This morning, over coffee, my boyfriend asked me what my plans were for the day. “Well,” I pondered. “I’ve got deadlines in the morning and a meeting in the afternoon. I think after the meeting I’ll go look for some new jumpers, but I want to make a list of all the sustainable shops around Oxford Street first.”
I know this sounds like the kind of fake dialogue usually found in The Ladybird Guide to Ethical Consumerism, but that’s what I said. I’ve been trying, lately. We all have, I think. This week’s terrifying report on climate change has made everyone desperate to be an agent for change, even though most of us know that (unless we can single-handedly convince China to just, y’know, sort of, give up coal) there’s not a lot an individual can do. I recycle; I don’t have kids; I almost exclusively take public transport; I have cut down on my meat eating. Like everyone else, I keep looking around: what else, what else, what else? I give more money away. What else? I google ethical fashion brands and continue to shop in charity shops. What else?
But back to our coffee.
“What’s a sustainable shop?” my boyfriend asks, and I’m amazed.
“You know,” I say. “Shops that stock sustainable fashion.”
“What’s sustainable fashion?”
“Where the supply chain is environmentally friendly and everyone has been paid properly along it.”
It’s fascinating to me that he doesn’t know this. This is someone who is also trying very hard to consume ethically and who is reading the same terrifying articles as I am. Yet I have been reading about eco-fashion and Rana Plaza and Livia Firth for years – and he has never heard of it.
This is because my boyfriend buys clothes roughly once every three years. Sure, he might occasionally pick up a rogue T-shirt if he sees a good one, but in general, he only seeks clothes out when his existing rotation of plain-colour T-shirts, shirts and jeans are tearing from overuse. If a button comes off, he sews it back on. He is not paying a lot of attention to whether Carhartt is ethical, because he buys from them so rarely that his patronage is just a drop in the ocean – it’s not like the thousands of pounds I have spent in my twenties on H&M, Zara and Gap.
Sometimes, I feel genuinely confused about whether I suffer from Catholic guilt or ‘I’m a woman who exists in the world’ guilt
I admire him, because this is how I would like to buy clothes. I would love it if I could be content with two pairs of jeans, six T-shirts, two “going-out” shirts and three cosy jumpers. So, why can’t I? I’m not hugely “into” fashion. I’m as interested in clothes as the average woman. I don’t “like” shopping, but I do it, because to shop is to have new things, and to have new things is to feel better. Like you, I have felt that moment of panic when you run into someone and you’re wearing the same thing as the last time you saw them – and from the time before that. “You must think I have no other clothes!” I often hear myself saying. I have bought more formal dresses than is necessary, so the same crowd doesn’t see me in the same red dress at different weddings, even though I love my red dress more than I love anything else in my wardrobe. I have read every autumn/winter 2018/19 style guide, not because I am excited about my autumn/winter aesthetic, but because you need to have a baseline “look” for the cold months, one that subtly references trends while not garishly copying them.
I say “need”, when of course I don’t mean “need” at all. I could wear my slightly bally jumpers from five years ago, and I do. But there’s no denying that there’s a power attached to being well dressed, a complex system of internal confidence and outward displays of wealth, and it can be hard to get along in somewhere like London without it.
Every website, magazine and woman I know is a reminder that to not keep buying things is to do womanhood incorrectly. First, I am sold revolutionary new face wash so I can be a nubile virgin bride; then, I am told the microbeads in that face wash are killing the fish. I am sold glitter face paint so that I can be a festival queen; then, I am told the glitter is killing the fish. I am sold faux-fur so I can look like Penny from Almost Famous; I am told that faux-fur is bad for the environment. More and more, I seem to spend my mornings being told what kind of woman I should look like, and my afternoons being slapped down over my attempts to be that woman.
Sometimes, I feel genuinely confused about whether I suffer from Catholic guilt or “I’m a woman who exists in the world” guilt. The two concepts seem perpetually muddled, in that they’re both about reminding you of your desires, and then punishing you for feeling them. The journalist Nuala O’Faolain once wrote about the decline of the fur trade, saying how “amazingly successful” the movement had been because it was “directed against woman, always a softer target than men, or men and women together”. Which is not to say that it’s a bad thing fur has become a faux pas, but it does go some way in explaining why fur is not allowed but leather is. There seems to be this overwhelming pressure on women to be conscientious consumers, while very little pressure is put on the industries that make these products to be more ethical.
There’s no arguing that we all need to make more thoughtful choices about what we do with our money, but it’s irresponsible to put so much pressure on individuals. We’re doing our best.
For more on sustainable fashion from The Pool, read Wear Your Clothes Week here.