Fashion has become the wearable equivalent of empty calories

Date

Clare Press

There is a crisis in our wardrobes - too many clothes, not enough ethics, says Clare Press.

There is a crisis in our wardrobes - too many clothes, not enough ethics, says Clare Press. Photo: W.E Fenker/Stocksy

I swear they're breeding. That when I leave the house for work each day, they get it on together and make lots of little fashion babies behind my back. It is the only explanation that makes sense because no sane person would buy all these skirts.

Except, of course, I did buy them.

I am a modern woman: I shop, therefore I am, although over the years I have adopted gentler euphemisms for that particular verb. I collected the skirts (like fallen apples!) I gathered them, so I told myself, conveniently sidestepping the "hunted" part of that phrase – way too brutal and weird, right? I amassed and acquired the skirts, perhaps even attracted them (they came to me; it wasn't my fault).

It is a common affliction, this obsession with getting more clothes. A 2006 Cambridge University study found that women had four times as many clothes in their wardrobes than they had in 1980. I'm sure we have even more now. Walk-in closets the size of second bedrooms are no longer remarkable. YouTube's haul-girl phenomenon, which sees the likes of American social media superstar Bethany Mota showing off her excessive purchases, attracts millions of likes. Indeed, Mota's fan base is so enormous that last year she was granted a video interview with Barack Obama.

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Over on Instagram, witty quote tiles about shopping are popular: "The shortest horror story ever told: Sold Out"; "These bags under my eyes are Prada". Yet the average woman wears just 40 per cent of the clothes she owns.

I have a friend who repeatedly buys navy-and-white striped T-shirts.

"But they're all the same," I told her.

"No, this one has longer sleeves," she said.

Even my most anti-fashion friend admits to owning seven pairs of jeans.

Our parents had the milkman and the newspaper delivery boy – we have the DHL van from Net-a-Porter. We shop because we are told to ("Hurry, sale ends this weekend!"), for the thrill of it, out of habit and as a leisure pursuit. Sometimes we shop because we are bored, lonely, insecure or heartbroken. A few of us are genuinely addicted to shopping – the name for this condition is oniomania. But most of us shop simply because we can.

Ours is a surplus society, built on want as opposed to need; and new clothes, always status symbols, have become ridiculously accessible. Most of us can't buy a new car or a gold Rolex on a whim, but scoring a bagful of fashion swag is too easy. Saving up for some coveted thing, dreaming, waiting or – heaven forbid – denying, are things of the past.

Today's global fashion industry is worth about $1.5 trillion, designers and models have become celebrities, and commercial fashion is everywhere we look. We are buying more from luxury brands, but much, much more from the lower-priced sector. In 2014 Zara, the biggest fashion company in the world, operated 6683 stores globally. H&M produces close to 600 million garments a year. In the US, Forever 21 drops fresh product into stores every day. Many of us have bought clothes with the express intention of wearing them just once; "disposable fashion" is designed to be thrown away. Each year, Australians send $500 million worth of clothing to the tip, some of it still with the tags on.

Supermarkets sell fashion along with groceries, with starting prices as low as $6, while in London you can buy disposable ballet flats from vending machines. You can duck by the shopping centre in your lunch break and, for less than $150, emerge with a shiny new fashion ensemble, complete with shoes and jewellery. You can buy fashion on your tablet while pretending to pay bills, or on your phone while your partner thinks you're texting the in-laws.

Already we are seeing shopable runways: click-to-buy livestreams led by Topshop and Burberry. The current great debate is around what the industry is calling "see now, buy now", and whether fashion weeks should become purely consumer-focused events. Tom Ford, Tommy Hilfiger and Michael Kors think so – in February they all announced that their shows would match the retail cycle, because the consumer is not happy to wait for six months to buy that dress modelled by Gigi Hadid on the catwalk. They want it immediately. So luxury fashion is now fast fashion. Makes you dizzy, doesn't it?

Some of this fashion seems mighty cheap, some expensive – but who knows really? It's impossible to determine the true value of something when you don't know how it came to be. Remember the local dressmaker and fabric store? Didn't think so. Like our garment factories and textile mills, they have all but disappeared from Australian life.

Ninety-two per cent of the clothing sold in Australia is manufactured overseas, most of it in China, with the second-largest producer being Bangladesh. As costs in both those countries rise, brands chase cheaper producers elsewhere, with major new garment- and fabric-making hubs springing up in places such as Lesotho (which calls itself "Africa's jeans capital") and Ethiopia.

Emerging manufacturing nations are less regulated than established ones, but since they are conveniently tucked away on the other side of the world, most of us don't concern ourselves very deeply with the lives of the garment workers there, or the adverse impacts fashion manufacturing has on local environments. We've lost that connection, once so deep, to how the things we wear are made. When this happens, fashion becomes unmoored from reality: its beauty is diluted because it has no soul. It's just a quick fix of instant gratification – empty calories.

I remember the day this hit home.

I literally woke up and thought, "There are millions living in slums and I have a special drawer just for belts – there's something wrong with this equation."

It's true. That day came shortly after news broke in April 2013 of Bangladesh's Rana Plaza garment factory disaster, which left 1134 people dead and more than 2500 injured.

The building had been constructed without the proper permits and had been illegally extended. There weren't enough exits and many of these were often blocked. When the structure began to visibly crack, warnings were issued and some of the factories housed in the building were temporarily closed, but others producing garments to deadline for big-name brands ordered workers back the following day – with horrific results.

Brands that had placed recent orders with factories in Rana Plaza, or sold garments that were made there, include Italian staple Benetton (makers of the lambswool jumpers I prized highly as a teen), Mango, Walmart and Primark. The subsequent Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh was signed by 200 apparel brands, retailers and exporters from more than 20 countries – but there was still no resting easy in our $5 T-shirts.

Six months after Rana Plaza, CNN reported that conditions for Bangladesh's four million garment workers were much as they had been before the disaster: ridiculously low pay, cramped, dangerous conditions and less-than-zero rights.

If you're shocked, ask yourself how your new jeans can possibly retail for 20 bucks after import, tax, marketing and store mark-ups. The big brands will tell you it's because of economies of scale, but they would say that, wouldn't they? The idea that our fashion habits may be contributing to such misery and devastation doesn't bear thinking about, does it?

Not so long ago, I would have argued – if not out loud, at least to myself – that I couldn't kick my greedy fashion habit because what I wear is inextricably tied up with how I view myself, and how I want the world to view me. Now I would use that very same argument to make a rather different point: if I want to represent my best self in the way that I dress, I need to make more ethical choices.

I am by no means perfect. I still have way too many clothes, still write about "it" bags and hot collections and this season's trophy jacket. And I still covet and, yes, buy them.

But these days I am buying more carefully, and trying hard to start conversations about sustainability inside the fashion world that I love. Because I do still love it – I love its creativity, glamour and power but not its shitty eco scorecard or its ostrich behaviour when it comes to treating workers right. Slower, greener, kinder, more accountable, more conscious fashion choices are out there if you look for them. If I can change, so can you, and every little bit helps. 

 

STEPS TO A MORE SUSTAINABLE FASHION LIFE

1. Shop local

Supporting local producers helps communities thrive and stay unique. In general, the shorter the supply chain, the easier it is to map. And the nearer you are to the source of what you buy, the smaller the carbon cost of getting it to you.

2. Shop vintage

Reuse, repurpose, recycle. Buying pre-loved fashion saves it from landfill while also saving you that guilty conscience.

3. Support change-makers

Buy from brands striving to make sustainable the new normal. I like People Tree, which makes beautiful, affordable and sustainable fashion, luxury names such as Stella Jean, Edun and Maiyet, and the denim companies Nudie, Nobody and Tortoise. The Ethical Clothing Australia website lists accredited Aussie brands.

4. Read labels

We check food and cosmetics labels for unwanted nasties. It's time we did the same with our clothes. Made in ... where? And from what? If there's not enough info provided, why not? Demand greater transparency.

5. Ask questions

Consumers have the power to hold brands accountable. Ask more of the brands you love, and tell them that you care about ethics and sustainability.

6. Go natural

Ban the obvious bad guys such as PVC, the production of which is highly toxic, and "wrinkle-free no-iron" fabrics, which often have been treated with formaldehyde. Choose organic cotton and vegetable-tanned leather. Research man-made fibres so you can decide which are best, whether it be recycled polyester or viscose manufactured in a closed-loop system.

7. Buy the best you can afford

The obvious way to reduce clothing waste is to stop buying fashion designed to be thrown away. Invest in beautiful pieces built to last. As Vivienne Westwood says, "Choose well, buy less."

 

Clare Press is the author of Wardrobe Crisis (Nero, $30).