Choosing to consume, or not

We humans are autonomous, we make our own decisions, or so we think. But watch this documentary The Men Who Made Us Spend and understand how our ‘free choice’ is easily manipulated by a few making lots of money while our environment is junked with unnecessary resource use and waste.

In The Men Who Made Us Spend, investigative journalist Jacques Peretti explains how planned obsolescence, the organised creation of dissatisfaction and computer-aided design cultivated competitive consumerism throughout capitalist societies.

The documentary includes an economist saying change during the past two decades has seen the average American’s clothing consumption double from 34 pieces of apparel per year to 67 – equating to a brand new item of clothing coming into their wardrobe every 5.4 days. Once the garments are no longer ‘socially valuable’ they either go into the waste stream or the global apparel trade. Such waste and indulgence is wrong. 

Donated clothes generate important revenue for charities – but this landscape is changing. The sheer volume of surplus clothing generated by fast-fashion consumption habits means for-profit clothing recyclers see an opportunity to on-sell this to developing nations.

Another documentary The Secret Life of Your Clothes recently screened on Britain’s BBC2 follows the thousands of tons of unwanted clothes donated to charity shops every year. “But where do they actually go? It turns out most don’t ever reach the local charity shop; they are exported to Ghana in Africa. And even though we have given them away for free, our cast-offs have created a multi-million pound industry and some of the world’s poorest people pay good money to buy them.”

This interesting follow-up story by The Herald Scotland quotes a local historian saying these cast-off clothes are swamping the African republic of Ghana, destroying its native textile industry and threatening its culture.

Everything is connected in the bigger world around us, in ways we usually don’t think much about. We’re encouraged to indulge cheap clothing consumption habits – but given the above scenarios, is it ethical, sustainable or healthful?

Personal observation of clothing churn in Australia has led Jane Milburn to spend 2014 in counter-culture activity refashioning reject/dated/waste/passé clothing into something else by using resourceful, creative, traditional skills.

Sew it Again is a social-change project to shift thinking about the way we consume clothing and textiles. The project demonstrates creative ways to upcycle existing clothing and empowers others to tap into their ‘greenest’ clothing of all. It engages sewing skills, encourages a culture of thrift, and shows heart-felt concern for where mindless consumption of fast fashion is leading.

Creative entrepreneur Dr Cathryn Lloyd from Maverick Minds says today is no longer about doing business as usual.  ”Complexity and uncertainty reflect the world as it is today.  All businesses require creative entrepreneurial thinking and behaviour. The 21st century belongs to those who can bring their creative potential and leadership skills to their personal and professional lives.”

Jane’s contention is creative upcycling of existing clothing is a way to bring the mindfulness and resourcefulness of sewing into the 21st century. Almost all Western clothing is now made by factory workers in Asia and while others lobby to ensure workers are paid adequately for their efforts, the convoluted clothing supply chain is ripe for exploitation – as exposed by the 2013 Rana Plaza factory collapse.

These global supply chains bring forth fast fashion at a fraction of the cost two decades ago, and few bother with home-sewing. So what? Jane argues that the interest in home-cooking, home-baking, home-gardening and home-handiwork demonstrates people want to be resourceful and ‘do for themselves’ because there’s a reward beyond money. There is wellbeing and health in human-beings doing.

We (in the West) are losing skills which enable us to make-do and mend – alter and upcycle to suit ourselves. Upcycling is a way to bring home-sewing into the fold. Instead of the hard (and expensive) work of sewing from scratch, you can use cloth resources lurking in your wardrobe, cast-off by friends or bought cheaply at op shops.

Next time you buy new clothes, check the labels, think about who made them, and how many times you might wear them before they lose their ‘social value’. And before junking old clothes, think about what else they can become if you turn them upside down, apply creative thinking and doing. Google upcycling or refashion to find a whole world of ideas about second lives for clothes.