Monday, 23 September 2013

Not going shopping

For a while now I've been thinking about buying new clothes, but something seems to stop me. I think in Bristol, I combined shopping at independent shops with the odd bit of high street shopping and quite a lot of clothes swaps, so there was always something new (to me at least) going around without having to endure a big trip to the mall. Here, however, it's pretty much mall or nothing. And blimey, what a mall. It's huge! However, huge isn't the same as great, and I find myself panic buying cheap and cheerful / shoddy clothes in big stores like Old Navy and H&M.

I don't think I'm the only person who has been questioning using these shops, especially since the terrible accident in Bangladesh earlier in the year. It's prompted me to consider my relationship with clothing and fashion and shopping and making, which leads to some quite uncomfortable thinking. For example, do I really need a new this or that, when I already have one / some? Should I wear things until they are literally falling apart? Can I justify buying new things if I give old things away?

Part of this thinking is environmental: there's an impact to each purchase on natural resources, on energy usage, on transportation. There's waste generated in making the garment, packaging it, replacing previous items which aren't always recycled responsibly.

Another part is social. Most clothing, especially cheap high street fashion, is made by people in appalling conditions with very low pay in the developing world. Whilst the accident in Bangladesh highlighted it, it's hardly new news and is something many of us have been aware of for a long time.

Related to this is a growing distaste at the big business nature of shopping. Even shops which purport to be smaller, or to emulate local independent retailers are likely to be owned by huge multi nationals. Profit does not go to shop staff, clothing manufacturers, even clothing designers, who are likely as not to be employed to copy high end design rather than to come up with original designs of their own.

There's also a gendered dimension to it. Buying new clothes could be seen as conforming to a patriarchal stereotype of what women should look like, and that I should concern myself with my appearance rather than world affairs (heaven forbid I can do both). Furthermore, the majority of garment workers are women in the developing world, whereas the profit goes to men in the developed world, perpetuating both a gender and geographical divide. 

So, in short, I haven't shopped in a while. There are other options: firstly, obviously, make your own; secondly, buy from small businesses, eco lines and the internet; and, thirdly shop vintage, whether, again from the internet, from thrift or from consignment sales. But even these options don't come without consideration. For example, if I make my own clothes, I have to buy the fabric from somewhere, but the fabric stores near me are themselves big businesses. So is it better to buy fabric from Walmart or a dress from Anthro (which might present an independent aesthetic, but is clearly a big business)? Are conditions in fabric factories better than those in garment factories? By buying fabric and making my own clothes, am I taking job opportunities away from the developing world? Are clothing manufacturers more efficient (undoubted) at making clothes, and therefore am I making more of an environmental nuisance of myself by stopping them? If I contribute to a secondhand market for mass manufactured clothes, am I also stimulating the primary market for them? If I opt out and make all my own clothes, will anyone ever invite me to anything smart again? If I buy clothes from thrift stores or yard sales, am I reducing the pool of clothing available to people on lower budgets?

Obviously I could just not buy anything, although eventually I might need to, that wouldn't happen for a year or two. I could go to the logical extreme and grow cotton or keep sheep to make my own fabric to make my own clothes. But I'm not prepared to (and the landlord might have something to say about it). Or I could just be a bit more mindful. Try to shop vintage, or from environmentally friendly companies, or clothes made in guaranteed conditions. Make more of my own things. Borrow from friends. Swap. So there it is. I'm not pledging anything. I'm not giving up shopping. But for now, I will try not to buy 'fast' fashion.

I'll let you know how I get on.