While thinking about the slow fashion/clothing movement a couple of weeks ago, I watched the documentary “The True Cost” (available on Netflix) which is about the textile industry and the transition to clothing as disposable consumer items over the last three decades – its really a catalog of environmental catastrophe and labour abuses worldwide and I think that everyone who has every bought a $5 t-shirt and thought yes! what a deal – should watch it. Actually, everyone who wears any mass produced clothing should watch it – just to be informed about what it really does cost all of us to have an endless parade of cheap garments.
Part of that documentary, however, focused on the switch to fair trade products and companies such as People Tree which has environmental and ethical sourcing policies for its clothing – and makes beautiful and fashionable things. I immediately went to their website after watching the documentary to see what they had on offer for dresses – and I loved them! I wanted to buy several right away… because they are great, and not *too* expensive, and with the halo of “doing good” it almost seems like one ought to buy some more things to support this venture – right?
Well – from my perspective on making and slow fashion, my reasons for it – no. And its something I struggle with all the time – because like everyone, I want new things for my wardrobe – but I don’t need nearly the amount of clothing that an endless procession of new things would generate. Whether I purchase ethical, or not, I am still faced with the issue of too much stuff. Too much for me, and too much for the planet to bear – even with the most ethical sourcing policies possible.
And while I see a place for fair trade/local making when it comes to garments, food, and other items – I am afraid that too often “slow” as in slow food and slow fashion, is just another way of saying elite. This is really exemplified in food writing – as pointed out in an article in The Atlantic a couple of years ago – which details the celebration of gluttony by many writers who also espouse “slow food” as an ethic. It’s a real nice bit of hypocrisy to, on the one hand celebrate less overall consumption for everyone, while also stuffing oneself to the point of near-illness. I don’t think the point is lost here when it comes to fair trade shopping either. Too often, people who feel that they can afford to shop fair trade (people like me, for example, a middle class income earner), still purchase far above their actual level of need. And when they are done with those clothes, because they are middle class, they probably donate them to thrift rather than sell them – contributing then to the problem of global over-supply of goods which then destroy local textile markets in the global South. That is, over-consumption is a problem, whether we are talking about $5 t-shirts or $200 dresses. And while the lowest income folks are most definitely consuming the most mass-produced goods, they are still consuming way less goods overall than most of us who have greater disposable incomes (or who are wealthy).
While I believe that systemic change is necessary in order to grapple with the real problem of too much resource use on a finite planet (ie – capitalism is a terrible way or organizing ourselves for sustainability) – on an individual level, I still want to find a way out of this trap of wanting, and having, and discarding. When I started making clothes a few years ago, it was really motivated by a bunch of different impulses – making, body image, learning, creativity – but as I have worked with textiles, I have come to think a lot about the process of the garment industry – both textile making and ready-mades – and how that applies to me.
Garment-making is physically challenging work, and often very dusty, bringing one into contact with chemically treated fabrics and threads. The recognition of this alone has helped me to pare way back on my purchase of ready-made clothing. And when I stick to making my own clothing, I tend to acquire a lot less clothes overall. In a given year I might make two skirts, two dresses, one sweater, maybe a blouse, and some accessory items. This is still quite a lot of stuff (it adds up when I look at what is in my closet from five years of making clothing) – but nowhere near what I would consume in an Old Navy during a sale (I still purchase jeans, underwear and tank tops ready made – and $100 in a place like Old Navy gets one crazy amount of stuff).
But even then, I don’t feel like I’m really doing my part to combat over-consumption – as the act of making, alone, accounts for a huge amount of consumer action. The community of knitters, sewists, and other makers is just as prone to excessive consumption as any other social group – although everyone trumpets their ability to “use every last scrap” a lot of people are very proud of their yarn and fabric stashes – some of which take up storage lockers and whole rooms in a home. Although I purchase a lot of yarn and fabric through thrift stores and de-stashes – I still do my fair amount of new purchase as well. And I did just re-do my sewing room from top to bottom which involved a lot of money spent on Ikea furniture. As makers, we often find ourselves caught in the conundrum of spending resources in order to conserve resources – which in the end cancel each other out. It really points us back to the base problem of living in a system which values growth over life – and its very difficult to get off that wheel individually and collectively.
This post isn’t going to end with an answer, or even an avowal that I will do better. I will try to do better, as I move away from ready-mades, thus limiting the amount of new garments which come into my life on an annual basis. But I see, all the time, that I am still consuming way more than I need, most North American consumers are. Whether we espouse slow and local, or ready-made – the real trick is in living with less — way less.