On the drive from work NPR show “Science Friday” was having a segment about the fashion industry and what, if anything, it is doing to become more sustainable. The topic is well chosen: the young generation – that is beating the protest drums today – is a key consumer category of the fashion industry.
A question is posed: “Who is responsible for making sure that the fashion industry is more sustainable?” Several answers were offered but the one that made sense to me, as a psychologist, was “consumer.”
Now, let’s step back for a sec and think about what fashion is. Fashion is a camouflage for our insecurities. Why do we buy clothes? Not because we necessarily need them but because doing so helps us feel better about ourselves. Maybe we gained a few pounds and we feel we need to update our wardrobe with something more flattering. Or, maybe, we are suddenly feeling out of lockstep with the times and we need to join the current trend so as to not stick out like a sore thumb. Or, maybe, we pop into a store to finger through the clearance rack in search of something new that will somehow make us feel a little more confident on a date or a job interview.
This is where the river of consumer behavior flows from. Nobody – in the so-called developed world – needs clothes. We all have them. We all now and then cart them off to Goodwill in trash bags to make room for new ones. Fashion industry is the fast-food of clothing for our recurrent ego-repair cravings.
Back in the day people cared about how long clothes would last and how they would wear. Clothes used to be passed on as hand-me-downs. That was the original sustainability. Nowadays we buy essentially disposable clothes and the fashion industry thrives on this endless turnover.
So, what am I proposing? Well, first, I suggest we start with a moment of self-awareness. Instead of talking about fashion sustainability, we need to focus on ego sustainability. Instead of solving the problem downstream, where fashion industry dumps its dyes, let’s solve the issue upstream, where consumer psychology springs from.
Put differently, among many things, as a civilization, we need to let go of fashion and we need to refocus on psychological sovereignty that allows you to be okay with yourself even if you are wearing bell-bottoms in the 21st century.
Fact of the matter – and I was young once, so I know – healthy body needs no fashion. A healthy, functional body is sexy, appealing, attractive in any clothes. A healthy body needs no assistance from designer labels. Health is the only truly sustainable fashion. A healthy body is its own brand.
Sure, the consumers can rebel and start buying “green,” sustainable clothes. The fashion industry will re-consolidate. Big fish will swallow some smaller fish, jobs will be lost, and new profit margins will finally allow the big brands to satisfy consumers’ climate guilt. But if we hold on to the idea of fashion, we will continue to buy more and consume more, and our planetary house that is not yet on fire will keep getting hotter.
Let me push this envelope a tad more. Fashion, which is a budget form of conspicuous consumption, – as a concept – is antithetical to sustainability.
Now, you may scoff: “So, am I now supposed to wear the same thing for years?”
My answer isn’t a should, but an invitation: “No, not supposed to. There is no gun to your head. But, if you are really climate-conscious, then you should probably ask yourself about why exactly you need to have so many jeans and t-shirts.”
If we go back to common sense, to a time before fashion, the decision-tree is simple: do or do I not have anything clean and functional and seasonally appropriate to wear that fits me? You do need several pairs of pants and shirts and dresses and socks and whatnot, because clothes get dirty and we can’t wash everything we have everyday.
And, I am not a prude, I am not saying that you should never get anything new, just because it caught your eye. Go ahead, of course, spice things up a bit now and then. Live a little. No harm in that. But do we really need to update our wardrobes as often as we do just because the garment industry keeps using fashion as a tool to promote continuous consumption?
Just take a moment to appreciate this simple thought: the word “fashion” works as a whip. You see something new, a new style of clothing and you feel that you are somehow out of date. You are being punked. You are being put down. Can you endure this little challenge to your ego? Can you shrug your shoulders and just keep wearing what you already have and already like? Or will you surrender to this little manipulation of fashion and buy the next trendy thing that has built-in seasonal obsolescence?
Sure, there are going to be special occasions. And there are circumstances that require a dress code. Ok, get what you need – sweat pants, dress pants, you name it. But also, start asking yourself this basic question: “What is the carbon footprint of my low self-esteem?”
I am including a picture of a pair of black H & M sweat pants that I bought three years ago. There are pretty ripped on the thighs and knees (from all the CrossFit hang-cleans I’ve done). There is also a bit of paint from some house remodeling. They still fit me well. I like how they feel and how they wear. If you are in my gym, you will see me wear these pants at least twice a week. And, frankly, I don’t give a damn about the fact that I might look like a hobo. My own view of self sustains my ego, fleeting impressions from random minds notwithstanding. I will wear them till they fall apart or I outgrow them. For me, fashion is just another four letter word (with a couple of extra letters).