Consume better, consume less

Dr Andrea Werner considers alternative and sustainable fashion.

Clothing, alongside food and shelter, is one of our most fundamental human needs. But clothing has always been about more than just protecting the body from the elements or covering us up. Since the dawn of civilisation, clothing has been an expression of social status, linked to ideas of beauty and aesthetics; clothes can help us to feel good about ourselves and attractive to others. What is perceived as beautiful and attractive, however, changes over time and social context, creating the notion of fashion: the way in which clothes reflect and communicate a vision about ourselves within society.

For many centuries fashion could only be fully enjoyed by those wealthy enough to afford expensively made new clothes. However, in recent decades, thanks to the availability of new and cheaper materials, mass production methods, as well as a globalised economy, fashion has become more widely available. It’s an ever-accelerating industry, with ever shorter fashion cycles encouraging people to consume more and more items within ever shorter time periods. At the same time, these “fast fashion” clothes are often of poor quality and are discarded after being worn only a few times, mostly ending up in landfills or incinerators.

Besides the huge environmental cost, there is also a severe human cost – the communities producing the clothes and clothing materials often experience oppressive labour practices, with harsh working conditions and very poor pay. This should challenge us as Christians. These practices are deeply harming – both to people, and planet. How can this be confronted and changed, and what can we ourselves do to make things better?

Change is important both in production as well as consumption in order to make industries more sustainable, with better conditions for workers: companies need to produce both better and less, whilst consumers need to consume better and less. Larger fashion corporations are slow to change, being wedded to the highly profitable “fast fashion” model. However, a few highstreet brands show hopeful changes, some offering clothing made from fairtrade cotton, for example, which works to ensure a decent income and fair working conditions for cotton growers and those working in cotton processing. 

Recent years have also seen a rise of “sustainable fashion entrepreneurs” and I had the privilege to be involved in a research project exploring their visions, practices and business models. One of our key findings was that such companies use innovative materials such as reclaimed, “surplus” and novel plant-based materials, setting inspiring examples for better production practices in their industry. They are also concerned about changing consumer behaviour: high-quality, long-lasting clothing is often sold with guidance on how best to care for garments to make them last longer. Others offer repair services or provide a repair kit for DIY repairs. Long-lasting fashion items inevitably come with a higher price tag, but the longer we are able to keep and use them, the more “value for money” they become over time; such garments could be seen as “investment pieces”. 

Other business models go further, increasing the wear rate of garments beyond one user, expanding the successful charity shop model of secondhand usage. An interesting example is fashion app Nuw, which enables its users for a small fee to share and swap their wardrobe pieces with others, thus discouraging the frequent purchasing of new clothing. Some companies offer a “trade in” service: customers can send in their garments which they no longer wish to wear in return for some store credit, and these garments are then sold again as “pre-loved” to new customers. Other companies rent out otherwise expensive garments for special occasions. Not only do such strategies reduce resource use but they also help to make sustainable fashion more affordable.  

Finally, many of the companies we researched, actively seek to instil in people a new sense of appreciation and love for clothes and clothes-making. Raeburn, a London-based sustainable fashion brand, for example, offers behind-the-scenes studio tours as well as garment making and repair-skills workshops.

Whilst perhaps these companies and what they do need a lot more exposure in order to challenge industry practices at a larger scale, their visions and practices may prompt us to rethink how we ought to consume clothing and value the clothing we have. It may trigger questions such as: Do I make the most of the clothing I have in my wardrobe? Do I care for my clothes in the best possible way? How many fashion items do I need? Would I be willing to try out clothes rental, sharing or swapping? What do I do with my clothes when I no longer wish to wear them? 

As Christians, such exploration of our fashion habits may be underpinned and motivated by virtues enabling us to live well in the eyes of God: moderation – a call to enjoy the life given to us whilst avoiding its harmful excesses, respect – for God’s Creation and the Earth’s resources, and gratitude – for those who design and make our clothes.

Dr Andrea Werner is an Associate Professor at Middlesex University Business School. She specialises in research on business ethics and sustainability, particularly focusing on small and medium-sized firms. She serves as a Licensed Lay Minister at St Michael’s, Camden Town.

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