For the past year or so, I’ve been thinking more deeply about the problem of fast fashion and the labour exploitation and ecological horror that ensue. It was spurred, in part, by the planned obsolescence built-into most of the clothing I've ever bought in my own lifetime. I have a few precious hand-me downs from my parents and grandparents from the 70s and 80s that are still in pretty good condition. But almost all of the clothes I’ve bought in the last decade? Completely falling apart — often less than a year after purchase. Clothes that come out of fast fashion factories (through no fault of the skilled workers who make them) are particularly difficult to keep in good repair by design.
The more I thought about this, the more I started thinking about my role in the global industrial fast fashion system. The more I read, the more I realised I was going to have to learn more about where I'm sourcing the textiles I wear, how ecologically sound the production methods are, how recyclable they are, and what the working conditions are like for the skilled workers or labourers making them. On top of that, if I was really serious about maintaining clothes for a long time, I was going to need to learn how to repair clothes properly, which is difficult, skilled work — at least to me. Not to mention that the garments made for fast fashion are absolutely not made with maintenance in mind. This is a massive international economic system that relies on every participant being cajoled and coerced into it. I’m tired of feeling like I have no choice but to participate in the exploitation of textile workers across the globe and the environmental degradation of our oceans and wildlife kin.
The more I thought about it, the more I knew this was going to mean a significant lifestyle change. So let’s break it down:
1. Buy less, repair more
The obvious one, and in some ways, the one I’m already half-doing. I already don’t buy clothes that often. I do sometimes splurge on really cute things, like print t-shirts and sweaters, but I’m committed to stop doing that.
The part of this I’m not yet doing regularly is the maintenance and repair. I am teaching myself how to sew and how to fix clothes so that they last longer. (Thanks YouTube!) And from now on, every new garment that enters my possession will come with the understanding that I need to be able to maintain it, because throwing it out is no longer a sustainable option.
2. I’m no longer “donating” clothes
Thankfully, this is not too much of a problem as I have a tendency to wear clothes until they are quite literally falling apart off my body.
Hopefully you’ve already read somewhere about how donating clothes to charity is mostly a polluting, wasteful scam, but if you haven’t this 2018 CBC article outlines the problem in good detail.
What does that mean for the clothes I have now that don’t fit anymore? I guess if I really can’t trade the garment away, I’m going to be cutting a lot of it up into scrap fabric, and hoping I can figure out something interesting to do with it.
3. I am no longer buying clothes that are not secondhand*
*Except for underwear and shoes.
This is going to be the hard one, and I know because I have actually been following this rule closely for three months now. Any clothes I buy from now on must be second-hand. I have a hard time finding anything that fits properly, so I'm admittedly nervous that going forward it's only going to be harder. From my preliminary googling of the thriftstores in my area that put their catalogues online, most of their selection seem to be in an American medium or smaller, which won't fit me. The silver lining is that I guess this will help make sure I'm not buying too many clothes.
4. I don’t want to wear plastic anymore.
I can smell plastic and I smell it everywhere. When I was a kid, I don't think the smell was nearly as widespread as it is today, or perhaps I was better at both tolerating and ignoring it. But now that sickly sweet-fish plastic smell is simply everywhere. I can’t walk into most malls or shopping centres anymore without becoming dizzy and nauseated. I haven’t been able to walk into a Dollarama or Canadian Tire in a decade. Don’t even get me started on a lot of “fake leather” (vinyl).
On a subconscious level, I’ve definitely been favouring wool and cotton for years, mostly cheaper blends mixed with ratios of polyester slight enough I can’t smell it. But on top of my sensory issue, plastic poses a pretty big ecological problem because it does not biodegrade like other textile fibres, it just breaks into smaller and smaller pieces. Each plastic garment in a load of laundry in a conventional washing machine can shed more than 1 900 fibres of micro-plastics into the water supply, which eventually reach the ocean.
When you put together the fact that my sensitivity to plastic’s odour is getting worse with the fact that the oceans, the land, and our animal kin seem to be absorbing more and more plastic, well, I hope you can understand why I just don’t want to wear plastic anymore.
So that’s the rundown of my personal commitment to quit fast fashion. Before I sign off on this blog post, however, I want to make one thing perfectly clear and I hope you’ll hang out with me a little longer.
There is no such thing as ethical consumption in this current world order, that is to say, capitalism. I’m not doing this because I need the comfort of the thought that I’m doing something ethically or morally good. Even if I do all of this flawlessly, it will not make me good. Focusing one’s time and energy on one’s personal environmental impact, instead of collectively fighting corporations and governments, is actually arguably pretty selfish. Not to mention that to divest from fast fashion in a meaningful way means I am relying on class and economic privilege. Just a couple examples off the top of my head: I am not a parent, so I don’t need to figure out how to dress my growing children affordably. I am not an office worker, so I can get away with having one and a half sets of presentable business attire. And those are only two factors in play, there are many more!
The above is emphasized particularly because I do not want to invoke shame. In this case, I hope that this choice feels constructive and wondering of another way of being, rather than puritanically punitive, restrictive, or self-congratulatory. As I've written about before, I want to learn skills and craftsmanship that were tragically not passed down to me directly. One of my great-grandmothers (who passed away in 2018) left Colombia and worked as a seamstress in New York City for decades, my Italian great-grandmother (who passed away several decades ago) was an excellent embroiderer — her work is actually the image featured at the top of this text — and her son, my grandfather (who passed away in 2016) was an apprentice tailor when he left Italy after the war and came to Montréal, back when it was still the major industrial textile center of the continent. Understanding aspects of their craft and of their world just a little more, allows me to better understand them.
Just in case you’re not familiar with Terry Pratchett “Boots Theory of Socioeconomic Unfairness”, please click the link to read the quote! Pratchett's quote effectively highlights the deeply cyclical nature of cheap, badly made but necessary items that perpetuate socioeconomic injustice. ↩︎
As the final words of this sentence are typed, the writer dramatically swerves to stare at their many, many, many books. The bookshelves creak a little, embarrassed. ↩︎
I’m in a good number of skills and item trade groups on Facebook. So when I write trade, I mean trade, not donate. ↩︎
“About 300 million tons of plastic is manufactured every year, and between 5 and 13 million tons of it of it ends up in the ocean. Where it lingers is still an open question.” (Source: “News Feature: Microplastics present pollution puzzle” by Alla Katsnelson, May 2015) ↩︎