September 27th, 2013
“I stand for being a super hero. What do you stand for?” Walking down the high street in my home town of Bristol, I was faced with this question – supposedly asked by somebody called ‘Billy’– writ large across the window of the Dr Martens store. As style-conscious Bristolian shoppers enjoy the Bristol Fashion Week festivities, I’d like them to reflect on what they stand for. Do they support the values the fashion industry embodies? And are they content to buy in to retailers’ attempts to sell us more things we don’t need? As consumers, is there something a little less nebulous to stand for than “being a super hero”?
Of course, Dr Martens isn’t the only one to bombard us with nonsense advertising based on insubstantial ideas. It’s a little demoralising that when we’re faced with so many pressing issues – real concrete issues – advertisers can still push our buttons so easily. They pander to the grand, vague visions we have of ourselves, and use them to sell us brands that promise to make real the inarticulate desires they’ve helped to shape.
It’s all too easy to be a superhero of consumerism like Billy: just switch off your brain, open your wallet, and buy in to the brand. But I’d like to think that it’s possible to stand for something a little more substantive. We can choose to take a stand against the wasteful consumption of cheap fashion; we can make ourselves aware of its environmental and social costs; and we can recognise these are borne disproportionately by those living far away in other countries.
I don’t think that my reaction is really what Dr Martens intended to provoke, but I thought I’d give them the benefit of the doubt; so I visited the Facebook page they advertised to tell them what I stand for. Unfortunately, it turned out that Dr Martens won’t stand for any message more than 90 characters long. Convenient really: no chance of saying something of substance, but perfect for banalities like:
“I stand for all the people, young and old who have a dream. A dream to be big, a dream to be a success.”
So in order to stand for something real, I will be using my allotted 90 characters to submit a web link to this article, so that I can say clearly why we need to change our attitudes to clothes.
According to research by the UK’s Waste & Resources Action Programme (WRAP), a typical British household owns approximately £4,000 worth of clothes. 30% of these have not been worn in a year. However, although we leave a large proportion of our clothes tucked away in our closets, we still manage to send an estimated 350,000 tonnes of cast-offs to landfill each year – worth an estimated £140 million if it were sold at charity or second hand shops. To replace what we dispose of, it would appear that, on average, UK households are spending an average of £1,700 on clothes annually, an industry that accounts for 5% of the country’s retail sales.
These figures tell us a number of interesting things. First, even in a downturn, people are spending an alarming amount on fashion; secondly, a lot of what is bought is hardly being worn; and thirdly, a great deal of serviceable clothing is rotting in landfill. This is the model on which our fashion industry thrives.
This profligate consumption and disposal is fuelled, at least in part, by discounted prices that do not reflect the true social and environmental costs of production. Indeed, if these costs were taken into account, aspiring superheroes would be amongst those feeling the pinch – it’s unlikely that they’d still be able to purchase a £12 onesie from Primark.
In-Kleined to change?
Economists talk of ‘externalities’ in situations where products don’t bear the full social and environmental costs of their production. The fashion industry is renowned for the degree to which it has been able to externalise its costs of production and thereby boost consumption through rock bottom prices. The 1990s saw these practices exposed – thanks to the likes of Naomi Klein’s book No Logo – and much has been done to try and ‘internalise’ the costs our consumption visits on countries such as China, India, and Bangladesh.
Unfortunately, there is still a long way to go. We hear occasional dramatic reports of collapsing factories, and are dimly aware of working conditions well below those expected by employees in the West and the flouting of environmental standards. But workers’ campaigns for better pay and conditions make few headlines. Trade is boosted by controversial ‘free trade zones’– with their significantly relaxed or non-existent regulations – that span much of the world and keep the fashion flowing West to fulfil what GAP might call our “Manifest Destiny”.
It’s not just discount brands: those paying premium prices for exclusivity would be naïve to believe that the full social and environmental costs of manufacture have been ‘internalised’ – more likely, the higher cost just means a bigger margin. Even designers, such as Vivienne Westwood, who espouse ethical fashion don’t necessarily follow through when it comes to their own ranges.
If clothing was priced at a level that reflected the true social and environmental costs of production, I believe it would have a profound effect on how we consume. Of course, it would initially be unpopular with those brought up to enjoy throwaway fashion. But we might rediscover some lost treasures in the back of the wardrobe; we might enjoy buying clothes that we could expect to last more than a season; and we might quickly learn that clothing built to last retains a resale value, giving us greater incentive to make sure that that the unwanted contents of our closets do not end up in landfill.
Stand and deliver
You don’t need to be a superhero to make a difference. By taking just a few positive actions you can reduce the impact of your clothes on the environment:
- Buy things you will actually wear, from companies with reputable ethical policies. That way you’ll have some assurance about the conditions under which they were made, and you’ll get better value out of them.
- If you have the financial resources, try buying organic and fair trade goods.
- Spend more time in them. Keeping your clothes for longer is one of the best changes you can make and will save you money. An extra nine months of use can reduce the carbon, water and waste footprints of clothes by between 20% and 30%.
- Think before you wash. Laundering your clothes accounts for about a quarter of their overall environmental impact. Washing at lower temperatures, washing larger loads, and tumble drying less can all make significant differences. It may be unthinkable for some, but you can even try washing things less often.
- Don’t throw your textiles in with the residual waste: separate them out for recycling and/or reuse by taking them to the local clothes bank.
- Reuse clothes by buying second hand items, for example from charity shops or eBay (it’s now mainstream, just think Macklemore’s Thrift Shop! [careful, lyrics NSFW])
It seems to me that there is plenty to stand for, and plenty to argue against in our fashion market. But there are simple, practical steps that all of us can take to help change how fashion works, and I wish Bristol Fashion Week was focused on these issues. As for Billy, I hope he will stop wasting his time dreaming of being a superhero when he could be putting on his old DMs and standing for something of substance.