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Each day, we wake up and pose an elemental question:
“What am I going to wear?”
Much thought goes into the decision: How do I feel? What’s the weather? What do I have to do? What do I want to say? To project?
Clothes are our initial and most basic tool of communication. They convey our social and economic status, our occupation, our ambition, our selfworth. They can empower us, imbue us with sensuality. They can reveal our respect, or our disregard, for convention. “Vain trifles as they seem,” Virginia Woolf wrote in Orlando, “ clothes . . . change our view of the world and the world’s view of us.”
As I sit here and write this, I’m wearing a black cotton jersey dress with a white pointed collar and shirt cuffs, made in Bangladesh. I spotted it on a Facebook ad, clicked through, and within days it was delivered to my home. It is flattering and fashionably on point. But did I think hard about where it came from when I ordered it? Did I consider why it only set me back thirty bucks? Did I need this dress?
No. No. And nope.
I am not alone.
Every day, billions of people buy clothes with nary a thought—nor even a twinge of remorse—about the consequences of those purchases. In 2013, the Center for Media Research declared that shopping was becoming “America’s favorite pastime.” Shoppers snap up five times more clothing now than they did in 1980. In 2018, that averaged sixty- eight garments a year. As a whole, the world’s citizens acquire 80 billion apparel items annually.
And if the global population swells to 8.5 billion by 2030, and GDP per capita rises by 2 percent in developed nations and 4 percent in developing economies each of those intervening years, as experts predict, and we don’t change our consumption habits, we will buy 63 percent more fashion—from 62 million tons to 102 million tons. This is an amount, the Boston Consulting Group and the Global Fashion Agenda report, that would be the “equivalent of 500 billion T- shirts.”
All this is by design. In airports, you can pick up an entire new wardrobe on the way to the gate. In Tokyo, you can score a tailored suit from a vending machine. Love that outfit on Instagram? Click- click, and it’s yours. Walk into a fashion store: techno thumps; surfaces gleam; the light is desert- sharp—ah, the better to see the abundance of offerings. A freneticism sets in. Price, curiously, becomes moot. You’re so beguiled, and so overstimulated, you forget to consider such fundamentals as quality. “It’s like a sex shop,” a former fashion magazine editor mused as we discussed it over lunch in Paris one day. “Or a Vegas casino,” I countered. You spend freely, recklessly even, and though you’ve probably been rooked, you feel like you’ve won.
“The expectation is to keep up with the ever-changing trends—[to] respond to the constant noise that says, ‘Come buy something else,’ ” Dilys Williams, director of the Centre for Sustainable Fashion at the London College of Fashion, told me. “The original, pre-industrial definition of fashion was to make things together—a collective that is a convivial, sociable process we use to communicate with each other. The current definition is the production, marketing, and consumption of clothes—an industrialized system for making money.”
And it’s not sustainable. None of it.
Find out more about Fashionopolis: The Price of Fast Fashion and the Future of Clothes
Image: Penguin Press
What can you do? Dana Thomas’s tips
- Launder your clothes less frequently
Try to break the habit of tossing a pair of jeans into the wash after wearing them once. Get several wears out of clothes before washing, spot-clean small stains, and use cold, short washing cycles. You’ll reduce water usage, cut household expenses and elongate your clothes’ lifespans—a win for the planet, your wallet, and your laundry hamper.
- Shop your closet
Before buying those new jeans or another black T-shirt, look inside your closet to see if you already have these pieces. Or try gathering some friends for a clothing swap party.
- Rent your wardrobe
There’s a growing number of websites and programs today that make it easy to rent high-quality fashion, tailored for your fit. Renting will keep your wardrobe fresh and ward off so much waste. You’ll be more daring in your choices—becoming more fashion forward—since you aren’t investing in the items and keeping them forever. If you do fall in love with a look, you can always buy it.
- Take a Second Look at Secondhand
For a long time, consignment shops were filled with passé, dowdy clothes—but no more. Over the past two decades, as Hollywood stars began walking red carpets in vintage clothing, there’s been a revolution in the secondhand market. Today, you’ll find great deals on stunning, quality garments in thrift shops and on consignment websites.
- Consign Online
Have any gently-worn garments lurking in your closet that you never seem to wear? Consider consigning them online. You’ll make some money back, and your clothes will have a second life. Many online consignment sites will give you credit for other items, so you too can refresh your wardrobe.
- Skip the plastic bags
You may be in the habit of taking your canvas tote on a grocery run—but don’t forget to take it along when shopping for clothes, as well.
- Repair and re-wear
Rather than tossing out stained or torn garments, think about overdyeing, or camouflaging with cool embroideries. Such treatments personalize items—making them one of a kind!—and give them a longer life.
- Pick up a needle yourself
The maker revolution has brought home-knitting, sewing and needlework back into vogue. Join a knitting circle or sewing bee, or take classes to learn the craft, and make or repair your own clothes.
- Lead with your best foot forward
Instead of throwing away your gently-used shoes, seek out a local charity organization that can repurpose the shoes for communities that may need them.