There’s a really interesting thread right now on Styleforum entitled “The Ethos of Consumerism and Luxury Consumption“. Whilst few who read this blog have budgets anywhere near the level of Styleforum readers and may struggle to read the discussion with a straight face, the underlying quandary is an important one to consider.
Is consumption of clothing and fashion detrimental or even unethical?
At what point are purchases being made to satisfy an inner lust rather than a necessity?
What effects do consumption have on the world around us?
It’s easy to dismiss such concerns with “as long as my hobby doesn’t harm anyone then it’s nobody else’s business” and there’s a truth to that, but it’s not a particuarly useful maxim. What does “harm” mean? Perhaps a ridiculous example, but imagine one buys a €500 pair of shoes that isn’t really needed but are ever so slightly different to an already owned pair and is made by a really cool designer. Great! If your budget isn’t thrown into disarray from this purchase, why shouldn’t one buy it? But could that €500 have been spent more usefully? To continue the slightly overblown example, that money could have been spent on charity for example, or a replacement for that horrendously ineffecient washing machine at home in exchange for a power saving version. Or whatever. The point is that just because the €500 doesn’t negatively impact you or people around you does not necessarily make it an ethically positive decision.
Therefore we perhaps need to evaluate the idea of necessity versus lust. I work in an environment that requires suits, and so building a wardrobe of versatile suits is a necessity for me and is certainly not a petty induldgance. This is the strictest level of necessity, but also perhaps the most unfairly austere approach to fashion that leaves little room for fun or personal satisfaction.
Sales are the worst time of year for falling foul of the lust/necessity divide – the temptation to buy something that one wouldn’t have normally simply due to the perceived bargain and good feelings associated with scoring something for cheap. Waiting on buying a specific piece of clothing until the sales is a great idea, but impulse buying something you may never wear is perhaps less so. In between there’s a murky middle ground.
A big concern for me is that of value, or worth. What is an item of clothing worth? When is paying for something paying too much (out of lust, aspirational-ism or whatever)? It’s a tough one to approach because it’s so personal – what I value clothing at is usually disproportionate to those around me for example (and pittance compared to others online).
My approach to the subject has been to more carefully consider what I’m buying and where from. Cheap, fashion fashion shops such as H&M/Zara/wherever certainly have their place and their cheapness allows for easy entrance to trying out different styles, plugging holes in one’s wardrobe or simple basics. But at the same time buying from these shops makes me personally feel like I’m throwing money away in spite of how cheap it is. The material involved rarely feels good, the pieces are prone to damage and short lifespans and are designed to be disposable fashion – intended to be worn for a season or two and then retired/discarded. My H&M t-shirts bought last summer (for $7) are still functional but the pilling of the material and stretching have rendered them somewhat less satisfying than I’d like. I bought them in bulk, mostly to take on my trip to Malaysia so there was a practical aspect to the disposability of them. At the end of the day though, if I’m considering a t-shirt purchase I’d perhaps feel much more comfortable about spending €20/€30 and getting a t-shirt designed with more care, a piece that gives more personal satisfaction and is not designed to be discarded. To me, that’s less wasteful than 3 or 4 dirt cheap t-shirts s filling my cupboard.
Whilst t-shirts are hardly a big deal in this regard the example applies to more important purchases. A cheap polyester suit that quickly develops a nasty sheen and breaks down, all the while feeling like (and hanging like) cardboard. It’ll quickly become unpleasant to wear and will face the rubbish bin sooner or later. Spending more on a nice quality worsted wool one without so much compromise and the purchase may well bring disproportionately more value than several cheapy ones.
And it’s not just longevity that’s important – I’ve grown to prefer designers and clothes with some kind of narrative or specific aesthetic/concept/theme that lets me build a connection to my clothing as opposed to H&M shirt #6. A more personal approach. This is value of another kind and my choice is to try and only make clothing purchases that bring me happiness of some kind, rather than a more functional approach. This is certainly not an outlook shared by everybody, but in nailing down my own discomfort with fast fashion and disposable style it’s helped me greatly to reassess my approach to shopping.
I’d much rather slowly work towards building a complete and cohesive wardrobe of items wherein each one has a place, a role and brings me happiness than a collection of cheaper, more transient items. Perhaps this isn’t the best approach, but it’s where I’m at now on the subject.
Another fine reason to avoid cheap fashion is the detrimental effect their manner of production has on the world. Factories in Bangladesh, China and the third-world paying minimum wage to keep costs down. Child labour. Polluting chemicals used to treat the fabrics and create the synthetics that make up the bulk of their clothes. Large, global companies providing dirt cheap clothing for our consummation are rarely going to be doing so in an environmentally sound or completely ethical manner.
Compare that to buying from a designer making the clothing himself on a small scale, or companies that keep production local/commit to ethical standards of pay and treatment overseas. Companies that pay attention to where they source their fabrics from, or make efforts to use organic fabrics where possible. Clothing crafted without mass production. These are all things to pay attention to and are absolutely worth paying the higher prices for, in my mind. It may seem an extravagance to pay more for clothing just because it’s hand crafted by some bloke in Nottingham but the value of such a garment is much greater and makes my interest in fashion and clothing less damaging to some degree.
It’s not necessarily about running out and only buying ethically from now on, but these considerations are perhaps something to keep in mind when giving in to the temptation of sales or new releases – perhaps make some effort to define what is important and what value you place on different things. Cheaper clothes may seem more ethical due to their thriftiness and austerity (especially in a time when belt-tightening is seen as laudable) but in the end the value of these items may unintuitively make them fall into the realm of over-consumption and avarice. Something to consider.
For more information about working conditions and the ethics of globalised companies, check out the Clean Clothes Campaign.