Elizabeth Kerr thinks our obsession with clothes is ruining our finances, our self-esteem and our planet

By Elizabeth Kerr

“I like my money right where I can see it… hanging in my closet” said Carrie Bradshaw, the famous character from HBO’s Sex In The City series.

Joking aside, for many this is a very real fact.

But it’s not just our money machines which are suffering…it’s our entire planet!   

I get it. Clothes are more than things we use to cover up our private parts. They are ways of communicating who we are and what we stand for. We wouldn’t expect our lawyer to wear track pants and a hoodie, or our bank manager to be wearing a white lab coat. If it really does take us less than a sixth of a second to make an impression on someone then clothes have a lot of value to add here.

My problem is our obsession with the amount of clothes we have.

Our suburban closets are brimming with more clothes than our grandparents could ever have dreamed of.

And everywhere we turn there is a sale, because retailers release new styles every week, meaning clothes are so cheap they have become disposable – like plastic party plates.

Online young girls and boys create You Tube videos called “hauls”…as in clothing hauls showing everyone what they’ve just brought. The feigned high pitched shallow enthusiasm for each unnecessary cheap purchase described in detail makes me want to puke!  

Womenswear in the UK alone is now a $19.6 billion dollar business per year. The manufacturing of clothing garments is now the 2nd biggest polluter of our planet after oil and coal. Young people spend thousands of dollars on designer brands while buried under student loan debt and complaining that they will never afford a home…and in third world countries people die making our t-shirts. Doesn’t that all read completely bizarre considering clothes are a non-essential? As a species we’ve all gone completely mad for fashion and if we lift the lid on this obsession we see the ugly truth is just nasty!

How did it happen?

Back in the day kids had one outfit, often sewn by mum or an auntie, which was worn every Sunday to church, to every birthday party, every school photo and family gathering until they grew out of it and could pass it down to their siblings. We wore our roman sandals until our toes grew over the front edge and one winter coat served 3 years – 1 year too big, 1 just right and 1 too small.   

Skip forward to the present day and the fast fashion industry has changed our entire approach to how we shop for clothes rendering us mindless, entitled consumers rather than taking only what we need and no more.

Clothing advertisers try to connect the purchase of a piece of clothing to the idea that your life’s needs will be met once you’re wearing it.

We have stopped buying clothes to keep us from being naked and we are being suckered in to thinking we are buying a lifestyle, or a story. Buy the latest jean dress and 70s inspired hat and you are “free and friendly”; a baggy mens cardigan and low-crotched pants and you are “relaxed and relevant” (no matter how stupid you actually look). You and I know that’s all just smoke and mirrors but we buy into it all the same. 

What is Fast Fashion?

‘Fast Fashion’ is the name given to the incredible pace with which new lines of clothes are hitting our stores. Retailers once released new clothes for sale dependent on the weather and seasons, now it’s a new trend every week or two. In whose interest do you think this is? It’s certainly not us!!!

The Human Cost to our fashion

Stupidly cheap prices for clothes are now the norm for some retailers and this has led to a totally new approach to garment manufacture. Fast Fashion also refers to clothes that are disposable because they are cheap. Instead of people using up their clothes until they are worn out, we just use clothes until we feel like buying new ones.  

There are 40 million garment workers in third world countries working their butts off making our clothes. That in itself isn’t the problem, it’s the price we are willing to pay now for these clothes that is. With all other costs remaining equal the reduction in our retail price means the garment manufacturer has to cut costs somehow to keep the business coming in. First to go is any investment in workplace health & safety and workers’ wages.     

Its an interesting conundrum because these manufacturers don’t have much negotiation power – they need the work orders. Their garment workers are already on the bones of their arses financially and would rather work longer days and for less money than any of the alternatives, or having no work at all. So they say yes, squeeze their costs and hope that the next garment factory down the road doesn’t take their business by squeezing tighter than they do. 

The 8-storey building that collapsed in Dhaka squishing its workers wasn’t because management ignored the giant cracks in the slabs of concrete, but because we Westerners don’t want to pay $20 for a plain t-shirt when it is sold for $5 elsewhere, leaving those manufacturers no wriggle room to do anything about the buildings structural concerns.

Our obsession gets worse at the other end of the spectrum as well. In America, only 10% of the clothes that are donated get sold in 2nd hand stores and the rest are shipped across to developing countries like Haiti where they have so many second hand clothes they don’t know what to do with them. Huge piles of clothes swathe villages and become ‘textile waste’. Textile waste is non-biodegradable and can sit there for 200 years or more releasing harmful gasses and chemicals.

What should we do about it?

The good news is that there is push back.

Fair trade clothing manufacturers and retailers do exist, but will often cost more money in the short term. But there is something you personally can do – buy less clothes! This is good for your wallet and the environment.

EK’s plan for taming your compulsive clothing habits.

1. Stem the tide going out:

The first thing any personal stylist does is cull your current wardrobe right?  Wrong!!   Don’t go throwing out all your clothes.   Style comes around and in the meantime you’re going to need every piece of clothing you have.   If its still got wear then keep it and for gosh sake just wear it!

2. Stem the tide coming in: 

Shop smarter!!! You are not entitled to buy something just because you like it, or because you’re bored one weekend. Look at the clothes you already have and commit to wearing them all out before replacing them.     

3. Build a ‘capsule wardrobe’. Google it – there are heaps of pages to help you!!! (Basically it’s 8-12 items of clothes that look good together and give off 30 or so different outfits). Think about how much you leave behind when you go on holidays. One suitcase is plenty enough and there is no reason you can’t manage the same at home. You really don’t need as many clothes as you currently do.

4. Take a leaf from The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up and keep only that which brings you joy and sell the rest.  

4A. Remember that Hedonic Adaption will eventually set in so that which gives you joy now will probably be redundant in a few months. Knowing this means that you should probably choose the more versatile options over the sequins.

5. Quality is hard to recognise these days because it is so rare.  (Ladies, don’t buy dresses that cost over $80 unless it is fully lined, and men the same applied to pants. If the crotch isn’t lined just don’t bother – you will look like a tool every time you stand up).

6. Check out the Australian Fashion Report here, which grades retailers’ supply chains testing for workers exploitation and slave wages.

7. And finally, take the EK 2nd Hand Clothing Challenge. Decide right now that your future clothing purchases must be bought second hand, AND funded by selling clothes you no longer wear. Post your thrifty finds on my Facebook page.

In closing this week, the more that you focus on fashion the further away you get from its purpose. Clothes are to keep your private parts covered, and you need much less than already have to achieve this. As long as you are clean and smiling people will never notice how ‘last season’ your clothes may be. In addition, it is absolutely unacceptable for someone to die making cheap t-shirts for you to wear so please start to question where you clothes are coming from and the conditions in which they are made.