Modern society’s instinct to consume is making too many demands of the Earth’s finite resources. The fashion world has made it all too tempting to buy the new thing, but we need to change our habits and liberate ourselves from the endless cycle of consumption.
After 300,000 years of existence, we humans have climbed the greasy pole and become the true masters of this planet we call Earth. Certainly, since the start of the industrial revolution some 200 years ago, our living standards have improved immensely. Child mortality, life expectancy and wealth have increased to levels previously unachievable.
But who pays the bill for this global prosperity? Planet Earth has been treated as an infinite source of riches, free to use as we see fit. But the limits are beginning to show. Overconsumption is perhaps the most significant contributor to climate change, jet-fuelled by advertising companies telling us that we are no good unless we buy the next thing.
The fashion industry is one of the main culprits. Globally, clothing production contributes more greenhouse gases than international flights and maritime shipping combined. Growing cotton requires vast amounts of water, and the production of synthetic fabrics such as polyester, spandex and nylon use up to 342 million barrels of oil per year.
Fast fashion is now the fastest growing segment of the fashion industry. Two collection seasons per year is a thing of the past, and brands are constantly releasing new items to meet the growing demand of trend-sensitive consumers. In 1980, the average American consumer bought 12 clothing items per year. This figure has now risen to about 68 items per year, most of which are usually worn seven times or less before they are discarded.
We spoke to Kirsi Niinimäki, Associate Professor in Design and the leader of the Fashion/Textiles Futures research group at Aalto University, for her view on the future of fashion. She describes how the current fashion system has an enormous negative environmental impact and how we as consumers have helped to maintain it. “We are part of the fashion system,” she says, “and the way consumers behave keeps up the system and the fashion business.” She explains how moving away from destructive business practices will require extensive changes: “We need new ways of consuming fashion. From a system-level approach, behaviour changes such as buying and throwing away less stuff would help slow down and shrink the system which would affect the environmental impact.”
What will be the biggest driver behind this shift, consumers or market changes, I ask? “The development is run by two powers. Consumers are becoming more aware as they increasingly understand the impact that fashion has on the planet. At the same time, I believe policy changes to be a more powerful tool to steer companies in more sustainable ways.”
Doing more with less is clearly the way forward. Paris RE Made is a French fashion brand that combines vintage designer items and deadstock fabrics into new designs. Xuan Thu Nguyen, creative director at Paris RE Made, tells The Forumist how she thinks overconsumption affects us: “I think it makes us greedy. It is an old mindset which is slowly turning into a more conscious way of looking at things and life.”
The high-status value of the designer items used in the designs of Paris RE Made is not lost as it is transformed into new pieces. Reusing and recycling instead add value, according to Nguyen. “In terms of status symbol,” she says, “more high-end design items already have a heritage history, a history of quality. To be able to re-design those pieces into more contemporary items or more updated wearable versions for consumers only add more value to the design piece and the whole story behind it.”
She believes that people are increasingly adopting a more holistic way of thinking, but that this comes with its challenges as well. “People are turning more towards sustainability,” she explains. “But I understand it is not possible for every consumer. Being sustainable in fashion is not cheap and it is a mindset that is not understandable for most consumers/buyers. You need to know what you buy, where it comes from and how it is made. Being conscious about sustainability, recycling, upcycling, and knowing where your product comes from is already a good start. Start small is better than no start at all.”
Remaking old fashion pieces is one way of cutting down on resource use. But French designer Marianna Ladreyt has a slightly different approach. Her latest collection is made from salvaged inflatable pool animals which she has turned into garments and accessories. She explains how the inspiration came to her during a walk along the beach: “Last summer, I was walking on the beach side, and I saw a blow-up animal that was thrown next to a garbage bin. I instantly got triggered and couldn’t stop thinking of it.” Marianna brought home the discarded pool toy and started experimenting. “I decided to try something with it once I got back to my studio, because I found the ‘fabric’ super interesting. It is waterproof, shiny, super colourful and beautiful. In the end, all my experiments worked and I decided to go further with those pool-animal skins and work with them as a kind of fake leather to create bags, accessories and even ready-to-wear.”
Marianna believes overconsumption leads to a disconnect, both from ourselves and the products in itself. “To me, one of the worst effects of overconsumption is that it disconnects us, humans, from our own nature, our actual needs and wants. It makes us loose our perception of exchange in the process of buying. We don’t understand the product anymore.”
She ends the interview by giving some advice for more mindful consumption. “I guess we can all make small but essential steps in this way, but to me, I would say consume less or just ‘better’. Buying from small, ethical and local businesses, rather than large brands that greenwash. I have to say that I’m not against consumption as an idea, because I think it’s part of what we are as humans, and that is what is making us innovate nonstop. It should just be a beautiful innovation that makes us more connected to nature as a whole and our own natures and not for the sake of money.”
There is magic in decluttering both your wardrobe and your head, with the liberation from physical objects and mental weight they carry. Like the tidying expert Marie Kondo says, why keep anything that does not inspire joy?