Life out of the Fashion Fast Lane
How reframing sustainable fashion as sustainable style can enable us to continue our love affair with clothing
by Alice Wilby
Photographs by Julia Fullerton Batten
I’ve had a love affair with fashion from a young age. Captivated by its transformative power, I find that the magic of playing dress-up with different styles of clothing is a joy that never gets old. My favourite feel-good is anything vintage. The history and hidden stories of these garments speak to the storyteller in me. My current fave is a gaudy green seventies blazer I picked up at Oxfam’s recycling centre while we were there filming for the BBC. It makes me feel like a kooky secretary, the kind who inadvertently helps Columbo unravel a crime while propping up a large veneered desk, lighting her cigarette with a giant onyx table lighter. For me, given the choice between a one-off vintage jacket or something mass-produced and available to all, the unique piece wins every time.
It’s not just the thrill of the chase. Going second-hand shopping and searching for one-offs allows you to focus on who you are and how you want to dress. Free from the homogenous high-street, cookie-cutter collections and million-dollar marketing campaigns, you can slow down and focus on who you want to be.
But back to the high street for a minute. We are drowning in the middle of a fast-fashion epidemic, and it’s quickly killing the planet. After the oil industry, fashion is the second largest polluter in the world. And, shockingly, it has a bigger carbon footprint than global shipping and aviation combined.
With a proliferation of synthetic clothing leading the charge, the international market has been flooded with readily available low-price, low-quality garments. Sending our shopping habits into hyperdrive.
According to the documentary The True Cost, globally we now consume 400 percent more clothing than we did 20 years ago! And hand in hand with that mass consumption we are also trashing more too. The average Canadian throws out 37 kilograms (81 pounds) of textiles annually, most of which could be reused or recycled.
And of this excessive amount of clothing we’re consuming, 65 percent is made from synthetic materials, mainly polyester. Derived from oil, it’s basically plastic. So it’s no surprise that these materials don’t break down when they hit the landfill. And, when washed, synthetic clothing releases thousands of microplastics into our waterways, which find their way to the oceans, get eaten by fish and in turn eaten by us. Which isn’t what you imagine each time you wash your workout gear, is it?
Cotton, the other main fibre used for clothing, fares no better with its environmental footprint. Pesticide-heavy and water-intensive, cotton is often grown in regions already suffering from water scarcity. Badly managed irrigation for cotton production in Uzbekistan has even caused the Aral Sea, once the world’s fourth largest lake, to dry up. Not to mention all the toxic chemicals that farmers are exposed to when growing the crop.
Not only are the garments we wear damaging our environment, they are also made with cheap labour in dubious conditions, blighting the lives of the people who manufacture them. From the horrific death of 1,134 Bangladeshi factory workers in the Rana Plaza factory collapse in 2013 through to workplace accidents and verbal and physical abuse and intimidation that are still experienced on a daily basis throughout the industry. The people who toil away making our clothing are being ruthlessly exploited. So-called luxury brands aren’t immune either, with many high-end labels being produced in the same factories or same conditions of slave labour as their fast-fashion cousins.
But how can we enjoy fashion while we come to terms with what a dirty abusive industry it is? Fashion is so intrinsically linked with fun and frivolity. We all need to wear clothing; indeed, many of us, myself included, take great pleasure and pride in “getting dressed.” Can we shop guilt-free, and can we still enjoy new-outfit excitement while navigating the murky waters of a garment industry that has become synonymous with pollution and exploitation?
Sustainable fashion is touted as the answer. Many people, me included, have sung the praises of this alternative fashion industry for years now. And, finally, sustainable fashion is having its moment… Finally. So as a long-time proponent of the joys of sustainability I should be happy, right? Well, not quite!
The more I consider it, the more I think that sustainable fashion is an oxymoron. Sustainability and fashion struggle to coexist. Fashion by its very nature demands the new. It is faddish and trend-obsessed, and it forces obsolescence. Fashion is always on to the next thing, like that flighty, fickle kid at school who thinks you’re cool for a hot minute but drops you the second someone more exciting comes along. Whereas sustainability is elegant. Sustainability is measured maintenance. Sustainability is the wisdom of ecological balance and the pleasure of growth and familiarity. Sustainability is in it for the long haul. It has your back, like the reassuring company of an old friend. Which is why I’d like to reframe sustainable fashion as sustainable style.
As Yves Saint-Laurent famously said: “Fashions fade; style is eternal.” And I have to agree. Style takes the pressure off. It lets us breathe, relax, kick back in our kooky, sartorial choices. Safe in our style, not at risk of being swept up in pointless trends. Indulging our personal style so we enjoy what we fell for in the first place. The pleasure of simply enjoying clothes. And most important, framing our relationship with clothing as a question of “style” enables us to sustain our wardrobes, and in turn the planet, in a way that the rapid turnover of fashion focus intrinsically can’t.
So how do we implement this new ideal? And how do we navigate the shops? In fact, can we shop sustainably at all? With these questions in mind, here are my top five tips for curating your own sustainable style. So go forth and rediscover your closet and forage in your local thrift store.
I’m afraid the awesome green blazer is already taken, but I guarantee you’ll find a gem that perfectly fits your own sustainable-style story.
1. Stop Shopping!
It sounds counterintuitive when talking about curating a new wardrobe, but what is more sustainable than the clothes we already have? So the first thing is to get back into your wardrobe, remind yourself of what you have. I bet there are some gems in there that you have clean forgotten about. Fall back in love with what you already have.
And if you find some crazy crimes against fashion you have no idea why you bought, that’s good too! Brands make it really easy to part us with our money, so often we shop on impulse. Understanding what you bought because you were bored or feeling pressured versus styles you really do wear and love is important.
Make a note of what works and what doesn’t — you can use it as your shortcut checklist for when you do have to hit the shops again.
If you’re still struggling with the urge to shop, just take away the temptation. Unsubscribe from brand mailing lists, and unfollow social media influencers flogging loads of crap.
2. Can you buy it second-hand?
Obviously, this is my personal favourite! But aside from my affinity with buying vintage, the simple truth is we already have enough clothes made. Years of overproduction and hoarded deadstock have left us with a global surplus of amazing vintage clothing. Not to mention the speed at which we send our newly purchased clothing to charity. And trends keep coming back round. Florals, animal prints, utility: you name it, we’ve already made it.
And because it already exists, second-hand clothing has already made a massive chunk of its environmental impact. Resource-hungry items like denim and leather jackets are great to buy second-hand and already look worn-in and distressed.
3. Can you rent it?
Dressing up should be fun! Once the preserve of dodgy wedding-tuxedo suppliers, the modern clothing rental market is booming. There are some amazing rental-clothing platforms out there, stocking everything from big designer brands to small emerging labels and even sustainable brands.
Renting is a great way to find an outfit for a big event like a birthday or wedding or job interview, the kind of outfit that you might only wear once if you bought it. Renting allows you access to amazing outfits that you might not be able to afford to buy.
4. Invest in brands that invest in you and the planet.
Shop with a brand that cares about the life of its clothing. Brands like Patagonia and Nudie Jeans offer repair services: they actively want to prolong the life of their clothes, which both keeps them out of the landfill and saves you money.
Or look for sustainable alternatives to your key wardrobe staples. For example, check out Veja’s sneakers, made from sustainably sourced rubber and organic cotton. Or invest in G-Star Jeans made from recycled denim. Clothes that have been upcycled or made with organic cotton will have a much lower environmental impact.
And if you wear a lot of activewear, substitute your polyester workout gear with some made from Tencel. It’s derived from wood pulp, lets the skin breathe, uses less water than cotton and is biodegradable.
5. Show up with love
Regardless of where you choose to shop, aim to only buy only things you really love. Be honest with yourself when considering your potential new purchase: is it something you’ll wear a lot? Is it something you’ll wear at all? If in doubt, refer back to what you discovered when you cleared out your wardrobe. If the item you’re considering is on the list of things you always buy but never wear, wise up and walk away.
When you buy something new, take care of it, mend it if it breaks, and pledge to keep it in your wardrobe for years, not months. When it comes to the end of its life, donate it for recycling. Do not under any circumstances throw it in the garbage! Extending the life of a piece of clothing by just nine months of active use could reduce its carbon, water and waste footprints by 20 to 30 percent.
Twitter and Instagram: @alicewilby
A Novel Approach:
Photographs: Julia Fullerton-Batten
Stylists: Alice Wilby and Bel Jacobs
Client: Oxfam GB
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