Fashion kills sustainability
For a newspaper from the Guardian stable that prides itself on its approach to sustainability, I winced when I read this in a Observer article on fashion yesterday:
The ability to recycle favourite dresses is being curtailed by sites such as Facebook and Instagram.
When the journalist said ‘recycling’, she didn’t mean passing it on to a mate, selling it second hand or using the fabric for something else. No, she meant “wearing the same dress twice” – claiming women are afraid to do so as their friends will see this cardinal sin on social media. To a man who still wears dozens of garments over a decade old, this is an alien concept.
But it illustrates a much bigger point. Our modern design and manufacturing supply chains are capable of delivering us very high quality, low price products exceptionally quickly. But it is not quality or design that consigns those products to the bin – it’s fashion. And by fashion I don’t just mean clothes – Douglas Coupland nailed the phenomenon in his 1991 novel ‘Generation X’ when he referred to ‘semi-disposable Swedish furniture’. Even a ship will be scrapped when the value of its steel is thought to be higher than keeping the ship in use, rather than when it ‘wears out’.
Our problem is that the ‘make do and mend’ concept is unlikely to storm mainstream consumer culture. There are other models which can help:
- The service economy: despite the slip on ‘recycling’, the Observer article did reference services where you can rent high fashion items for one night only, so each dress will be worn dozens of times. You can do this with everything from a luxury yacht to industrial solvents.
- The circular economy: designing products to be recycled continuously means short product lives doesn’t have to be dependent on extracting more raw materials and creating more waste.
- The sharing economy: purchasing a product and then sharing it with others. When my parents moved into their house 40 years ago, they found it came with half a hedge trimmer!
- The retro economy: many well designed products have as much value when they are old as when they are brand-spanking new.
In the meantime, I will be recycling – in the true sense of the word – my favourite pair of cords as I have worn them threadbare. Don’t think I’ll be gracing the fashion pages of the newspapers anytime soon!