The psychological minutiae of how we shop is fascinating. The whole world of advertising pulls on our insecurities and battles with our want to express ourselves through fashion. Deciding what to wear, and why, has always been complex. Throughout history, clothing has been not only a practical thing but also a way of showing social class, sexuality and personality. With the rise of fast fashion through globalization, our choices of what to wear seem endless. But a new factor is starting to be taken into account, and that’s the ethics of the clothes you’re buying.
Fashion to some people is not an art, or an expression but just a convenience. For these people, their choices will often be determined by their budgets and the quality of clothing they are willing to buy. This category of people will often turn away from more sustainable brands for several reasons. Firstly, they are people who want to find clothes quickly and easily and once stuck to a certain brand will most likely shop there if they ever need anything. If they know that a certain fit of trousers is perfect for work, they will buy it in three colours and not have to shop again in a while. These people generally don’t enjoy shopping. Fast fashion options like the majority of brands on ASOS are extremely easy to find, to navigate and to get your order from in a very short space of time. The familiarity of the websites and even its ability to recommend exactly what you needed makes it super convenient for the non-frequent shopper.
This first ‘category’ of people would in many ways be quite easily convinced to shop more ethically, I think. As long as the options are laid out in front of them so they can find a brand that fulfils their needs. But I also think these types of people are not necessarily causing the greatest harm to people and the planet. Yes, they are supporting brands that should not be supported but it is likely they are wearing what they own for a long time as they don’t particularly care about trends. My dad for example, buys his suits from a high-end fast fashion brand but then wears them for at least ten years. Surely that’s still a better example than buying something from a sustainable brand and wearing it once?
However, to many people fashion is about a lot more than convenience and this is generally the status quo in the Western world. Since the 1960s fashion has been an expression of who people are and a way of showing your personality. A lot of styles grew out of an idea of freedom to be yourself, not to be constrained. Fashion allows us to have an individual style which we can mix up easily and experiment with. There is nothing inherently negative about this until you realise how much fashion brands have been able to exploit it.
In the decades since fashion really came to the forefront, there has been a conflict between who we are and who we want to be. Instead of having a consistent style that is not fazed by trends, we’ve been sold the idea that to be desirable we need to be constantly on top of trends. Trends can be exciting – they show the evolution of your favourite designers but trends now have an inexhaustible turnover rate. A lot of high street shops can change their ranges in a matter of days, making you believe you must buy the latest thing. Never underestimate the power of good advertising.
Fast fashion brands live on because of three key factors.
Firstly, a lot of people aren’t yet aware of the harm they cause and do not have time to do the research needed to find out. This issue is starting to be addressed with waves of movement on social media and documentaries on prime-time television and Netflix. However certain brands such as H&M have noticed this, and create “conscious” ranges to greenwash what the company is really doing. They need to be continually called out on that by the public.
The second reason is that ethical alternatives are still only just finding their feet. A lot of sustainable brands haven’t opened physical stores or are only at the very beginning of their production. At the moment, it is still hard to find alternatives especially if you are not someone who spends a lot of time seeking them out. We cling to what is familiar, brands we have accounts with and whose websites we recognise. It can also take time to sift through some of the jargon since certain words like ‘ethical’ or ‘sustainable’ become exploited and misused. Here, apps such as Good on You have helped to make it clearer to the consumer what brands are doing but it is hard to compete against million-pound advertising schemes.
The third is the most important factor, but also the hardest to fix. Globalisation has meant that fashion companies can reach people far and wide, pay very little for labour and produce things incredibly fast.
Over the years they have perfected the art of making you feel you need something you don’t. The use of influencers on social media really illustrates this. For example, I follow people I look up to. If those people promote a product I believe that with it, I can become more like them – more likeable in general. Companies toy with people’s insecurities because it is so easy. We believe that how we look on the outside is so important and that our looks need to be trendy or else we are somehow ‘lesser’ people. This is a mindset that needs to change.
I am still learning not to buy from fast fashion brands. It’s still hard to ignore the feeling that I need ‘retail therapy’ or that my mood will increase somehow by having the latest blouse. It may be true for the first wear, but an item of clothing made to be thrown away is not my key to happiness. It is difficult but we need to think about the bigger picture and the longevity of our clothes. If it helps, start by reducing the amount of clothes you buy and instead start accessorizing more.
Fashion is sold to us as an expression of our ‘best selves.’ But my best self does not want to contribute to the destruction of the planet. What does your best self want to do?