So many clothes but nothing to wear? Claire Strickett looks at the paradox of fast fashion
With New Year’s resolutions now for most people little more than distant memories, you’ve probably heard enough about diets to last you at least another year. Sorry, then, to draw one more to your attention.
This diet, however, has nothing to do with food, but rather, with shopping. The Great American Apparel Diet (no relation to the clothing chain of a similar name!), was embarked upon by a group of women last September, when they vowed that there’d be “no shopping for one year”, as their website, thegreatamericanappareldiet.com, proclaims.
The project has gained momentum, and now has upwards of forty participants from around the world. These shopping dieters have promised to make the most of what’s already in their wardrobe, altering clothes, finding new ways to wear them, but never adding to their collection. Their reasons for embarking on the project are many and varied, including the need to curb a credit card addiction, curiosity about the depth of their emotional dependency on shopping, making a point about consumerism, an attempt to reduce their carbon footprint, or simply learning to be content with what they’ve already got.
As someone who ranks the time when a friend said they couldn’t remember me ever wearing the same outfit twice among their proudest moments, I’m not sure that I’m quite ready to renounce shopping for a year. But the SRC’s upcoming One Dress, One Month fundraising campaign, running throughout March as part of the appropriately named RAG (raising and giving) Week, was too much of a challenge to pass up.
It’s a simple enough concept: wear the same dresss every day throughout March, get sponsored, and, if you make it, donate the money raised to Macmillan Cancer Research. How hard can it be? Well, I’ll admit that the thought of wearing an identical dress every day for an entire month — surely every fashionista’s worst nightmare — sends a shiver down my spine, even if it is for a good cause. But, above and beyond the charitable aims of the campaign, I’m hoping that it’ll prove an opportunity to re-evaluate the way the fashion industry has got me, and many others, hooked on its ethos of constant change, whereby only the new can ever be good.
It feels like a timely move. The American apparel dieters aren’t the only ones taking a more critical look at the way the clothing industry functions, its wastefulness, and its unsustainability. Their project is part of a growing backlash against “fast fashion”. In the past, concerns about the textile industry have been directed mainly towards the production side of things, with, for example, the scandals that erupted over the sweatshop conditions that were found to lay behind the garments on the rails of so many respected high street stores. These problems have by no means been resolved, but perhaps they will never be until we turn our attention to our changing shopping habits and the drive for ever-cheaper clothes that, in turn, perpetuates poor working conditions for those who produce them.
Fashion is a deliberately fickle and fast-paced industry, and the increasing move towards low-priced but high-volume shopping, sometimes called “the Primark effect”, has capitalised on that. When clothing seems to cost so little, it’s easy to buy almost without thinking. We’ve surely all picked up something which catches our eye and that’s so cheap that we can barely be bothered to consider whether it goes with anything else we own, where we might wear it, or whether it even really fits us properly, before we head to the till.
This kind of thoughtless shopping must surely be at least partly responsible for the staggering statistic that half of all the clothes, shoes and accessories purchased last year by women in the UK have never been worn, resulting in the waste of an estimated £11.1 billion, according to figures released by the climate change charity Global Cool. Closer to home, the survey showed that the average Glaswegian women (unfortunately, men weren’t questioned) spent £1,074 on clothing and accessories in 2008, a whopping £472 of which went on clothes that remained unworn.
Fast fashion, while selling itself as a bargain, looks like a false economy in the face of such figures. While the price tag may be small, the true cost isn’t marked on the label, but is felt elsewhere — in its impact on the environment, for example. The energy and materials used to produce, transport and sell these unworn garments go to waste, and the clothes themselves will usually end up in landfill. Even the old systems of recycling and circulating unwanted clothing, such as second-hand and charity shops, can’t deal with our new shopping habits. These clothes are often of such poor quality, and sold so cheaply in the first place, that selling them on as second-hand clothing simply isn’t worthwhile: charity shops struggle to price the second-hand garments any lower than the price charged “as new” and still make enough money to cover their overheads, while quality is so poor that after a few wears, much “fast fashion” is fit only for the bin.
That affordable clothing is available for people on tight budgets — i.e., most students — is obviously something to be welcomed. That said, we’d be doing ourselves, and our planet, a huge favour if we learned to focus a little more on quality over quantity. While Vogue might blithely recommend prudently investing in a few “statement pieces” that turn out to include a £1500 mackintosh, even those of us on tighter budgets can, paradoxically, save in the long run by spending more initially. Buy a new pair of £25 shoes each month, for example, and the chances are that, in three years’ time, they’ll all have been consigned to the great wardrobe in the sky — some, if Global Cool’s survey is correct, still unworn. Meanwhile, you’re back where you started and have to hit the shops again. Spend the same total on just one or two carefully chosen pairs each year, and you’re much more likely to take care of them, polish them, waterproof them, get them re-heeled, and treasure them for years to come.
Whether I’ll still treasure a dress that I’ve worn for 31 days straight come the end of March is debatable, but I’ll be blogging the One Dress, One Month experience at glasgowguardian.co.uk, hoping to show (myself, as much as anyone) just how much mileage can be got out of one outfit with a little creativity — and a lot of accessories. We all know that no relationship stands a chance without respect — so for those of us who love fashion, isn’t it time we learned to respect the clothes we buy, rather than treating them as disposable?