Updated: Nov 29, 2020
I have always had a deeply uncomfortable reaction to waste. Though I do admit it can edge into too much concern – that hoarder with cardboard boxes spilling out of every wardrobe, the nervous housemate pointing out every avocado on the turn – on the whole it comes from a very real and valid place. It is not just the speed with which we are racking through limited resources that bothers me, but the injustice of who gets to use them. Or more importantly, who doesn’t. Who’s access to resources is denied, who’s life is commodified and who’s time laid to waste – a thought I explored earlier in relation to race, gender, body and capitalism.
Environmental exploitation and social injustice go hand in hand. As the world's second most polluting industry (second only to oil) and run on 96 hour average working weeks, the fashion and textiles industry is entrenched in both, yet most of us value the end product painfully little, with the average item today getting just seven wears (The True Cost, 2015). Since I’ve started crafting clothes myself, sourcing materials from scratch, I’ve found my eyes opening to the sheer scale of this waste, unpicking the system and looking for ways out.
Lockdown has given me ample time to get to know my new area, my daily government-approved walks dodging crowded parks in favour of the forgotten corners of London instead. I moved into a new house just as restrictions began with few belongings, but far from feeling constrained by the shops closing, I’ve found the world already has a hella stuff to be used!
London has a fantastic informal contract at play. Anything outside the front gate is unwanted and free to take, which I have been happily obliging. I’ve managed to furnish my room with just a few brackets and pots of paint bought new. Scaffold boards and floorboards make really beautiful shelves, a perfect rug and chair showed up just down the street, and just finished off with a second hand bed and desk from my new favourite site Shpock.
At the same time, walks have been a bit overwhelmed by the sheer amount of litter strewn everywhere. So many bottle caps, clothes, fabrics, aluminium cans… I’ve found myself seeing potential and value everywhere, reimagining metals as jewellery and fabrics as clothing. So here I am with Conscious Creation, hoping creativity can rescue and revalue unwanted waste.
One of the main things I was looking forward to upon settling was getting a weekly veg box. I love the surprise of what comes each week and I love that it is local, organic and far tastier than supermarket produce. I deliberated a fair amount between Oddbox – a box of fresh veg and/or fruit that would otherwise have gone to waste as ‘surplus’, ‘mishapen’ or the wrong colour - and Crop Drop - a local enterprise that sources organic veg from local growers. I can see the benefits and necessity of both and felt torn between which I wanted to support. In the end, I went with Crop Drop, deciding to use my monetary vote to invest in the long-term vision I have for food production – plant-based, organic, local where possible and secure prices for farmers. A vote for an environmentally and socially regenerative food system. It costs slightly more, but I feel that represents a more truthful value of food.
When it comes to clothing however, I have very rarely dug deeper into my pockets for a more ethical item, instead being a die-hard charity shopper. It seems to tick all the boxes for me – fun to rummage through questionable ponchos for that gem personal to you, revalues an unwanted item, avoids directly funding sweatshop labour and donates to a good cause while you’re at it! Still, its a great solution that shouldn’t really exist, and I recognise that it is more of a plaster over the underlying wound than a long-term investment into a sustainable fashion industry.
Green Growth or Degrowth? | capitalisms reliance on more, more, more...
"Today we have economies that need to grow, whether or not they make us thrive. What we need are economies that make us thrive, whether or not they grow"
- Kate Raworth
We are living under an economic and political system that is reliant on constant growth. Capitalism’s need and industrialisation’s capacity to keep constantly producing has brought us to a 21st century where we, particularly in wealthier countries, are surrounded by superfluous stuff, yet still reliant on the creation of more to stay afloat. The answer has been? Consumerism. A flood of messages and advertisements that capitalise on our desire for status signalling - buying nice things as an affirmation to ourselves and others that we are successful, valuable. As John Berger puts it, ‘(publicity) proposes to each of us that we transform ourselves, and our lives, by buying something more’ (Ways of Seeing, 1972).
The rise of fast fashion over the past 20-30 years has squeezed natural resources and human rights beyond breaking point, relying on factories cutting every last safety corner, toilet break, waking hour and penny of wage from workers in competition to provide the vast quantities of items needed for the constant influx of looks each fashion season. At the same time, millions of litres of water are used, waterways polluted, land deforested and chemically degraded through pesticide use. Yet an estimated £30 billion worth of clothes lie unused in wardrobes and a further £140 million worth is sent to landfill each year in the UK, releasing further harmful emissions, just 2.2 years after purchase (WRAP Valuing Our Clothes report, 2017).
I recently inhaled Kate Raworth’s book Doughnut Economics (highly recommended for anyone who hasn’t read it yet!) which she ends with a chapter subtitled ‘from growth addicted to growth agnostic’.
Following an in depth critique of the 20th century's GDP focussed economics, she argues that only way we can meet the joint needs of an adequate social foundation for all, without exceeding planetary boundaries, is by letting go of exponential growth and embracing an economy which is embedded within the Earth's ecosystem. To build a circular economy.
In short, this would require us to stop designing in today's linear, abstracted way, relying upon Earth's resources as constant inputs and creating unwanted outputs - waste - at every stage of production. Instead, we would need to consider the origins, uses and after life of all components throughout production and design to maximise their use throughout their full life-cycle, cradle-to-cradle.
But is it possible to keep growing, learning to do it in a sustainable and just way - 'green growth'? Or should we learn to navigate a path we’ve avoided for so long and start to rein it in - 'degrowth'? Without getting too bogged down in everything that is firing in my mind since reading her book, I personally feel that achieving a sufficiently green growth to reach that 'safe and just space' is a tall order, so it would definitely pay for us to consider at least partial degrowth. I see it as a given that economic and technological development must be green and ethical, but I remain unconvinced that growth can be sustained safely, even with measures to make it 'greener'. The inefficiencies of production, even within a circular economy, seem pretty impossible to iron out completely, plus I worry about the complications of continued or increased reliance on biological, living and even sentient beings as 'resource' for human economical growth. I always find myself back at the simplicity of Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.
The fact remains though (however uncomfortable I am with spending the pennies!) that we do need some level of consumption. So I’ve spent rather a long time thinking about how and where I want to do that, what I value supporting and the overall picture when many penny votes add up to shape the world.
Conscious Consumerism | the role of ethical shopping
Conscious consumerism is the idea of making purchase decisions that have a positive social, economic, environmental and political impact – 'voting with your wallet'.
In the context of clothing and fashion, there have been a number of growing markets to appeal to the conscious consumer, from slow fashion, artisan work and made-to-order; to fairtrade, ethical and ‘clean’ fashions, or any combination of the above. Creating higher value, longer-lasting and therefore hopefully fewer items allows more consideration and value for manufacturing processes, conditions and workers.
So is a higher priced, slower fashion industry of 100% 'natural', 'ethical', 'clean' garments the future?
It feels like quite an obvious one on face value – supply reflects demand, so reduce or change demand and supply will have to adapt to follow. Who you buy from and what you support matters. If we want to live in a world that recognises the value of its resources, we must be willing to create it. There is a great power and freedom in having money and it undoubtedly holds the potential to lift lives from poverty. However, conscious consumerism does feel like a very economically focussed answer to a much more diverse range of issues – it is still saying consumption holds the way out of overconsumption.
Once you start delving in, it quickly feels like a minefield. Not only are terms such as 'ethical' and 'natural' vague at best and misleading at worst, our global production networks and supply chains are incredibly complex, opaque and overlapping. With empowerment and responsibility comes pressure which, in the wrong circumstances, can become overwhelming.
Distilling the responsibility for a complex, global system into an individual’s actions is clearly unmanageable to take on. Buying organic may mean it comes wrapped in plastic. Hyper-focussing on single material solutions may simply encourage destructive mono-culturing. Does boycotting sweatshops actually mean transferring income to Western countries and leaving people without any work at all? Even if we could easily separate these factors and work out what we want to support, it is next to impossible to uncover the manufacture route for the majority of our products today. Conscious consumerism, particularly within a system designed against it, is hard. The system needs to change and I definitely think increased transparency is one major step that needs to be taken on our path to behavioural change.
The simplicity of the supply and demand model is also misleading. We are complex sociable animals not calculators and our decisions don’t necessarily follow the mathematical equation that the theory implies. Our purchases are subject to an endless number of variables and conditions that may affect our decisions, from price and availability, to credentials and business values, to the adverts we have seen. In fact, research shows that despite our aspirations, with 73% saying we want to shop ethically, price and convenience still win out when it actually comes to making more ethical purchases (Grow Ensemble, 2019).
I worry that conscious consumerism feels comfortable to embrace, but is actually simply a rebrand of the current damaging system, failing to address the underlying reliance on more and more stuff. Instead we risk greenwashing the market with new and (supposedly) more ethical cotton tote bags to ease our conscience, fill our cupboards with but still refill with the next round of new season don't needs but 'must haves' we see in the shops.
Still, systemic change doesn't happen overnight and since we all engage with choosing, purchasing and consuming our products on a regular basis, what we buy into is something that we can (and should?!) consider with each purchase. Of course, the inequality endemic to the production chain is just as present within consumers. Ethics are contextual and circumstance dependent. However, I propose that most of us have more capacity to change than we are using and could afford to donate a bit more of our time and wealth for the benefit of others. To recognise our respective privileges and play whatever part we feel we can in levelling the playing field.
Each purchase makes a difference, whether it is consciously considered or not. Conscious consumerism is therefore an empowering form of action to take and a tangible impact for each individual to make as best we can; part of a powerful collective, bottom up movement to prove we want change.
Recycling and Upcycling | redefining value
Given that our current, linear processes are far from waste-free, for the moment we inhabit a world overflowing with waste. Or a world with a huge potential resource to mine…
Another approach and surging market in the fashion industry has been the rise of second-hand and vintage fashion, charity shopping, swap shops and redesign & repair. In terms of material use, recycling and reusing not only reduces the pressure on landfill space and the emissions associated with processing waste, but also captures value to maximise the potential of all the energy and hours already invested over the lifetime of a product.
Second-hand and recycled clothing can be much cheaper since monetary value is lost incredibly quickly once a product is deemed unwanted, so this can be a more accessible option for many. It also offers a great opportunity for creativity, to unearth the value in things and to create a garment embedded with a story, perhaps unique, somehow more special. I definitely get a feeling of pride when I find a new life for an old item. It can be such a direct way to embody and represent culture and feels more like designing from an existing context, community and narrative than a blank page brief.
However, recycling and second-hand shopping still vastly rely upon an inefficient and wasteful system earlier along the line, and so exist more as an opportunistic bandage than a well designed cure. Without having a reliable and integrated role within the supply chain, charities have to work with what they have, relying on creativity and compromise to maximise the value of the waste left over by others.
Recycling holds a far greater potential if planned into a circular system from the outset rather than as a mop up for invisible by-products. Forcing businesses to consider waste at all stages of production could be a powerful way to increase responsibility, resource efficiency and the full life-span of their garments.
For the consumer too, a better relationship with re-use and repair, swapping and passing on can be an important aspect of helping reduce our overall demand. We would learn to enjoy what we have before looking for the new item. Normalising transferring or transforming our clothing reintroduces adaptable products that reflect our changing needs, countering fast fashion's discard and buy fresh solution. Fabrics are some of the most resource intensive materials we use, but can have incredibly long life spans and are easily reworked, making them ideal materials to get creative and experiment with. They have so much more to give!
Conclusion | to buy or not to buy?
Long-term and ideologically, I do see a slower, more considered and equitable industry as the answer. In clothing and fashion, but for products and services in general, I think we should call on both the state and the market to legislate and take responsibility for making sure products are traceable, with information about every step of their sourcing and production available to consumers.
Working conditions must be just for everyone involved. I don't buy the argument that justifies the use of sweatshops as ‘a step up from the immediate alternatives and also a rung on the ladder to something better’ (Tim Harford, 2005). Rather than waiting and hoping that one magic day no-one will live in enough poverty to need to undercut, we could move on from outsourcing and exporting the 'dirty work' and take on a more representative proportion of the production chain, allowing multiple cultures access to multiple economic sectors.
We must learn to design for circularity, with waste minimised and accounted for at every stage. It is an exciting opportunity to use our creative skills to find new forms of value beyond GDP and price, creating products that have a long life, preferably reusable rather than recyclable and seldom single-use. Ensuring responsible resource use, both of Earth’s resources and of human resource, would likely mean higher priced products, but perhaps that is exactly what we need. They would be more reflective of the full costs of the product rather than excluding environmental or social ‘externalities’ and could help reduce what we consume.
In the meantime, whilst we are busy constructing my ideological world, there is a plentiful existing resource to mine. Inventive repair, recycling and upcycling should be maximised. Whilst charity shopping is great, it shouldn't be left to charity to mop up the waste of the fashion industry. Post-consumer processing must to be designed from the outset to maximise the value of those hours of work and gallons of resources.
And what can we do?
Though the broken system is not our fault, I do believe in our power to change it. There is a balance to be struck between our own mental health and an awareness of the limits of what we can take on, but I see plenty of scope for empowering and enriching activism that is beneficial for us too.
Whilst our capacity as more than a consumer - as a citizen, a friend, a sibling - mustn’t be overlooked; consumer activism can form an essential component of constructing the world we want to see. We can’t lobby for a new world if we are unwilling to live those changes. Heaven knows governments don’t have a strong track record of leading policy change without a strong promise of future votes, let alone do businesses…
Whilst the problem is unavoidably bleak to paint, I see the solutions as exciting, creative and regenerative.
I still return to Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. To beware of the lure of consumerism, greenwashing and the mythical satisfaction of recycling. To shop consciously where we can, and lobby where we can’t.
We can buy less and buy better, take time to research brands, contact them, question them, call them out. We can support action groups campaigning for change and call on governments to legislate for justice.
We can learn to darn, host swap shops, shop second-hand and borrow or rent those one-time occasion pieces.
So as we come out of lockdown, let's avoid the queues outside Primark, H&M, New Look. Let's resist the calls from the government to buy more, revive the economy and our financial health and instead call on them to care for our collective global health - repair the health of humanity, nature and our precious Earth.
Kintsugi - the Japanese art of repair and revalue
I am constantly learning, developing and sharing my own aspirations and commitments to Conscious Creation - find it in Creations
Though awareness of the injustices of the fashion and textiles industry is growing, most of us are undoubtedly not aware enough.
Here are just some of the resources out there that could help further our education, please add any you have come across too!
- Freecycle, Shpock, Gumtree, Ebay, Charity Shops, Swap Shops and Second-hand - all great ways to source non-virgin products and materials
- https://www.sustainyourstyle.org/en/sustainable-brands – some great starters for sustainable brands suggested here
- Doughnut Economics by Kate Raworth – highly recommend reading this for an insight into the relation between economics, resource use and social justice
- https://www.sustainyourstyle.org/en/whats-wrong-with-the-fashion-industry#anchor-fast-fashion – some pretty stark facts to be aware of
- https://www.greenstrategy.se/sustainable-fashion/seven-forms-of-sustainable-fashion – lots of good resources on ethical and sustainable fashion
- Naked Fashion: The New Sustainable Fashion Revolution by Safia Minney – positive look at alternative business models and eco-friendly fashion brands
- Stitched Up: The Anti-Capitalist Book of Fashion by Tansy E Hoskins – a look into the system behind the creation of false needs and desires
- The True Cost (Netflix) – eye opening documentary on the full social costs of fast fashion
- Minimalism (Netflix) – explores the issue of overconsumption and looks at ways to embrace and enjoy buying less
- River Blue (Available to buy on YouTube) – looks at the impact of fabric production on Earth’s waterways
- Green Beauty Conversations Podcast by Formula Botanica - Ep. 45 on conscious consumerism
- Costing the Earth Podcast – Fast Fashion Slow Down (03/04/19)
- Costing the Earth Podcast – The Future of Fashion (10/10/17)
- Conscious Chatter Podcast – Ep. 3 on water, Ep. 10 on cotton, Ep 33 on wasting less in particular
- Asia Floor Wage Alliance - https://asia.floorwage.org/about-us/ - Asian led labour and social alliance campaigning for worker rights and improved conditions for clothing producers across many countries producing for the fast fashion industry
- Clean Clothes Campaign - https://cleanclothes.org/about – a grass-roots network supporting regional trade unions and organisations to fight for workers’ rights and better working conditions
- Textile Exchange - https://textileexchange.org/ - global non-profit supporting textile exchange
- WRAP - https://www.wrap.org.uk/sustainable-textiles/scap – supporting business transition to minimise the environmental impact of our clothes, including research and action on consumer behaviour
- Fashion Revolution - https://www.fashionrevolution.org/about/get-involved/ - launched after the Rana Plaza collapse in 2013, they campaign for people all over the world – citizens, business, retailers, journalists to use their voice for change. They have a really useful template which is adaptable and can be sent to brands to show we want and need transparency and change