The closing of Forever 21 retail outlets across Canada is a good news/bad news story. On one hand, it’s a realization that consumers are beginning to reject the disposable clothing culture, but on the other hand, it means lost jobs for young people who often get their first working experience in retail. One of my favourite bloggers, retired university professor and fashionista Lyn Slater, The Accidental Icon posted a piece last week Clothes and Relationship: What’s Yours? about recognizing the importance of cutting back on the amount of clothing that ends up in landfill. She’s working with a designer to restyle her current pieces into something new and in keeping with her avante garde style.
The problems associated with the disposable clothing industry are not only about the actual disposal of the used clothing, but about the effects of production on the environment and human rights issues related to the labour used as well as the manufacturing and distribution of this clothing. Cheap clothing manufacturing has a serious affect on the world’s water supply and is responsible for 8-10% of global emissions.
Perhaps closing 350 Forever 21 stores is the beginning of much-needed change. Just one generation ago, we discarded only one-third of the clothing we do now. Clear recognition that we have to be much more discriminating about what we purchase and discard has prompted me to resurrect a piece I wrote one year ago. Its relevance is becoming more acute. Bottom line: shop your closet.
What is disposable fashion?
Are you sitting down? Burberry recently incinerated $37 million worth of their luxury brand merchandise that didn’t sell. Rather than dilute the cachet of their brand by offering it at discounted prices to the great unwashed masses (like us), they torched it. It must be lovely to have a business with such generous markups and profit margins that you can afford to just set fire to $37 million. That act of destruction reminded me of how casually we treat our possessions regardless of the cost. Not only are fashions from Zara, The Gap, H&M and other mass retailers treated as disposable fashion, so are premium brands. Our “affluenza” and consumerism has reached ridiculous proportions.
Natalie Atkinson’s recent piece in The Globe and Mail about extending the life of your personal possessions was a reminder that we need to be more thoughtful about what we buy and conscientious about managing our belongings. It came on the heels of a sobering documentary Clothing Waste – Fashion’s Dirty Secret which aired recently on CBC’s Marketplace. Both pieces highlighted the negative effects of disposable clothing on the environment and the facts presented left me feeling ashamed and totally committed to changing my wanton ways.
I used to feel vindicated when I dropped off old clothing at a charity bin until I saw on Marketplace what happens to my donations. Giant bales of excess used clothing sit in warehouses until they’re shipped to places like Africa or India. They’re then sold in street markets as used clothing—which seems all fine and dandy—until we’re shown the piles of clothing being burned behind the stalls—clothing that doesn’t sell. Brand names like Tommy Hilfinger, H&M, Old Navy and others, all go up in smoke. Even third world countries don’t want or don’t know what to do with our cast-offs.
We didn’t start off this way
When boomers were growing up we didn’t have the vast, disposable wardrobes we see today. In addition to a few everyday school clothes, we had a good Sunday outfit which did double duty for going to birthday parties or Christmas concerts. One winter coat, one pair of boots, one pair of everyday school shoes and one pair of good shoes was the norm and they lasted until we outgrew them. Our parents’ wardrobes were equally modest. Some of us perhaps remember our fathers having shoes resoled to extend their life. I grew up in a house built in the 1880s with no closets. My spartan wardrobe was either folded in a couple of dresser drawers or hung on hooks on the back of my bedroom door and I did just fine with fewer items.
How far we’ve fallen. How many boomer gals have commandeered the entire master bedroom closet for racks of clothes (many of which we don’t wear or they don’t fit) and relegated our partners’ clothes to the spare bedroom closet? It’s an insidious process, a slippery slope and regular culling, unfortunately, invites more buying.
When I first started working in 1965, I was thrilled to finally have my own money to spend on mini dresses, shoes and even fabric to sew my own version of Twiggy-inspired fashion. How could we not fall in love with what fashion was offering in the sixties? It was a total transformation from boring and practical to colourful and fun. We wanted more. Over the years, boomer gals have spent small fortunes on dressing for success, weekend wear and special event dresses. To this day I’m still filled with self-loathing when I think that I spent the equivalent of nearly a week’s wages on that burgundy ultra-suede suit that I wore for one season in the seventies. Then, there are all the matching shoes, purses, coats, jackets, accessories—well, you get the picture. Who among us wouldn’t love to have some of that wasted money now earning interest in our RRSP.
What to do, starting with myself:
I know my triggers. From now on I’m going to be more discriminating about what I purchase and avoid the following potential hazards:
- Trips to the mall just acquaint me with more things I do not need so I’ll minimize the number of times I visit the mall. Ditto for internet shopping.
- Fashion magazines are bait for suckers like me. Seeing something I like starts me longing for it. See Item 1 above.
- When I see things on women’s television shows that include fashion and home decorating segments I’m motivated to shop. I’d be further ahead reading my books or going for a walk instead of watching those programs.
- Comparing myself with the beautiful people is counterproductive. How often do we think if we just had that blouse, that bracelet, that designer handbag or pair of sunglasses, our lives would be complete.
- Advertising for the latest skincare or makeup product guaranteed to solve all our problems is so tempting and generally a complete waste of money. I have to work on tuning out the marketing ‘noise’ and stick with whatever basics work for me.
- The wellness industry including thousands of websites such as GOOP are constantly setting us up to think we need improving with supplements, diets, cleanses and other new age gimmicks that are generally a waste of money. Tune out.
This is not a definitive list but it’s a good start. These steps are actionable immediately and would make a difference not only in my self-esteem and the environment but more importantly, my bank account. We can still feel great about ourselves without being sucked into the vortex of disposable fashion, useless health and beauty products and general consumerism. Regular culling of our closets and shopping our closets serves to remind us that we already have too much and we should be much more discriminating about what we buy. I’ll definitely buy into that. Starting now. What about you?