In December 2016, I watched a film called The True Cost. It’s about the ‘fast fashion’ industry, showing the awful working conditions endured and the environmental devastation caused by our throwaway attitude to clothes.
In particular, the film looks at the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh in 2013. If you haven’t heard of Rana Plaza, you will almost certainly own items bought from a brand who had some of their clothes made there – J.C. Penney, Matalan, Benetton, Primark, Zara – to name a few.
In total, 1,134 people died and 2500 were injured when the factory collapsed on 24th April 2013. The incident shone a light into the dreadful conditions that people working in the garment industry were subject to, and the huge cost people paid with their lives so that those of us in richer countries can buy clothes at such a cheap price.
I watched the film with tears in my eyes as the credits rolled, and messaged the friend who had recommended it to me. “I’m not buying any new clothes for a year”, she said to me, and I decided to join her.
I know I could have just said “I’m only shopping for ethically-made clothes from now on”, but it didn’t get to the heart of the problem, which is the addiction we have to consuming without thinking, for always assuming more is better, for never considering where each item comes from. It is frankly obscene that UK households are throwing away 300,000 tonnes of clothes in a single year. Donating to charity, whilst better than simply landfilling used clothes, carries a lot of problems with it as well, not least the disruption of local clothing economies in the less economically affluent countries that our clothes are shipped to. In fact, this is such an issue that some countries are now considering a ban on second-hand imports.
So, for the period of December 2016 to December 2017, we made our pledge and set our rules:
- No new clothes to be purchased, with the exceptions of underwear and shoes if absolutely necessary. These could only be bought if they were replacing essential items that couldn’t be repaired and for the latter, where second-hand versions couldn’t be found.
- One second-hand item could be purchased each month, if needed.
- Clothes swaps with friends were allowed.
- Gifts could be accepted, but not from people who knew about the challenge (as we could theoretically use their kindness to ‘cheat’).
I must admit to a bit of trepidation at the challenge ahead, as I didn’t own that many clothes to start with. When we moved house in April 2016, this bag contained all the clothes I owned, with the exception of my two coats and the outfit I was wearing when taking the photo (which I can advise was a pair of jeans and a top, and not simply a pair of socks, in case you were wondering):
After we moved I read The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo, and had given away a couple more bags of clothes as well, following the idea that if it didn’t ‘spark joy’, it should be let go. So my wardrobe was quite sparse already.
What was the hardest bit?
The biggest challenge came from taking up running (OK, slow jogging) in April 2017, after a 22-year break. Not having done any running since the age of 13, I was not kitted out for this. A free t-shirt given to me on our swim-trek holiday worked fine, and I borrowed a pair of rarely-worn football shorts from my partner, but the rest was trickier. A sports bra was an absolute necessity (if you’ve met me, you’ll know just how necessary), so I made one careful purchase from Marks and Spencer after a lot of jumping about in the changing room to make sure it was fit for purpose. I’m sure it looked as ridiculous as it sounds. Marks and Spencer weren’t an ideal ethical choice, but I really struggle to find bras that fit, and they are the only company that have been consistently comfy and able to carry out the job.
The other issue was running shoes. After doing some research on the internet, I took a chance on a second-hand-but-barely-worn pair of New Balance trainers on Ebay. The ethically-made running shoe market seems a bit of a minefield, and I still haven’t worked out the best brands. But thankfully on this occasion, the shoes fitted perfectly, and appeared to be bought from someone just having a bit of a clearout.
Later in the year, I also purchased two pairs of running socks, as my regular socks were starting to take a bit of a battering. The most ethically-made socks I could find were Teko, who have a fairly impressive list of eco credentials on their website. I guess I’m prepared to be challenged as to how ‘essential’ running socks are, but these are still in great condition and I think will last for a good few years yet.
What else did I buy?
Not a lot actually. I made some use of the ‘one second-hand item a month’ rule, buying a pair of jeans, a pair of work trousers and two tops from local charity shops, and a pleated skirt from Ebay.
My one other new purchase was a pair of sneakers, after walking a hole the size of a two-pence piece all the way through the sole of the trainers I wore on an almost-daily basis. I had stuck with the hole when it was just a little break in the bottom layer, later trying to avoid wearing them when the ground was wet, but eventually when my sock was making direct contact with the pavement, I had to admit defeat. My replacements were a pair of Ethletics, which are Fairtrade, FSC-certified and free of animal products.
And the rest
I did get a few extra bits from clothes-swapping with friends – two stretchy vest tops, a cardigan, a pair of slippers and a laptop bag (if that counts as clothes?).
I also gave away some of my existing clothes, mostly dresses that I don’t feel comfortable in, and some high-heeled shoes that I never wear any more.
So was it difficult?
Well, technically I failed the challenge through the purchase of the running socks (as these were a first-hand purchase and not replacing existing items), so I guess in that sense it was. But in terms of missing shopping as a pastime, and not buying things because I thought they were nice, the rest of it was surprisingly easy.
One thing I came to realise is how much stock women especially can put in assessing their size, and therefore their worth, in their clothes purchases. I was struck at how buying new clothes in a bigger size could affect their self-confidence, as well as the ‘horror’ of dressing room mirrors. Spending a whole year not worrying what size I was, what other people were wearing, or what was in fashion was great, to be honest. I went to weddings, started a new job, and even attended an event with some rather prestigious TV personalities, and at no point did I long to buy something new.
In fact, I found that taking shopping out of my schedule gave me more time for nicer things. With a small wardrobe made up of clothes I liked, getting ready in the mornings was easier and quicker, giving me a few extra minutes in bed. Instead of wandering round the shops in my lunch hour, I started taking a longer route round the park. Trees and squirrels are much more calming than trying to zip up a dress in an awkwardly small space.
I saved money too, and began to realise how little purchases really do add up. Buying cheap isn’t saving money if you don’t need it in the first place. I learned how easy it is to refresh clothes with a packet of fabric dye, and the little ingenious products available to help patch up holes and take up seams.
Now the year is over, have I started buying new clothes again? Well, yes I have – a pair of yoga/running trousers, ethically made by Gossypium in Sussex, UK. They replace the yoga/winter running trousers which no longer stayed up of their own accord after 12 years of use. And just this week, a pair of organic, Fairtrade underwear from Y.O.U. because there’s only so worn out your smalls can get before they make getting changed in public a bit embarrassing for everyone. But I’m definitely not going back to shopping as a leisure activity again. A few, carefully chosen, ethically made pieces that fulfill a function, rather than just for the hell of it, will be my approach from now on.
I know I’m privileged to have this choice, and that not everyone does. I think we need to be aware that those of us that can afford the most are in fact the ones causing the most environmental damage. It is those who have the luxury of choice who need to demand that the clothes we buy are made by people paid a fair wage in good working conditions, using processes that are not damaging to the environment. We need to shop second-hand, learn to repair and start sharing what we have. We also need to lobby clothing companies who are still using opaque supply chains and sweatshop conditions to change their practices, by supporting campaigning organisations like the Clean Clothes Campaign.
But we also need to accept that we have a lot, possibly too much, and that when the average clothing purchase is apparently considered ‘old’ after being worn just seven times, this has to stop. For the sake of the planet, our idea of ‘enough’ has to change.