valid point about fashion’s potential to act as an emotional barrier, as well as the connector we know it can be, an observation which emerged during his participation in the recent ‘Craft of Use’ symposium, the incredibly inspiring culmination of the Local Wisdom research project.
With all of this considered, this year I decided to give up clothes shopping for Lent to see what, if any, effect it might have – on myself, on others, on my environment. When you consider the small scale of this decision, and the fact that I often buy no clothes within a 40 day period, I was surprised at the resulting impacts, to my outlook, attitude, wellbeing, and my perception of want vs. need. The decision in itself was a reminder to think and reflect differently – and as I have discovered before, making a decision is often the biggest part of the journey.
Immediately I began to think about value, and about what I already have, rather than what I wouldn’t be able to buy – from the sentimental value of clothes made by my grandmother, to the pride I feel when wearing my favourite hard-earned British made cashmere cardigan. I have always been somebody who delights in buying items that I’ll appreciate and treasure for years, equally as much as a raggedy second hand garment which I can give another life to. But I have found myself questioning the reasons I buy – I find few things as entrancing as a beautifully crafted garment, and better yet a garment with a story and history behind it, a reminder of a special place or experience, and yet I sometimes wonder if even those qualities are enough to warrant us buying more.
Offer had more insights which really resonated with this idea of value, choice, and consumption – that we can “spend time [and money] on hedonistic satisfaction, or we can spend time [and money] on something that causes future satisfaction.” This was a perfect reminder that while we don’t as such need to deny ourselves, we could benefit from reconsidering what we invest in to reach satisfaction. Maybe buying that new pair of trainers might not be as pleasing as first anticipated; perhaps spending that time or money on the journey to learn a new skill, create a garment ourselves, or share new experiences would be a more fulfilling, memorable, and sustaining reward, contributing to both present and future satisfaction. In considering our buying choices in this way, perhaps we can more appropriately decide when fashion can truly bring us satisfaction, and when we should hold back. As Offer observed, we may find ourselves returning to a whole world of frugality traditions, as enforced austerity becomes another driving force towards sustainability – and wouldn’t it be better to adopt that way of thinking and living voluntarily, before it becomes a necessity?