Fast fashion is a major source of plastic pollution and a driver of climate chaos. Clothing is often made in terrible working conditions by people – usually women – who are sorely underpaid. Buying more expensive clothes does not guarantee that there wasn’t sweatshop labour involved. It’s quite hard to take an ethical, eco-friendly approach to clothing, and a tight budget makes it even harder.
Buying second hand isn’t always the answer. You need to be time rich to do that, and you need an average sort of body. Less usual body shapes, sudden health related shape changes, and limited mobility can have a huge impact on your clothes options.
Part of the environmental impact of clothing comes from how we wash and dry it. If your budget is tight, you probably don’t wash clothing after one wear anyway. Air drying is cheaper and greener than a tumble drier. Fewer washes means putting fewer plastic particles into the world. Repeat wearing helps reduce impact. The worst problems are caused by buying something, wearing it once or twice and then throwing it away – there’s a terrifying amount of clothing that ends up in landfill.
The cheap solution to sweatshops is to make your own clothing. This is an answer that does however require time and skill. Skirts are easy. Trousers are not. It’s taken me years to get the hang of anything resembling viable trousers. I favour cobbling things together from dead items of clothing to keep as much as I can out of landfill, but that also takes time and skill and won’t be available to everyone.
The trouble with clothes is that we’re surrounded by stories about how we should look. That our clothes should look new is considered key to looking smart, professional and successful. To be tatty is to court accusations of being not only poor, but unwashed. We are encouraged to read low personal standards into old, faded, tatty and mended clothing.
Most people historically have patched and mended clothing to extend its life. This is often easier to do with natural fibres than it is with synthetic fabrics. In a culture that takes pride in carefully maintained, patched and repurposed garments, it’s much easier to be someone who does that. If you were going to be judged for the skilfulness of your repairs, not for looking like your clothes are brand new, there would be more incentive to learn how to repair things.
We’ve told ourselves a story about what looks good and what is most desirable. It goes along with other stories about the expression of material wealth being a good thing to do, or emulate. It is not a coincidence that this helps people sell clothes to us instead of us maintaining what we have. There’s not much profit to be made from clothes lovingly maintained over many years. There’s a lot to unpick here and a great deal that needs to change.