The Bottomless Fashion Glut
‘Official figures regarding the amount of clothing produced each year do not exist, but it is estimated that between 80 and 100 billion pieces of clothing are produced each year.’
As a human community, we produce 80–100 billion garments per year. Production has increased fourfold in 20 years. According to one survey, each piece is worn on average 7 times. How many pieces of clothing currently exist in global circulation?
The London Sustainability Exchange urges its participants and audience to shop responsibly. This is something of a cliche, overworked and overused, the prevalence of which allows educated capitalists to excuse their consumerist behaviour. What does it mean, to shop responsibly?
In popular discourse, shopping ‘responsibly’ means purchasing garments from brands deemed ethical, or choosing clothing from the ‘green’ range. The brands that spring to mind are H&M’s line of Conscious clothing, Primark with ‘Primark Cares’, and so on.
A Lexical Issue is a Practical One
These massive clothing companies are pumping disposable fashion into the wardrobes of the world, without a thought as to the shudderingly overfull waste management sector. But they are doing so under the guise of sustainability and ethical corporate policies. ‘Corporate’ and ‘ethical’ do not belong in the same sentence.
‘The average American now generates 82 pounds of textile waste each year. That adds up to more than 11 million tons of textile waste from the U.S. alone.’
As is often the way, the United States may lead the field in fast fashion and textile waste. But that’s not an excuse for complacency among the capitalists of Europe, China, Southeast Asia, the Middle East and Oceania.
In the wake of the mega-brands’ emphatic failure to honestly address the crisis of disposable fashion, a dearth of smaller, more justifiably ‘sustainable’ companies have staked their claim. In Compare Ethics’ What is ethical fashion section, they detail a number of brands attempting to topple the status quo. But at root, start-ups jostling for capital and clout have to answer the same fundamental questions.
Fashion is not Sustainable
Corporations are not ethical; capitalism can only pretend to care. Any company producing new clothing en masse must be able to answer, incontrovertibly, the question, ‘Why are you making more clothes?’
These faux-solutions belie a serious disconnect. The phrase ‘shopping responsibly’ is in large part oxymoronic — which is to say, it contradicts itself. Shopping is different to buying. Buying is an action; shopping is an activity. Capitalism requires shoppers to drive it. Shopping, as hobby, as daytime activity, is one of the ingredients of climate breakdown. Therefore, to shop responsibly is to not shop at all. To buy responsibly is to buy only what is essential, and therefore not to shop, per se.
The Value of the Repair Mentality
The noncommittal refrain of those clearing out their wardrobes basically amounts to a reliance on the convenience of ‘sending it to Africa’. The surge in charity shop donations brought about by the pandemic has shed light on our issues with personal textile waste management.
There is simply too much: too much for the charity shops; too much for the poor. There is too much for, yes, Africa. In fact, in 2016, members of the East African Community set out to ban imports of used garments. Under pressure, they have been forced to compromise, but the fact remains. There is too much.
So what to do with all the clothes? This is the research question posed by Alison Gwilt, of Sheffield Hallam University. As Gwilt’s paper, ‘What Prevents People Repairing Clothes?’ notes: ‘within mainstream society damaged clothing is typically discarded to landfill rather than repaired’. Landfill already consumes 57% of discarded textile items.
It appears the easiest, and for many the only accessible way to express genuine concern for sustainability is simply not to buy new clothes unless it is absolutely necessary. (In other words, it’s OK not to wear secondhand underpants)
Leading the Field, One Fix at a Time
Outdoor clothing brands such as Patagonia and Barbour, among others, are becoming increasingly well known for spreading a culture of re-use and repair. Separate companies have been set up purely to service worn clothing.
Patagonia operates the largest (and still growing) repair facility in North America, repairing about 50,000 pieces per year.
But consumer perspectives have as much to do with an overbearing culture of disposable fashion as they do with the services on offer. Repaired clothing should be revered; it has a story to tell. But the overarching narrative of instant gratification and phasic fashion inhibits such a perspective.
Dr. Sonali Diddi of Colorado State University has conducted and compiled extensive research into the subject of fashion and sustainability. In a research paper titled ‘Consumer Perceptions Related to Clothing Repair’, Diddi writes of the importance of cultural attitudes as a pretext for ‘sustainable post-consumption clothing behaviors (SPCBs)’. Attitude provides a basis for action: ‘participants’ attitudes toward mending, mending frequency, and their SPCBs positively influenced their intentions’.
A culture of repair is a necessary precursor to material change. When it comes to tackling a system of consumerism that is bent on converting precious resources into disposable goods, there is no alternative, save for eco-dictatorship. But culture is a notoriously stickly, lumbering beast (or immovable feast).
Historical Trends in Clothing Repair
Disposable clothing lines have not been the norm for very long. As Alison Gwilt writes, ‘Before the Second World War, in the US and UK it was considered normal practice to repair and alter clothing, usually for economic reasons’. Labour costs being lower, mending was a viable option for most. The expanding clothing market of the 1960s, which made ready-to-wear clothing more accessible and affordable, ‘impacted heavily on a traditional culture of repairing and altering clothes’. Who darns socks anymore?
Nowadays, most people lack the skills required to mend clothing, and lust after new trends popularised in magazines and shop windows. Clothes are inexpensive. A decline in demand results in a drop in those providing the service (i.e., high street seamsters and seamstresses).
Going Forward — Solutions
In concluding her report, Gwilt ‘reiterate[s] the need […] for us to start thinking of fashion existing within a community rather than an industry, where we — suppliers, designers, producers, retailers, wearers, menders and recyclers — all have a part to play’.
Current trends show that mending and altering garments is a practice confined predominantly to craft communities — online and offline. How can we expand these? Historically, fixes were seen as an indicator of economic hardship. The punks, and Vivienne Westwood, among others, made swings at this overarching narrative, but their trends remained subcultural. Can we make reparation cool, and normal, once and for all?
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This article also appears on The Focus and Medium.