The Emperor has no new clothes

By Ellie Barber on

Roughly a 5 minute read

I like New Year’s Resolutions. They’re a helpful tool for self-analysis and setting encouraging challenges for the year ahead. In recent years I’ve joined a choir, attempted to send more post and vowed to see more live music. For 2019, in contrast to forming a new positive habit, I chose to give one up. Namely, buying new clothes. The new is an important distinction, as it allows the purchase of vintage or second-hand items – using the argument that they have a smaller environmental impact. Last weekend I bought my first second-hand item, a wool dress from Boutique by Shelter in Kings Cross that’s charming and feels ever the more special for being the only newish thing in my wardrobe.

The no new clothes idea came about for a number of reasons. Firstly, I couldn’t work out what to wear anymore. I went on a few shopping trips where I ended up with nothing and felt confused and the wrong shape and torn between dressing like a teenager or a stereotypical Mum. I don’t believe in ascribing certain fashions to certain ages, however, as I approach 30, there is something in the aggressive mesh crop top camo combinations in Topshop that just say, “No.” (their recent troubles haven't altogether surprised me). Secondly, I was becoming increasingly concerned about the social and environmental implications of the fast fashion industry. That quickly turned to distrust of the entire clothing industry altogether and a desire to only shop at Reformation forevermore. If you haven’t heard of them, Reformation is a US clothing brand that has managed to combine an Instagram-friendly aesthetic and product offering with a commitment to scrupulous sustainability goals, all while communicating their progress in an admirably open way. Given the outdated cliché that buying ethical or sustainable fashion meant dressing like a human hacky sack (no offence, more power to you and all), this feels almost revolutionary. While I won’t be buying anything new from them this year, brands like Reformation will be top of my list if or when I feel the need to make new purchases in the future.

Of course, in the year of Extinction Rebellion, Greta Thunberg and the UN’s 12-year warning (that was actually given in 2018, so we’re down to 11 years to try and halt total climate destruction), attempting to live more sustainably is at the forefront of many people’s minds. Addressing our relationship with clothing is one important way to do that. Statistics and research regarding the impact the fashion industry has on the environment are hazy at best. According to who you listen to, and which metrics you use, it is cited as being anything from the tenth to second worst polluter in the world. The variety in part comes from how you define certain industries and practices; is cotton farming related to agriculture or to fashion, for example. It also varies between carbon emissions, water use and pollution, plastic pollution, and waste – with fashion having a fairly damning hand in each, but with differing degrees of ‘badness’. Citing specific statistics seems a little precarious, so, if you are interested in something more academic, I direct you to this report “Environmental impact of the textile and clothing industry” that the EU put together in 2017.

The lack of obvious clarity and certainty surrounding these statistics and others like them allows for both the denial and personal offsetting that people exhibit around climate conversation. By personal offsetting, I mean the interior argument you can have with yourself whereby you justify using Uber because you have a refillable water bottle. It also fuels the debate that certain behaviors are more detrimental than others. Who is worse; a vegan who makes transatlantic trips once a month or someone who has never been on a plane but has steak every Friday? I don’t know, there are probably some scientists who can tell you, but more importantly, this shouldn’t really matter. The reality is that any small steps individuals can be taking are beneficial, alongside pressuring companies and governments to be making the big decisions that will really affect change. Together with the confusion of which habits you should focus on adjusting, is the reticence to sacrifice luxuries which we have become accustomed to. Further to that, some changes represent what feels like a regression. The feat of air travel has long been hailed as one of the greatest inventions of the modern era, and yet, we should probably never fly again. The next step in our progression is to take those technologies we rely on and to entirely reinvent how they function.

What does that have to do with clothes? Mass-market fashion brands have democratised the way we present ourselves. I’m not condoning copyright infringement, definitely not (side note: brands, stop stealing young artists’ work). Yet, there is something brilliantly disruptive about anyone being able to go into a high street shop and put together an outfit akin to those they’ve seen on celebrities or by high fashion brands. With this, however, we have the relentless business model of fast fashion retailers telling us that we need to buy something new week on week. This is both unsustainable from an environmental point of view, but also for the cycle of consumerism that it perpetuates. Just as positive as it is that brands have stopped fashion being prohibitively expensive to the average customer; it’s equally negative that accessible brands repeatedly tell consumers that they need to keep buying in order to be cool or fashionable or desirable.

Similar to the need to rethink air travel, an equivalent shakeup of the fashion industry is essential. However, it is one that can’t only be answered by retailers such as Reformation, who exist at an inaccessible price point to the majority of consumers. In doing this, we remove that democratic element of fast fashion. The reality for many people is that they simply cannot afford to save up to invest in longer-lasting, more sustainable clothing. It also isn’t enough for the high street giants to have one collection with eco-friendly credentials, while continuing to pump out their regular product lines at the same time. Brands need to drastically address the way they push collection after collection (something Ruby has been telling them for years) and accept responsibility for driving the unsustainable levels of demand. They must invest in innovative ways to better serve their consumer and the world, utilising all resources available to them.

Of course, culpability doesn’t only lie with brands. We too, consumers, should consider our purchasing choices. The obvious step is to reduce demand: the fewer clothes we buy, the fewer retailers will supply. Breaking that habit may seem daunting (and a sacrifice); to encourage you, here are some of the additional benefits I’ve noticed. The obvious one is that I'm not spending any money on new clothes and I've also noticed that my spending habits have decreased across the board. In general, I have bought less and saved more. Also, I have not been in a changing room this year (aside from the wool dress purchase, but that was very spacious and had flattering lighting), and I currently know that everything I own fits me. These two points are relevant because the raging conversation around womxns’* bodies is one that many of us carry with us into those changing rooms and in front of our bedroom mirrors. It's ridiculous that an ill-fitting pair of jeans can erode my sense of self, but it’s an experience riled up by the society we live in (and one I have not missed). Continuing on a psychological point, I simply feel emotionally better for purchasing less. This has been the most surprising to me as I expected to miss that instant feeling of joy when you buy something new.

*P.S. If you're unfamiliar with the term womxn, there is a brilliant NYT article on it here

My advice would be to try it out. Seek out the clothes you already own that you love. Stop following ‘fashion influencers’, and unsubscribe from any fashion brands’ mailing lists. Bask in the financial gains and gleefully brag about the sustainable hero you have become to each and everyone you know.