You could say that my interest in ethical fashion came from an alternative angle – in fact it really grew out of my interest in sustainability, because I wanted to find a way of helping people to express their love of fashion while ensuring that they take steps to act on their aspiration to live sustainably. I’ve found that what we may really need is a way to encourage people to act on the belief that their behaviour will help to make a difference.
It doesn’t take long for anyone to find out that fashion is – currently – one of the least sustainable activities on the entire planet, and that our behaviour with respect to fashion will have to change if we want to achieve sustainable outcomes with respect to our lifestyles.
However what I have realised from my research into sustainability is that it is unfair, and also very unrealistic, to think that we should try to achieve our sustainability goals simply by trying to order everyone to give up on their interest in fashion. We all have a sense of self; we all have a self-concept that we wish to express, and many of us choose to do this through the clothes and accessories that we choose as a means to alter our appearance. I don’t propose to go through the entire body of research on theories of fashion, or why we feel compelled to keep up with each new season’s look when it comes out (something we should probably learn not to do!); instead I want to talk about how we can learn to behave differently, so that we can continue to express ourselves, but in a way that literally doesn’t cost the earth.
If this is going to happen, one thing that does need to change is that we urgently need to trigger a shift away from fast fashion in its’ current form. Now I know that a lot of people have been saying this for a long time, so there is nothing novel in my repeating that message.
However what I can say is that one of the problems we face is that very often people can have a moment of personal epiphany when they realise that they want to change their behaviour; they want to move away from unethical, unsustainable fashions made in sweatshops, but when they go looking for ways of doing that, they struggle a bit – or a lot – to find them.
They can then feel a little overpowered; the ethical items are a bit too expensive, they look a bit strange compared to the kind of things available on the high street, they stand out a bit too much… also, another problem that can arise is when people feel that even if they do change their own behaviour, it won’t have enough of an impact.
What use is it, we ask ourselves, for one person to change their behaviour? What difference will it make? No difference, we tell ourselves. It would just be lost without trace, so we then decide to not put ourselves through it.
Well, funnily enough what the research is beginning to tell us is that when individuals make changes, it begins to make a difference. Not enough of a difference to change the whole system by itself, of course – and we arguably need political change, too, for that to happen – but enough of a difference to begin to cause a shift in consciousness.
What we need to remember – particularly on those days – or nights – when we might be feeling a little bit sorry for ourselves about the prospect of change – is that each time we tell a friend where we bought something sustainable, each time we actually share Livia Firth’s #30wears hashtag with our friends on social media, each time we choose to swap or re-wear instead of buying something cheap and unsustainable, we are making a difference.
What we also need to keep doing is affirming one another in these choices. I can’t stress the importance of this enough. We all need to keep affirming one another. Everyone needs encouragement so that they are more likely to learn to repeat their first efforts at sustainable behaviour – so that we can make sustainable fashion the new normal. So we can cultivate a stronger and stronger feel-good factor around sustainability. So if you are thinking of having friends over for a party, why not make it a #thirtywears party? If you are making plans to go shopping for clothes with a friend, try to get them to go to see what Oxfam have, just for a change, instead of going to Primark (again!) and remember a little praise for small first time changes in our friends’ behaviour might sometimes be more effective than giving out to them for being slaves to fast fashion. Just a few ideas but – if we all keep practicing them – they can have an effect.
Not enough of an effect by themselves, maybe, because as I said we also need political change. But enough of an effect to start something bigger, and maybe to help encourage people to become politically active. But that is a topic for another post.
(If after reading this you’d like to read a little more about the research showing why affirmation might be a more effective way to encourage adoption of sustainable behaviour, have a look at this interview with psychologist and economist, Per Espen Stoknes – it confirms what I’ve found in my own research