Ages ago, I was chatting with a friend about the complexities of sustainability. I was taking an ecology class at the time, and my mind was consistently blown by how difficult it is to capture the impact of human production and consumption on all levels. Just when you think you’ve got the whole Megillah, someone asks a well-researched question and it all falls apart. My friend gave an example that I keep going back to: He pointed out that hybrid cars are considered one of the most environmentally friendly purchases that humans can make. But say you’ve got a car that still runs just fine. Even if you re-sell that one, you’re still buying something that you don’t, technically, need. Is that waste? Which is better, to trade in an older gas-guzzler for a more efficient hybrid, or NOT pay money for parts, labor, shipping, and maintenance on a car that you never needed in the first place? How the hell are we supposed to know? Measure? Even estimate?
I feel similarly overwhelmed when it comes to concepts of sustainable fashion. This post from Franca at Oranges and Apples expresses, quite eloquently, many of my own thoughts and frustrations. I encourage you to read the whole post, but here’s a key paragraph:
Buying from charity shops and thrift stores can’t be a true alternative to buying new for everyone because the second hand and the new economy are intrinsically linked. If everyone stops buying new and holds on to what they have, there are no more charity shop donations, and hence no more charity shops. The whole system would collapse.
And as for handmade, from a purely resource use point of view, it is probably worse for the environment because of the outlay in the tools of the trade. Sewing machines are a resource expensive to produce, and the fewer of them there are out there, the better. One person (or factory) making 100 dresses on one sewing machine is better than 50 people with 50 sewing machines making two dresses each. This is purely from resource use point of view. There are of course good arguments for hand-making stuff … but I’m suggesting that we are a bit more critical about all of this.
As am I. But how?
As Franca points out, clothing hasn’t been a merely functional class of object for centuries. Clothing is tied to personal identity, and no two ways about it. So a reductionist mandate for fewer, longer-lasting, more practical clothing won’t work in the long term because identity is entwined with appearance. Sustainably-produced fabrics crafted into handmade garments are a fantastic option for those who can both access and afford such garments, but what about the rest of the world? How can those living in poverty possibly be expected to shell out $100 for a pair of organic cotton pants? I realize that any positive action is valuable, but this feels so gigantic and multi-leveled that I’m not sure where to start and what will truly have an impact.
What do you view as sustainable clothing consumption? How do you vet the places from which you purchase clothing and accessories? Have you read anything that offers viable suggestions for the creation of a sustainable clothing economy? Do you believe that those who can afford to have a responsibility to support sustainable fashion? How do we re-cast ethical clothing consumption so that people can embrace it long term?
Image courtesy gorgeoux.