- Jackie Mallon |
New York - H&M kicked off its “World Recycle Week” on Monday during which they offer to take your old clothes to be recycled in exchange for shopping vouchers. They are celebrating the initiative with a video of cool-girl activist rapper M.I.A singing a song entitled “Rewear It” while dancing on a pillar of recycled clothes. If you think something sounds dodgy here, kudos to you. According to Lucy Siegle from the Guardian, it is likely to take 12 years for H&M to use up 1,000 tons of fashion waste which roughly equates to the same amount of clothes a fast fashion retailer of this size pumps into the world in 48 hours. Which, no matter how much we like M.I.A, makes us question: is this nothing more than a marketing stunt?
Crimes Against Fashion
Fast fashion’s record of crimes against our planet is long. H&M alone have been accused of cutting up and dumping unsold merchandise on Manhattan sidewalks; of making fraudulent claims about using organic cotton; their knits were reportedly found on the sewing machines when the Rana Plaza factory collapsed. This week they urge us to “Join in a global fashion movement for the planet” while continuing to manufacture in remote locations like Vietnam, Cambodia, Myanmar, Pakistan, Indonesia, China, countries where regulation has proved difficult to oversee. But as long as fast fashion retailers continue selling T shirts for 5 US dollars, there will be corner-cutting and inhumane treatment of workers. This is not the global fashion movement we need.
The bottom line: We must buy less fast fashion, not be lured into buying more under the guise of doing good. Even the value of “recycling” is complicated now. It is no longer acceptable to rationalize making space for new clothes by donating old ones to good will, believing it will be distributed to people in need. We’ve overplayed that hand. Other countries are now swamped with our cast-offs.
We have acknowledged the importance of identifying where our food comes from––a pesticide-ridden corporate mega-farm or a small organic farmer upstate?––and are prepared to pay extra for those organic strawberries. The “Dirty Dozen” list pinned to our fridge informs us which produce contain the most pesticide and which are safe to eat non-organic. But we don’t seem to be as vigilant about what we put on our bodies as what we put in them.
Many consumers balk at the idea of cutting out fast fashion completely. The common defense tends to be “Not all of us can afford to buy designer clothes made in Italy or wherever,” and is designed to shut down the discussion whilst attempting to scold the person who suggested it. But you can afford to do better, no matter how much you earn. The risky alternative is to become an entitled, numb, style-deficient shopping automaton.
Vintage is always in!
Let’s look at how people fared in the years before the fast-fashion juggernaut flattened our landscape. They were pretty stylish. And judging by the vintage fashions currently paraded on our runways, their style is as relevant as ever. Buy the originals. But let’s respect the price tag which reflects the wisdom of those years––their T shirts didn’t even cost 5 US dollars back then!
But there is no need to despair. Here are more suggestions for shopping
responsibly, no excuses:
Buy Made in America. There are many thriving businesses selling only American-made products. BishopCollective.com is just one such e-tailer specializing in womenswear, accessories and home goods. TheGoodTrade.com can help you discover many others. Pay a little more than you would at H&M or Zara, get something unique and ethically produced, and keep a new generation of American manufacturers in business.
Killer Clothes Shouldn’t Kill
This is more important than ever as the recent increase of the minimum wage to 15 US dollars in California, an albeit diminished hub of American apparel manufacture, means remaining manufacturers are already looking overseas for cheaper alternatives. The LA Times finds “The exodus has already begun” and spoke to one factory owner who previously sold to clients like Forever 21. Holding up a patterned dress, he said, "I used to pay $5 to get this sewn, and now it costs 6.50 US dollars. But my customer doesn't want to pay that, so I can't sell it anymore. It will be impossible to make clothes in Los Angeles.”
So it’s boots on the ground, people! There’s only one way to fix this: not just by relooking at our buying habits, but by boldly staring them down.
Speaking of boots on the ground, some shoppers still prefer to visit stores for the full retail experience. Reformation, which has a store in LA and two highly trafficked ones in NYC, as well as a successful online business, counts Taylor Swift, Rihanna and Rosie Huntington-Whiteley among loyal devotees, and sells repurposed vintage in modern shapes with new flourishes. Their motto, “We make killer clothes that don’t kill the environment,” could become our morning mirror mantra: I wear killer clothes that don’t kill the environment.
Listen to Dame Viv
British designer Vivienne Westwood says, “Buy less. Choose well. Make it last. Instead of buying six things, buy one thing that you really like. Don't keep buying just for the sake of it. Don't just invest in fashion, but invest in the world."
Listen to the Dame. There is no need to buy something for the weekend every week. There is no need to buy one in every color just because it fits well. There is no need to take advantage of the Bogo offer just because the apparel giant is promoting it on every billboard and TV channel. If you were offered a free second burger and fries at dinner, you would think twice: you’d ate enough, be conscious of the judgmental stares of fellow diners, be counting in advance the extra calories you’ll need to work off in the gym. All healthy considerations as nothing is without repercussion, least of all fast fashion. Overconsumption is gluttony.
Get Back in the Closet!
Value your clothes as a collection. There is some good stuff in there. Treat yourself when you can afford something nice, made locally or ethically, and hold onto it. As you incorporate it into your wardrobe, new outfits materialize and your closet is revitalized. If you’re lucky, your purchase might even accrue value like a piece of art; if not, its sentimental value is always climbing. Love those old friends, they’re the heritage lynchpins of your look!
When browsing online or in fashion magazines, don’t simply covet the clothes, pay attention to the styling. You can recreate the magazine looks by loosening up your imagination rather than your purse strings. The compliments of others will be more rewarding than the cheap thrill of bagging another shoddily-made blouse that your colleague two cubicles over also owns in multiple colorways.
Be gender fluid. It’s all the rage. Girls, share with the guys in your life, guys, share with the girls. The lines are becoming increasingly blurry between menswear and womens, and with Gucci and Public School recently announcing they will now show both on one runway, it’s set to intensify. So have at it, sequins for all!
Check Ebay for items from your favorite designer and you could be lucky with an embarrassingly cheap bid to snag a piece that your closet will hinge upon for years. Visit a Salvation Army for outerwear––trench coats that look even more Armani than what he currently sells. Consignment stores are closing down. Help save them as they are a great resource for barely worn designer clothes that, again, no one else will have and, with proper care, will last you a lifetime.
Make Do and Mend. We are in the middle of a crisis and this wartime initiative of darning and patching should again be part of our closet preservation efforts. Don’t throw something away on first impulse. Think: How can I save this? Even better: How can I improve it? Cover a moth hole with a quirky vintage patch from Etsy. Dye clothes that have been stained or marked. Experiment with tie dye for summer. Go to a fabric store and buy a few yards of a print that makes you dream. Then dare to make your own 70s A-line skirt (so Gucci!) following a simple store-bought pattern.
Bring a friend into your closet and see it through their eyes. You’ll be amazed at their reactions to some of your old duds. Have Swap Parties and everyone leaves happy. Don’t covet any of your friends’ clothes? Try Swapdom.com and mooch about among other people’s stuff.
We live in an era where we know the price of everything and the value of nothing. There is no excuse for skulking off to the fast fashion giants for a quick fix––or at least, you can, but your conscience will no longer be clear. Expect people to increasingly shame you. Consider your favorite fast fashion brand the drug pusher on the corner you keep paying illicit visits to and examine the possibility that there might be an addictive element to your shopping. If all the headlines on pollution, landfills and loss of human life haven’t left a mark; if you’ve cried through the documentary The True Costyet popped into Joe Fresh on your lunch hour the next day, there may be something deeper at work.
What are you hoping to find among this rack of cheap clothes? I guarantee what you’re looking for won’t be there.
Put down the blouse and back away slowly.
By contributing guest editor Jackie Mallon, who is on the teaching faculty of several NYC fashion programmes and is the author of Silk for the Feed Dogs, a novel set in the international fashion industry.