Why we need to change the definition of fashion

I have loved fashion for the longest time. It’s never been about trends for me – no one is going to dictate to me what colours and styles of clothing I must wear – but there is something deeply special and expressive in experimenting with a smorgasbord of colours, shapes, and textures to create an ensemble that accentuates your favourite features, plays down your perceived flaws and conveys your unique flair. Nothing equals the feeling of donning a fierce new outfit that makes you feel like a goddamn boss – the crisp feel and deep hues of fabrics that haven’t gone fifty rounds in the washer – but as the fast fashion crisis becomes more overt, it is harder to reconcile this adoration with what is morally and ethically right, and that which will safeguard the health of mother earth for all her children, including my own.

I could once assuage my conscience by donating a big ol’ bag of used clothing to charity twice a year. I’d stroll away from the Vinnies bin with a stupid, self-satisfied smile, mentally unburdened of wardrobe clutter and believing that my now ill-fitting, slightly faded or out-of-shape garb would clothe the less fortunate in my community. Recently, however, I learned that much of Australia’s donated fashion is shipped off to the developing world and forms towering structures of pollution that, from a distance, could easily be mistaken for a cliff face. Resale of the west’s hand-me-downs is big business in Africa‘s open-air markets – roughly four million tonnes of castoff clothing is shipped across the globe annually, from developed nations. But when poor-quality items arrive, they cannot be resold, leaving stallholders out of pocket, and with kilos of unwanted clothing to dump. It’s safe to say that my smug smile was wiped clean off!

Knowingly or not, Africa has become the West’s junkyard. Of the fifteen million garments that arrive weekly in Accra, home to West Africa’s largest second-hand clothing market, some forty percent are unsaleable. A growing number of imports are arriving soiled or damaged and sent directly to a mountainous landfill site on the banks of Korle Lagoon, looming twenty metres in the air. Waste seeps into the lagoon, flowing through to the Gulf of Ghana, the north-easternmost point of the Atlantic Ocean. Once a hub of fishing and trade for Accra’s people, Korle Lagoon is now one of the most heavily polluted bodies of water on earth, contaminated with garbage and wastewater. Desperate locals still fish in the lagoon, claiming that the situation in the Gulf is far worse. One such man is Nii Aryee, who relies on his fishing catch to feed his seven children. He says that rainfall pushes Accra’s garbage out to sea and that half of his daily catch from the Gulf is comprised of garbage. Fuelling this environmental crisis are the surge of unwearable items flooding into Accra (thanks to westerners treating their local charity bin like garbage disposal) and soaring global fashion production. 

Despite growing awareness of the problem with fast fashion, and a rising number of sustainably minded consumers, global clothing production has doubled since 2000. Some 87% of global clothing waste clogs up landfills or is incinerated, textile workers endure woefully low pay and hazardous work conditions, and an abundance of water, energy and chemicals are used in fashion production. According to the World Resources Institute, it can take as much as 2700 litres of water to produce one cotton shirt! Textiles may take over two hundred years to decompose, spouting methane as they do, and leaching chemical agents and microplastics into the air, soil, and groundwater. Instead of producing a spring/summer and an autumn/winter fashion season, some major brands release new collections as often as weekly, factoring huge waste margins into their prices and passing them onto shoppers. And according to the ABC, we’re happy to indulge our fashion overlords, buying sixty percent more clothing than we did fifteen years ago, and keeping it for half as long. But why do we engage in this farce?

 

Why do we crave new clothes? 

There are many reasons we indulge in retail therapy and understanding what drives our purchasing behaviour is the key to curbing it. I’m not a frequent buyer by any means and I balk from trends, but even I’m not immune to the new outfit phenomenon. Somehow, an ensemble feels far less special with each wear, and we crave new outfits, particularly with each new season and for special events. This is known as repetition avoidance behaviour (RAB) and it’s not uncommon: on average, we wear an item of clothing only seven times before discarding. In a superficial world, appearance equates to both self-worth and perceived worth. This is especially true for women. Outfit repetition is stigmatised in the media – celebrities and influencers boast seemingly bottomless wardrobes, but it becomes tabloid fodder the second that any one of them dons the same thing twice, or the same outfit as another supposed VIP *eyeroll*. I fully appreciated the scale of RAB’s ridiculousness when striving to recall if I’d seen friends and school mums in the same outfits previously and, for the life of me, I couldn’t. You might recall Karl Stefanovic’s experiment, during which he wore the same suit every day for a year on the Today Show, and nobody batted an eyelid. The reality is that we’re all so preoccupied with our bustling lives that, unless we’re headed to a job interview, highly publicised event, or the altar, no one is going to give a honk what we’re wearing.    

Besides keeping up with the Joneses, we also shop for emotional reasons. Online shopping has exploded during the pandemic, as we grapple with stress, boredom, anxiety, and depression, and grieve for our once carefree lives. Not only is this bad news for the environment, but it can also put a strain on finances, leading to further worry at an already trying time. Shopping as escapism can temporarily numb the pain of a foul day, or eighteen months, but hours and money spent browsing might be better reserved for endeavours that could permanently improve our wellbeing or situation. Think taking an exercise or creative class, spending time outdoors, or upskilling to seek better pay or work conditions. Notice how you’re feeling at a deeper level when you feel compelled to shop and ask yourself whether you wouldn’t feel happier catching up with a good friend, reading a book or taking your puppo for a walk in the sunshine, than dropping dollars on items you don’t truly need.  

 

How to shop and style smarter

Let’s be real: clothing doesn’t last forever. Cheaply made items fall apart (see: 3-pack of organic children’s singlets from Kmart that unravelled at the hem after one wash) and, while certain stains never fade, clothing dyes certainly do. I ascribe to the conspiracy theory that washing machines are designed to ruin clothes and so I hand wash, gentle wash or dry clean my most revered pieces to help them last. Every extra wear you get out of an outfit you own and forego buying new, is a win for the planet. Our tastes evolve over time, as do our body shapes. No one is expecting you to buy a ten-piece capsule wardrobe and wear it until your dying breath, but there are things you can do to make your fashion habit more environmentally and socially responsible.

Deliberate before you ditch: Before you discard an item of clothing, ponder whether it couldn’t be mended, taken in or out, or redyed to cover stains or freshen up the colour. If it truly is time to part ways, be sure to donate only good-quality clothing to charity. I use this as my test as to whether something belongs in the charity bin: would I be ashamed to hand the item down to a friend? If the answer’s yes, it’s time to scope out responsible disposal options.

Discard with care: Once upon a time, I would toss unwanted clothing in the trash with nary a care. Now that I’m aware of the impact, I’m less frivolous and unthinking about what I send to landfill. Textiles aren’t the easiest to recycle, especially due of the jumble of different fabrics that can be found in any one clothing item, all of which need to be separated and refined before they can be made into something else. While it’s not as simple as placing unwanted clothing in a kerbside bin or dropping off at your local supermarket, recycling your sad rags is possible.

Retailers Zara, H&M and Upparel collect unwanted clothing and fabric; ASGA Save Our Soles in Victoria take used footwear and extract the materials to create new items, like gym mats, flooring, and playgrounds; Boomerang Bags collect donated cotton and turn it into cloth shopping totes, to help wipe out single-use plastic bags; and SCR Group convert unwearable clothing into wiper rags and biofuel. Failing these options, check out local quilting and sewing groups and the Facebook groups, Buy Nothing and Pay it Forward, who often seek fabrics for upcycling projects.

Fuss over fabric: Fabric matters. Natural fibres, like cotton, hemp, silk, linen, cashmere, and wool can be composted at home. Simply remove any manmade elements such as zippers and buttons and pop into a hot compost, teeming with worms. Choosing compostable fabrics not only diverts discarded textiles away from landfill but helps to quash the very real problem of microplastics shedding from synthetic fibres, like polyester and nylon. These plastic microfibres are so problematic that improving microfibre filters in washers and dryers forms part of the government’s 2021 National Plastics Plan. In a similar vein, opt for organic fabrics that haven’t been chemically treated, making them healthier for you and keeping chemical agents out of greywater.

Hone your signature look: Developing your personal style is key to shunning trends and curating your forever wardrobe. Lock in on the colours and styles that suit your personality, rather than taking your cues from fashion brands. Take note of the styles on high rotation in your current wardrobe and put together a Pinterest board of outfits and style icons that stand out to you. I’m betting there will be some common threads among the styles and images you’re drawn to, whether it’s bright colours, statement details, earthy neutrals, or retro vibes. Hiring outfits and buying from vintage stores is a great way to experiment with fashion, without purchasing new.

The true essence of fashion has never been about wearing questionable trends that make you feel ridiculous or trying to fit in with everyone else, but about expressing yourself and feeling confident in who you are. If an outfit is well-made and makes you feel comfortable in your own skin, you’re going to love on it for much longer than a season.

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