Looking Good for the Apocalypse

We get through clothes on a monumental scale, with four times as many of them in our wardrobes compared to 1980, prices rapidly dropping to meet cheap greed, and over 80billion garments now produced each year.

There are so many different things we're killing the planet and our own future for, and while some of them are going to be difficult - perhaps ultimately impossible - to stop doing, some are simple. Throw-away fashion is one of the latter.

You can probably guess what I mean by "throw-away". Something bought because it was cheap or on sale or in a magazine or just appealing, that got worn once or twice or a few times, and never again. Maybe you got bored; your tastes changed; you worried what people would think if they kept seeing you in it (especially in your selfies); trends moved on. You might have passed it on to charity, or just forgot about it, or had to throw it away because it wasn't made to last. And repeat. We get through clothes on a monumental scale, with four times as many of them in our wardrobes compared to 1980, prices rapidly dropping to meet cheap greed, and over 80billion garments now produced each year.

I'm not going to go into detail about the numerous environmental/human costs of the global fashion industry because they've been covered expertly elsewhere. I'll list them though:

  • High water use
  • High chemical use
  • Chemical pollution in waterways and oceans
  • Greenhouse gas emissions from production
  • Greenhouse gas emissions from transportation
  • Fabric pollution in waterways and oceans following washing of petrochemical-based fabrics (likepolyester and acrylic)

That's not even covering other issues like sweatshops (more on that later).

Humans need clothes, but humans do not need the ridiculous amounts of them that so many of us get through now. It's not polemical to use the word "ridiculous" - how else to describe something that is so pointless, yet is part of the reason we keep overshooting the planet's resource budget earlier and earlier each year? (It was 13 August this year). Climate change, biodiversity and wildlife crashes, humanitarian crises - we know why these things are happening.

Fashion is written into the fabric of cultures and societies across the globe; a creation that in itself has no less worth than any other kind of human expression. But it's become perverted. The fashion most of us know is not Alexander McQueen at the V&A, it's a top for £15 at Zara, and glossy magazines telling us how to be better by looking good - an endeavour that is absolutely dependent on constantly buying lots of things. The fashion industry is one of the most cynical there is, arguably less honest than oil and gas. It's a global feat of peer pressure, staring out at us from the countless eyes of hollow-cheeked models, making us itch with the fear of what others will think of us as people under our attire.

We don't have to keep following. Saatchi & Saatchi's art director, Matilda Kahl, has gone to work in the same outfit for several years now, mostly to dispense with the daily stress and time-consumption of deciding what to wear - something, she notes, men tend to face much less pressure for because it's simply accepted that they'll always wear the same suits to work.

There are other ways too to cut down on your clothes consumption, or at least the related environmental impacts. Buy more of your wardrobe from charity shops - although this isn't a sustainable solution alone, since the second-hand market still depends on the new market. Learn how to care for clothes better - there are a surprising number of ways in which we're unwittingly reducing the lifespans of our clothes as well as damaging the environment. And, of course, there's the golden rule of buying higher-quality clothes, and less clothes overall. Basically: love your clothes, for as long as you can (I've still got a pair of Tammy pyjamas bought when I was 10 - though I'm not sure I should be proud of that).

Buying less clothes and keeping them for longer isn't in the interests of the fashion industry, and the trouble is, it might not be in the interests of the countless people in developing countries who make the majority of our clothes, either. The general Western belief is that sweatshops are very bad (though funnily enough, that doesn't translate into our consumer choices), but as altruism philosopher William MacAskill points out, sweatshops are currently the best option in a crap world for many. If consumers as a collective start to buy less, that means less jobs, in both developed and developing countries. The human population is forecast to rise to 10billion by 2050, and all those extra people will need to be able to make livings to make lives.

But here's the thing - if we don't change habits like our fashion gluttony, the resources to sustain those habits are going to run dry anyway, and the jobs too. Undoubtedly, most of the water and the arable land needed by industries like fashion is going to be lost to climate change and overpopulation.

We can't change everything and we can't change it all at once. But we have to start somewhere. More and more of us are starting to wake up to the fact that we eat too much meat - and now we need to realise the same about clothes. It's time for a fashion diet. Permanently.


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