Wearing Out The Planet7 June 2017
“That top, it’s fantastic,” was the first thing the barista said to me when I entered the Brunswick café – the type of place where The Smiths mellow the crate-furnished, many-a-pot-plant matchbox of a room. “Thank you,” I replied, but really, I was thanking Savers. My oversized T-shirt, a gem of a garment featuring a trio of (stoned, I like to believe) cats playing jazz before a full moon was only three dollars from the recycle superstore – a true bargain for such a masterpiece. But sadly, this isn’t a story about hipster fashion finds.
It’s a satisfying thing paying for clothes with a couple of coins, especially when these clothes end up spending more time hanging on your shoulders than in your wardrobe. Purchasing cheap second-hand clothes causes less trauma to the hip pocket of the financially scrambling student, but the effects of such an (albeit partly fated) shopping custom are far greater.
My decision to shop only for seconds wasn’t reached solely as the result of a deficit-resolving incentive, but was also a reaction to a spell of gruelling self-evaluation courtesy of Peter Singer. Singer’s book How are we to live? invites a headache of existential crises, severe cynicism about the state of humanity and a sense of hopelessness about the future. It’s painful to accept, especially for tragic optimists like myself, but nonetheless crucial to acknowledge. “In a society in which the narrow pursuit of material self-interest is the norm, the shift to an ethical stance is more radical than many people realize,” he ventured. Convincing? I thought so. But, alas, and as Singer reminds adamantly, sometimes desire is simply too overpowering to acknowledge the bigger picture. The people in third world countries, the environment and future generations, aren’t always visable.
Australians have become uncontrollable shopaholics. Collectively, we are among the largest cosumers of small textiles, buying around 27 kilograms per capita each year, we are among the largest consumers of new textiles, second only to North America. According to the ABS, between 2009 and 2010, 293,000 tonnes of textiles and leather was thrown out. Where does it go? Landfill.
So, what do we do? At some point we start to embody (almost as well as Audrey does) Holly Golightly when she peers lustfully into Tiffany’s, craving that one item or two items or three items that we think will satisfy our retail-hungry souls. We’re scared of those outfit repeats, we wonder whether we have enough shirts to go with that skirt, or whether that dress we wore three years ago should ever be worn again.
Meanwhile, we may play the ‘do I really need this’ scenario in our heads. Cue the unrolling of a film projector where we imagine the item-in-question’s production process: the cotton fields in Sri Lanka, the factories in Bangladesh filled with women in shawls they wear all year-round, the toxins and dyes seeping into rivers, the black fuels of the crate-mounted ships and the trucks lined up at the docks, ready to take them to the store. Then you come in. You see the item and you fantasise about how you’ll wear it, where you’ll wear it and who will see it. You buy it. And you wear it; once, twice, thrice. But then, months later, you forget you own it altogether and it ends up squished in a heap at the back of your drawer.
What, you don’t imagine these things? Well, maybe you should.
Of course, I’m not suggesting we buy seconds and only seconds. Although I’m now almost entirely devoted to the thrift shopping regime, I know how frustrating it can be browsing through poor-quality rubbish, so I’ll still do a sneaky browse of labels online, or go for a ‘harmless stroll’ down Gertrude Street. We can, however, seek out other sustainable options , do some research about our favourite brands via a quick google of ethical fashion guides* and be prepared to ditch them in the event they’re shit for the environment or for the people they employ. We could shop the smaller local labels, who often source sustainable materials and don’t use cheap labour, and buy vintage or boutique seconds (where they’ve already picked out the groovy stuff for you to optimise that Brunswick look), and if we’re really feeling creative – make the clothes on our own.
It will make a difference. Already, having realised that their customers want guilt-free garments, companies are inching towards more sustainable means of production, with 20 per cent more companies working to trace where their raw materials are coming from since 2013.
So, let’s invest a little more thought into where our clothes come from and how much of them we buy.
*A good one, particularly for labour status, is ‘Behind the Barcode’.