When minimalist blogger Jessica Williams tells me about her years of binge shopping, I know exactly what she means. I too would get home from a long day's work, have a glass of wine, put on the TV and scroll through ASOS on my phone, adding random items to my cart, thinking I’d worry about what I actually liked when they arrived.
There's a sense of immediate gratification that can come with purchasing clothes. As women, we have been told by rom-coms, fashion magazines and Instagram posts that fashion is fun and harmless, that it's a nice way to "treat" ourselves. The advertising industry has latched onto this narrative, selling us ever more clothes by convincing us they will ultimately lead us to the perfect life we're craving. Of course, we all know that an item of clothing, no matter how delightful, will never be the key to happiness, yet we keep trying, creating an endless cycle of purchasing and then discarding clothes at an alarming rate. This is not just a financial pitfall or a thankless use of time, it also props up the fast fashion industry, one of the most environmentally damaging of our time.
Research from Traid has shown that in London alone we throw away 11 million items of clothing every week. Twenty-three percent of Londoners' clothes are never worn. This amounts to over 120 million items of clothes, 333,383 tonnes of CO2e and 56 million cubic metres of water in the capital alone. It would take the entire population of London 15 years to drink the water footprint of London’s unworn clothes.
Andrea Speranza, Traid’s campaign manager, told me that part of the reason for commissioning this report was to raise awareness around what actually happens to the clothes we thoughtlessly discard.
You may not throw your clothes directly in the bin, but we have all undoubtedly contributed to the landfill waste created by our fast fashion habits. Clothes banks and charity shops typically only sell 10-30% of what is donated to them in their retail stores. This is because a lot of the clothes don't meet the requirements to be sold, often due to being in poor condition, unseasonal or something they've received multiples of. Different charities will address this surplus in different ways, but it's a misconception that what can't be sold is given away to people in need. Oxfam has its own recycling plant, which dramatically reduces the amount of waste sent to landfill, but they also export donations overseas, as does the Salvation Army, Traid, and the vast majority of other charities to which you can donate your used items.
Many of these clothes end up in developing countries, which poses ethical and economic issues in terms of their dependency on the whims of the West, while also being an environmental disaster – adding to the carbon footprint of each item, which usually has already been shipped halfway around the world after being manufactured in a factory overseas. It also means that we lose track of the items, which is partly how an estimated £140m worth of clothes end up in landfill, despite charities claiming they reuse or recycle everything they receive.
Lulu O’Connor recognised this problem when she was working in the City and regularly replacing garments with newer versions: "Shopping is made so easy for us now. There is no cooling off period – you can literally see something you like on Instagram, click a button and you’ve bought it. It’s so cheap that we attach no value to our clothes, so we think nothing of throwing them away."
To combat this issue, Lulu quit her career in finance to found Clothes Doctor, a company that makes it as easy to repair and alter clothes you already have as it is to buy new. "We need to move away from the mentality that clothes are disposable. It’s okay to spend more on repairing the same item over and over again than you did on the item in the first place if it means you’re wearing something you love and not contributing more waste."
There is a growing movement which, on the face of it, counteracts our current throwaway mentality towards shopping. Minimalism, spearheaded by the incredible success of Marie Kondo’s 2014 book The Life-Changing Magic Of Tidying, is becoming increasingly popular among young women, and the idea of a "capsule wardrobe" has been gaining traction for some time.
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I LOVE clothes. Always have. The feel of cashmere, the smell of fresh linen and just the sight of stripes all makes me giddy. When I got rid of about 80% of my wardrobe (give or take a few black bin bags) and put my first capsule wardrobe together, falling out of love with clothes had nothing to do with it. • I wanted to create a smaller, more curated collection of quality clothes that not only fit me (because hardly anything I owned at the time was a decent fit), but also made me feel good and most importantly would stand the test of time. No more ‘hauls’, no more shopping for shopping’s sake and driving myself round the bend and no more poor quality that quickly ended up shoved at the bottom of one of many spare suitcases. Relate? • It looks different now to how it did back then (and this isn’t all of it) but the effect is still the same - simple. All hail simplicity right? I read last week that simplicity is often something we don’t even know we need, I know I didn’t - but every morning when it comes to getting dressed I’m grateful for it.
Jessica Williams is based in the Peak District. Five years ago she was diagnosed with cervical cancer and decided to rid herself of excess stuff: "Clothes, possessions, friends, commitments, even my job... I only wanted to keep things in my life that made me happy," she says. By her own admission, much of the journey was very inward-looking. "It was all about feeling happier within myself – it was very selfish." But as time has gone on and she's started to question many of our consumer habits, she's given more thought to the environmental and ethical impact of what she buys.
"I try to look after my clothes and give them a new lease of life where possible. I then look to buy secondhand or ideally from a brand whose ethos I support. I think we all need to be more educated about who we're buying from," she says. Jessica is in the process of creating a free ethical and sustainable fashion brand directory to help her readers make more conscious decisions.
Much like other ideologies, minimalism has – ironically – been co-opted by a capitalist fashion industry. Marketed as a trend, consumers are encouraged to throw away everything in their wardrobe and substitute it with the ubiquitous capsule must-haves: half a dozen pairs of jeans, T-shirts and jumpers in every spectrum of grey, and expensive leather jackets and trainers. The problem is that in the process we are encouraged to discard so many of our garments, and the trend will move forward, convincing us our tastes have changed, and we could end up revamping our wardrobe again in a year’s time. Then what happens to all those basic tees you thought you’d love forever?
"High street and fast fashion works on a 52 seasons-a-year basis – it seems there’s a new trend we need to buy into every week, but of course that means they’re also easily discarded. The number one way we can minimise the amount of clothes we throw away is by focusing on our personal style, rather than fleeting trends," says Jessica. "If you have an event coming up and you need a dress, don’t just buy whatever seems trendy that week, think about what you will still want to wear next year, and the year after that."
This bears out: According to figures from Wrap, extending the life of clothes by just nine extra months of active use would reduce carbon, water and waste footprints by around 20-30% each.
It’s easy to fall back on the drop-in-the-ocean argument, convincing ourselves that one person’s actions make no difference, but Jessica Sweidan, cofounder of the charity Synchronicity Earth, believes we can all do more. She’s put together a series of events to highlight the threats that the fast fashion industry poses to biodiversity.
She says: "Our entire system is geared towards turning a blind eye. But the solution lies in a whole basket of ideas and changes, from legislation and businesses right down to consumer behaviour. The industry is very sensitive to consumer preferences, so the choices we make can have a real impact."
Most of us work hard for our disposable income, so why do we think nothing of using it to support unethical practices that are ultimately harmful to our society and our planet? Loving clothes shouldn’t mean having endlessly new cheap items, it should mean treasuring what we have and seeing the value in them, purchasing things we can use for years to come, and which will actually benefit society through our consumption, rather than contributing to its demise.