Sustainability is such a huge topic that it can be hard to work out what you can possibly do that will make a difference. It’s easy to become disheartened but, as Christopher Raeburn said at the BFC’s London Craft Week event, “We’re all part of the problem and part of the solution.” We can all make small changes to the way we consume clothing, and cumulatively those small changes will begin to have an effect, whether it’s by changing the way we think and shop, by influencing our friends and family, or by making retailers aware that consumers want to see change.
A lot has changed in my lifetime, and much of the big shift has happened this century. In the early 1990s, I remember spending my pocket money in the local (tiny) branch of Topshop, and planning occasional Saturday trips with my friends to Oxford Circus where we’d spend an entire day trying on clothes in the flagship Topshop and H&M stores. In the mid-90s, I recall spending my Wednesday afternoons at university taking part in the ‘sport’ of window shopping as, without an entire internet filled with clothes, trawling Manchester city centre once a week was the best way to find out what was new and plan where to go once I did have some cash. I also remember the excitement in my office, circa 2004, when a colleague was showing the rest of the team a dress she’d found on a website called As Seen on Screen (aka ASOS). That was the start of a big shift… when browsing the high street turned to browsing online, and new styles started to become available more than twice a year.
It’s hard to imagine now, but there was a time when you could see something you wanted and then save up for it (or wait to see if it would be in the sale) because the same stock was available in stores for months. Now, collections come and go so fast that even the most sensible of us can find ourselves thinking “I should probably get it now, before it’s too late!” But the speed that fast fashion now operates at hasn’t just encouraged more impulse purchases, it has also ensured that we value our clothes less. If you’ve spent months thinking about a jacket and planning what you’ll wear it with, the excitement when it finally becomes yours is immense. You’re far more inclined to look after it and wear it for years than if the jacket was a quick mindless purchase.
This is, of course, exacerbated by low prices. In an excellent article for Racked last year, Chavie Lieber takes a detailed look at the current state of the British fashion industry, noting that “The speed at which fast fashion operates, and the low prices it promises, has had a profound effect on consumers, who see clothing as a highly disposable product. As studies from Greenpeace have found, many customers now toss clothing after two or three wears.” This is the first small change you can make – only buy clothing you truly love and intend to keep for a year or more. Don’t buy it because you want it now, buy it because you know you’ll still want it next month. Once that change has been made, you’ll be surprised how much easier it is to make a few more.