There have been two occasions in the past year where I have really panicked about what to wear.
The first came exactly a year ago when I headed to the ‘This Morning’ studio in London, the show had picked up on a story I was working on and wanted to interview my case study Alex. I should have been concentrating on Alex and his story and what I was going to do with it next, instead I was wracking my brain about to wear, something that wasn’t helped by EVERY female I know asking ‘what are you going to wear?’.
I look back and find it ludicrous; my story was picked up because it’s a good story and one I’ve worked tirelessly on with Alex for 18 months. No one, and I mean no one, has ever judged anything I’ve done in my career on what I’ve been wearing.
The second occasion came earlier this year, in my defence I was still new to changing my mindset around clothes. In February I went to interview Lauren Bravo for a radio piece I’m putting together on fast fashion and the same question kept on going through my mind…’what do you wear to interview a fashion writer?’.
The answer of course is whatever the hell you want.
It’s an attitude I’ve adopted after reading Lauren’s book ‘How to break up with fast fashion’, it was a book that shone a spotlight on my own habits and highlighted my dysfunctional relationship with clothes and shopping.
“So, I mean I’ve got a bit of a tricky relationship with clothes, I’ve always loved, loved clothes and fashion it’s always been kind of a hobby as much as a necessity” says Lauren as she explains where the idea came from.
“I grew up wearing quite a lot of clothes from charity shops and I used to wear quite a lot of vintage when I was in my teens and then in my twenties, I kind of succumbed to the lure and the convenience of fast fashion.
“I started shopping more and more on the high street and online, I was buying stuff in bulk then taking lots of it back, I was constantly scrolling on my phone and looking for the next outfit the next trend, the next find and I just realised after a while that it was unhealthy.
“I had a bit of a wakeup call when I moved flat and suddenly I was confronted by like a decade’s worth of shopping mistakes and I was pulling all of these clothes out of my wardrobe and thinking ‘I don’t even remember buying this’ and ‘why don’t I wear this anymore?’ and I’d just forgotten I owned things and I realised I had so many clothes, I didn’t need any more so I set myself a challenge for the whole of 2019 that I didn’t buy anything new so I bought a few things from charity shops, second-hand but nothing brand new and I went for the whole year and I’m never going back”.
Alongside her own relationship with high street, fashion writer Lauren started to become more aware of the environmental and humanitarian impact. The 2015 documentary ‘The True Cost’, shone an uncomfortable light and fashion’s dirty secrets. Director Andrew Morgan was drawn to the subject in the wake of the Rana Plaza tragedy in 2013, the commercial building in Bangladesh collapsed killing over a thousand garment workers. Lauren says this film was a big wakeup call:
“That massively opened my eyes to the reality of the life of a garment worker and how badly they’re suffering so that we can buy a £12 dress”.
This week saw fast fashion hit the headlines in the UK for the wrong reasons.
Online retailer Boohoo found itself in the firing line over reports of poor working conditions at factory in Leicester that supplies the fast fashion giant. ASOS and Next dropped the online retailer from its websites, share prices plummeted and Boohoo ordered an independent review of its UK supply chain. Boohoo said it took “extremely seriously all allegations of malpractice, poor working conditions, and underpayment of workers”.
The last few years have seen clothes become cheaper and cheaper, the treadmill of fast fashion become ever quicker, and more and more clothes being produced. The problems associated with the fashion industry aren’t small fry, they’re big, meaty, conversations that can’t be separated out; the environmental impact and humanitarian impact go hand in hand:
“This is the thing that most people are waking up to now, the fashion industry is one of the most polluting industries on the planet it has a carbon footprint that is bigger than international flights and maritime shipping combined. The trouble is, it’s a juggernaut that is showing no signs of stopping so it’s brilliant that we’re having these conversations, but the industry is churning out more clothes than we could ever buy or wear.
“The average item of clothes is worn just seven times before it’s considered old and thrown away. We’ve got clothes in landfill that will take up to 200 years to bio degrade and we don’t even know what the impact of all that is going to be because fast fashion and a lot of these synthetic fibres are relatively new, we don’t have centuries worth of evidence to show us what’s going to happen to the planet, there’s so much toxicity tied up in the industry, it’s so wasteful and of course all those environmental problems have a humanitarian impact as well. It’s important that we don’t separate the two, there are already people who are living with the impact of climate change. There are communities that are drinking water that has been contaminated with dyes that have dumped by nearby textile factories, there are farmers who are living in terrible cycles of poverty because they have to keep buying more pesticides to treat their cotton and once you delve into it, it’s a very murky world and it could be quite overwhelming. I’ve tried really hard in my book not to make it too upsetting; I think you have to carefully balance out the hard reality with giving people practical, small steps that they can take towards change”.
Over a cup of tea, we muse about the big change in the fashion industry over the past few years. The message pumped out now is that you must buy it now, it won’t be around forever. Think about it, the constant TV adverts, the countless ads popping up on Facebook, the influencers on Instagram, hell, even our friends’ social media accounts act as adverts for fashion. It’s relentless.
“Fast fashion is a monster that we just keep on feeding” says Lauren.
“Speed is one of the main problems, as it is today, we don’t have four seasons anymore in the way that used to, it’s closer to 52 seasons because a lot of these big, new, fast fashion brands are dropping new collections every week and because clothes don’t stay on the shop floor for as long it means we feel that urgency and we feel that pressure to buy it now or never, ‘get it or regret it’ is a slogan that some fast fashion companies use. So, that means that the demand is there the brands just keep churning out the clothes and they keep churning out the clothes so that we feel like we are obliged to keep buying them. It’s a vicious circle and we need someone to be brave and take their foot off the pedal and if it isn’t going to be the retailers, it has to be the consumers”.
This is where it starts to get really tricky because surely if we all stop shopping, that will put a lot of garment workers across the world out of work? Something Lauren admits to being asked a lot:
“It’s a difficult one, I won’t lie. I wish I had an answer. I don’t know is the answer, but I do know it won’t happen, we’re not going to stop shopping overnight, this is going to be a slow and gradual change as much as I wish it would happen quicker. When you watch documentaries and you read the testimonies from the garment workers themselves, it becomes clear that it is a shamefully low bar to set for anybody that that job is better than nothing. There are jobs in recycling and repairing that people could be doing and be paid well for and be treated well, I don’t think we can be content with knowing that people are being paid poverty wages and working in terrible, unhealthy conditions so that we can buy a dress that we will bored of in two weeks”.
In my mind, it seems the answer is paying more for our clothes so garment workers across the world are given a living wage; I can’t see how anyone would object to that, so why isn’t that happening?
“There have been all kinds of studies showing how easy it would be to increase the wages of garment workers, there was one that said on the price of an average cotton t-shirt if we were prepared to pay 24p more, then that would be enough to pay the garment workers who made it a living wage. I think if you asked most consumers we would be happy to pay and extra 24p but that isn’t an option we’re given and instead what we have is the myth perpetuated that sustainable shopping is inherently very expensive. It’s one of the things that people will say to me time and again ‘oh but I can’t afford to shop sustainably because those clothes cost a lot more’, now the truth of it is, they cost a bit more than a lot of the cheap fast fashion brands, of course they do because they have to, no t-shirt should cost £5, you can’t make a £5 t-shirt without exploiting someone and the planet along the line”.
And that’s the reality that we have to face up to. Our love and reliance on cheap disposable fashion may not be hurting our purses but it is hurting someone.
Have we gone to far? Are we too accustomed to accessibility of fast fashion? Boohoo sales surged by 45% in the quarter to the end of May, we live in a world where online retailers are king, so will anything really change? Lauren is hopeful it will:
“I am optimistic, I think these conversations have changed massively, so many more people are talking about the environmental impact of their wardrobes, magazines can play a really important role and we are starting to see more editorial around sustainable ways of dressing but what we need to be so careful of is green washing because there are so many brands that are seeing eco-friendly and conscious as marketing buzz words and they’re jumping on that band-wagon without actually committing to change behind the scenes so we have brands talking about recycling schemes and using more sustainable fabrics and that’s great but while those brands are still churning out tens of thousands of new products every year, it’s not enough, it’s really not. We need those big brands to be brave and overhaul their whole model of working and the only way we’re going to do that is through consumer demand. I think we need government legislation but that’s not happening any time soon because the environmental audit committee released a fantastic document last year all about the various ways we could improve our relationship with fashion and the government chose not to take on a single one of their recommendations, so it’s really in our hands, we’ve got to vote with our wallet, we’ve got to show manufacturers that we don’t want this anymore, we want clothes that are made to last, we want clothes that are made without exploiting anybody and we don’t need nearly as many of them”.
“We should be able to trust that the clothes we’re buying have been made ethically but unfortunately at the moment, that isn’t the case, so there is a lot we can all do as individuals, we can hold our favourite brands to account, we can email them, we can tweet them, #whomademyclothes is a brilliant campaign that fashion revolution has been running for about seven years. We can start asking those difficult questions and saying to brands ‘I love your designs and I want to give you my money but in order to do that, I need to know that you’re not exploiting anyone or misusing the planet to make my clothes’. Once brands are bombarded with those questions they will have to change”.
Part of forcing that change is changing our attitudes towards shopping and recognising our relationship with fashion and clothes. A lot of that is down to unpicking messages that women have been hammered with for years:
“Ideas of not being able to outfit repeat, that’s a phrase our mothers and grandmothers wouldn’t have even known but this idea of repeating a same outfit for parties for occasions, any kind of place where you’re going to be in pictures, the idea that that’s a bad thing is ludicrous and it’s quite a modern idea because going back a couple of decades people would have worn their clothes again and again, it’s what they’re there for”.
Lauren adds; “I think the misogyny that’s tied up in this is something that you can’t escape from. In the global supply of used clothing, there is about seven times more womenswear than menswear. Women are pressured to shop more, we are taught that we are only as good as our last outfit, we are taught from a very young age terms like ‘retail therapy’ and the idea that shopping is the answer to a myriad of problems that we might be having, men aren’t given that message, so it’s not surprising that women are the predominant consumers of fast fashion and that we are the ones struggling to make that change in our lives and in our wardrobes”.
And that is part of the problem, as a child of the 90s I learnt from films like Clueless that any problem could be solved with a trip to a shopping centre; that attitude and belief has stayed with me well into my 30s, changing that hard wired attitude takes a lot of hard work as Lauren explains:
“I realised quite quickly when I stopped shopping that I used to use shopping as a panacea for every emotion I was feeling so I would shop if I was sad, I would shop if I was bored, I would shop if I felt insecure but I would also shop if I was happy, if I was celebrating, if I was hungry, if I had PMS, every possible emotion in the book I felt like the answer was buying something new and that is a really hard impulse to turn off. I still feel like that now, I can be a railway station with twenty minutes to kill and my immediate thought is ‘ooh what can I buy?’ so unpicking that kind of conditioning takes time”.
So, what did Lauren learn from her shop free year, I’m just over half-way through mine and keen to know what lessons a fellow shopaholic took away from it:
“I learned that my self-esteem is far too tied up in my wardrobe that was one of the more upsetting discoveries I think, just how closely linked my confidence was to what I was wearing and I really feel like a day could be made or broken on the back of a good outfit and I used to have these meltdowns in a morning where I’d be throwing clothes around my room and panicking because I felt like nothing was right and I’m still having those every so often but they’ve certainly reduced since I stopped buying fast fashion. With fast fashion I just felt like I was constantly on this treadmill of trends kind of running towards a horizon that never arrived I was always thinking about the next thing I had to have, and I would get bored of clothes so quickly. I realised during that year as well that I’d lost a sense of my personal style, I didn’t really know what I liked and what I wanted to wear and what was just being dictated to me through fashion magazines and social media, that was a real journey of discovery, realising what my style is and what clothes I love. I adopted an attitude of trying to spot the difference between liking something and wanting something and needing something because I think we’ve lost touch with that. We often think we need an item but actually maybe we can just admire it in a shop and then walk on by.
There were a lot of emotions that came up but the main thing I learnt over the course of a year is just that, I can do it, I don’t need new clothes, there are so many clothes out there on the planet ripe for the taking that we don’t actually need to be manufacturing anything else”.
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