As Leandra Medine (aka the Man Repeller) recently pointed out, fast fashion is increasingly starting to feel a lot like fresh produce. Sure, you can buy raspberries in wintertime these days, but does that mean that you should? For most of us, it is easier simply not to think about where those raspberries came from, or how long ago they were plucked from their stems. Then there’s the all-important question of: what exactly was done to those raspberries in order to keep them looking so plump and pink for so damn long? But, deny it as we might, it is getting harder and harder to ignore the fact that these wintertime raspberries will inevitably wilt faster than they should, even when stored ever so responsibly in the fridge.
It is much the same situation with fast fashion, too. It may seem far more economical to pick up a pair of $20 jeans than a pair of $200 ones — especially if you think that they look virtually the same — but I would argue that this approach isn’t quite as economical as you might think. OK, so I understand that sustainable fashion, or garments that have been produced responsibly are usually a fair bit more expensive than those that aren’t. And the reality is that not everyone wants to spend quite so much on their clothes. But we need to look at the bigger picture here. Once you consider that a $10 t-shirt is likely to last you for just one year or less, then that suddenly becomes $10 per year every year. On the other hand, a slightly more expensive option (crafted using quality materials and under ethical circumstances) has the potential to last you for five years or more. Suddenly, the latter actually becomes a pretty attractive option. Sure, the upfront costs are a little more steep, but once you take cost per wear into account, it is really much of a muchness. Indeed, you are likely to spend a lot less per wear on the more expensive option because, unlike its cheaper counterpart, it is built to last.
Image: Movie still from Breakfast at Tiffanys.
I think part of the problem comes down to more than just economy, though. It is very easy to argue that not everyone wants to spend $50 on a t-shirt, because they don’t have the funds, or because they value other ‘more important’ things, but once we consider these claims from a cost-per-wear perspective, then that argument becomes kind of redundant. What we have here is the difference between spending $50 once over five years as opposed to $10 every year for five years, so the latter really just acts like a down payment for your wardrobe — albeit one that is more harmful to both the environmental and social welfare of the industry. And just like a down payment, the remaining funds accrue interest, in the form of having to mend said items once they begin to fall apart on you.
So what else drives our desire to defend a fast approach to fashion then? Well, materialism of course. According to Lifehacker, “we tend to equate buying things with positive emotions.” Basically, a study published by Neuron found that when a product image flashes before someone’s eyes, an area of the brain called the nucleus accumbens lights up. What this means is that the brain’s pleasure centre kicks into gear at the very thought of making a purchase, thus flooding our brains with dopamine. In effect, then, thinking about purchasing something actually brings just as much pleasure as going through with the act itself. So thinking about buying things can act as a mood booster and although these feelings don’t disappear after the ‘thing’ has found its way into our wardrobes, these feelings are certainly less intense than before we committed to the purchase.
Image: Movie still from Mean Girls.
Whether this process is linked to evolutionary theory and the perceived ‘need’ to compete over things; whether it’s clever advertising that’s to blame; or simply the way that our weird brains work — the bottom line is that getting things rarely has any positive effect on our mental wellbeing. And actually, countless studies have proven that placing too much value on material things in fact makes us more unhappy, not the other way around. A study from Tufts University sums this up by saying that “People who are highly focused on materialistic values have lower personal well-being and psychological health than those who believe that materialistic pursuits are relatively unimportant.” Why is it, then, that we continue to argue in favour of fast fashion and economically support the providers of these types of commercial goods? Again, some will say that it comes down to refusing to shell out quite so much on any one item of clothing, but is it really that we are trying to disguise something else here? Perhaps that something is the fact that we are actually looking forward to buying that replacement t-shirt — in a different colourway or more on-trend cut — in just 12 months time or less?
There is nothing wrong with trends, of course, and we are all guilty of falling prey to their shiny new flirtations. However, the increasing power of the trend has only served to spur on our desire to consume. This makes it a little more difficult to remain faithful to the whole cost per wear mantra, but the very point of this pursuit is that it’s not about being a 100% saint when it comes to matters of the wardobe. Nor is it about slamming businesses that aren’t necessarily as sustainable as x, y, or z, either. Instead, it’s about accountability and taking some personal responsibility for our own shopping practices. Undeniably, trend-based items keep fashion fun, so they shouldn’t be written off as the devil. But, wherever possible, spending a little more on classic pieces that have been responsibly made and will last you for years to come can actually make a big difference in the long run.
Image: Movie still from The Devil Wears Prada.
It’s not just about what we buy, either, but how we care for these garments. Sure, I know that hand washing can be a total pain and that dropping a certain garment off to the dry cleaners every once in a while can accumulate additional costs of its own — but the cost of not doing so turns out to be far greater. No, your hand wash only garment probably wont fall apart completely after one spin in the machine, but you can rest assured that you’ll be buying a replacement for that particular item in no time at all. So is there really any contest here? Certainly, garments that are produced using high quality fabrics; that are made under ethical circumstances — in which the maker is paid a fair and decent wage — and which are cared for properly will cost a bit more money upfront. This is because it is more expensive for the farmers to maintain their crops without the use of harmful pesticides and it is also more costly to run a factory where the building standards are kept up to scratch (unlike Rana Plaza). But these items are those that will last in our wardrobes if cared for properly — and isn’t it important to invest in our environmental and social welfare worldwide anyway?
I know that we are living in a culture of immediacy, but when it comes to the longevity, practicality and economy of our wardrobes, I think that a change in perspective is required. You certainly don’t have to be perfect, but we can all make minor sacrifices, or change our approach in small ways. Ultimately, these things will make a big impact — not just to the face of our own wardrobes, but also to the accountability of the fashion industry as a whole. So let’s think less about what we will be saving our pockets right now, and more about the contribution we could be making in the long-term. Shop happily in the knowledge that you are making a difference.
Image: Movie still from Pretty Woman.
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