Overcoming consumer guilt

How capitalism tricked us into thinking it's all our fault.

Ah capitalism, the destructive force of modern times. In the midst of our climate crisis, capitalism seems incessant on passing the buck over to consumers. It is us who must switch to a shampoo bar, invest in a reusable razor or buy [insert all plastic-free alternatives here]. Admittedly, I'm the perfect target for sustainable marketing but I’m so fed up of being made to feel that climate change is my fault.

Capitalism will forever be at odds with sustainability. It is a system driven solely by profit and profit at any cost, which most often translates to labour exploitation and climate degradation. In a 1987 report, the United Nations defined sustainability as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. But capitalism suffers from short-sightedness. It punishes long-term responsibility, values competition over cooperation and holds vast political say. This has made it virtually impossible to co-ordinate industry-wide change.

In a genius move, capitalism has responded to soaring demand for sustainable alternatives by providing just that. This has effectively misdiagnosed consumerism as the source of the problem. A quick Google search will tell you everything you need to know: we need to take more public transport, buy organic produce and shun fast fashion. In other words, it is individual consumers who are responsible for addressing climate change.

Capitalism then transforms our eco-anxiety into convenient products that alleviate sudden bouts of personal guilt. “Conscious” collections, metal straws, moon cups, bamboo toothbrushes - we’ve been tricked into buying more things to live an “eco-friendlier” lifestyle instead of cherishing what we already own. The truth is that we cannot consume our way to fashion justice or sustainability for that matter. And it’s the system we need to change, not just the products of that system.

Well, not according to capitalism! Let’s just break that down for a second: the capitalist system wrongfully and wilfully blames consumers to deflect from its own complicity while encouraging us to buy more needless products to fuel capitalism’s very survival.

When we bicker and shame others for their lifestyle choices, we’re feeding into this distracting (often classist) narrative that plays directly into capitalism’s greedy hands. Twitter has exploded recently, first attacking shoppers queuing outside of Primark and then those customers who seem undeterred by Boohoo’s sweatshop scandal. Next to face the wrath of these keyboard warriors were Depop sellers, who have largely been tarred by the same Depop-seller-finds-thrifted-item-and-sells-it-for-300x-price brush.

I’ll be the first to admit that I used to share these views, that I used to feel frustrated or disappointed when I saw the friends and family reading my articles later shop in H&M. These reactions are unproductive and place the blame with those that deserve it least. It’s such a waste of energy to police others’ actions. We should be directing that anger towards brands, governments and billionaires for pedalling an industry that harms the global working class. A systemic problem requires systemic - not individual - change.

While the war on consumption is not entirely misplaced, the blame most definitely is. See, individuals are statistically blameless. We can’t pressure consumers into leading better lives when governments and corporations are failing to pull their weight. In the words of Martin Lukacs, “while we busy ourselves greening our personal lives, fossil fuel corporations are rendering these efforts irrelevant.”

The climate crisis requires radical, large-scale and long-term solutions and who better to lead the way than the world’s richest 10% who produce half of all carbon emissions?! Or the 100 companies (like Shell and ExxonMobil) that are responsible for 71% of global emissions since 1988? The poorest 3.5 billion people, conversely, account for just a tenth.

To use a fashion example, The Arcadia Group is still refusing to honour payments for millions of already processed or completed apparel orders. While garment workers in Bangladesh face starvation, unemployment and homelessness, mutli-billionaire owner, Philip Green, is yachting around and evading accountability. The CEO of Urban Outfitters, Richard Hayne, is too refusing to #PayUp, while sitting on a comfortable net worth of $1.4 billion. With initiatives like Lost Stock, it is the consumer who must again shoulder the burden. We can’t let those directly responsible for the cancelled orders crisis get off scot-free.

So, where does that leave us? Switching to a plant-based diet or ditching fast fashion are commendable choices but individual actions won’t solve the climate crisis. That's not to say that we shouldn't feel empowered to reduce our own carbon footprint, though capitalism is yet to earn its own 'get out of jail' card.

I also find the notion of ‘voting with our wallets’ mildly problematic because surely some votes will always be worth more than others. Being able to shop outside of the high street can come with huge financial privilege, while the industry is yet to tackle its rampant fatphobia and racism. If we only listened to those who have never shopped in Zara or worn a skirt once, we’d be excluding the vast majority of the movement.

Though I’m pretty clued up on ethical fashion, I am only human. I can buy into greenwashing, I too experience fashion FOMO and a good chunk of my wardrobe is old Primark. We’re all hypocrites but that shouldn’t deter us from demanding greater change in the world.

It’s time to move beyond the consumer narrative and start thinking as citizens instead. We’re not all able to opt for organic cotton or thrift out of choice but we do have a collective voice. We can sign petitions, tweet brands, email MPs, donate to fundraisers, use #WhoMadeMyClothes, share campaign graphics, vote green, tell a friend, hand out flyers, protest outside of stores and more. We can show up and come together as a collective in ways shopping (or personal boycotts) will never allow. The #PayUp campaign has shown just how powerful digital campaigning can be.

We can’t consume our way to fashion justice but we can demand accountability, transparency, sustainability and ethics. We can exercise our rights as citizens to pressure those who hold the power and purse strings into acting now.

In other news…

Is online resale fuelling disposable fashion? As the reality of lockdown slowly crept in, I found myself obsessively scrolling through Depop - which got me thinking, how sustainable is it to compulsively buy second-hand clothes? And does thrifting actually reduce our desire for new? I wrote a piece for Fashion Roundtable which investigated the increasingly blurred lines between second-hand and brand new.

Remember Who Made Them is a six part podcast series, digital campaign and fundraiser that aims to help energise a new solidarity economy in fashion. In collaboration with existing campaigns, activists and workers unions, RWMT is seeking to amplify the messages of global solidarity with the people making our clothes and to ensure companies who have profited take responsibility to support them at this time. You can read their manifesto and learn how to get involved here.

Rediscovering the true value of clothes. At the risk of sounding insanely privileged (or hypocritical?!), ethically made fashion isn’t necessarily expensive; fast fashion is just dirt cheap. Don’t get me wrong, everybody should be able to participate in fashion but that doesn’t grant us the ‘right’ to a £1 Missguided bikini which inevitably harms those who made it. What I’m getting at is we don’t seem to value our clothes anymore or the time and skill that goes into making them. We don’t appreciate that every garment is handmade and we’ve lost the ability to mull over a purchase. I recently read this article from 2019 which suggests that made-to-order fashion is a privilege. To demonstrate their point, the author compares the price tag of an ethically made top by Olivia Rose The Label with a Pretty Little Thing knock-off. While the difference in quality is acknowledged, little is said about the difference in ethics or socio-economic impacts (Pretty Little Thing is owned by Boohoo). And the point that PLT likely stole the design from Olivia Rose is glossed over entirely. Vogue also recently posed the affordability question, though I was surprised to see H&M included as a ‘key player in the sustainability space’.

Tackling racism in the fashion industry is a long over-due process, and as the data shows, exclusivity is rife. This fortnight I’ve been reading Jason Parham’s longread on the evolution of digital blackface; how PR firms are navigating fashion’s race problem; Amal Abdi’s exploration of whitewashing in sustainable fashion; and how Black Pound Day could change the fashion industry for good.

Fashion’s colonial legacy is found in its waste bins. The mass exportation of second-hand clothes renders previously colonised countries dependent on western cast-offs and stifles the development of a domestic textile trade. You can read more about waste colonialism here and here. I’d also recommend this article by Céline Semaan on how colonialism is a fashion industry reality.

Asos is calling on its brand partners to sign ethical manufacturing pledges. In the aftermath of the Boohoo scandal, it is encouraging to see such a recognisable retailer demand collective action.. but the cynic in me is not so convinced. In this year’s Fashion Transparency Index, ASOS scored a mere 55%, so maybe they should work on themselves before demanding change from others. It does seem a bit like point-scoring or a deflection tactic. As I’ve discussed before, we can’t confuse transparency with good practice. It’s a crucial first step and, unless backed up with action, nothing more.

Other brand updates and recommended reads:

  • Boohoo is resisting calls to publish its independent inquiry in full, an investigation which found unspecified instances of ‘non-compliance’ within Boohoo’s supply chain. @ethical_emma has created this email template which asks the company’s executives to publish the report in full.

  • Chipotle has launched a “responsibly sourced” clothing line, featuring cotton dyed with the food chain's used avocado pits. While cool in theory, I’m not sure we need another sustainable clothing line. I’ve also struggled to find any info on who is making these clothes, while their “sustainability vision” is only 2 paragraphs long…

  • Industry leaders argue that there are too many loopholes in current anti-slavery legislation, and a licensing system would raise standards across the UK’s garment factories.

  • Elizabeth Paton on how a close look at a fashion supply chain is anything but pretty.

  • I’ve previously shouted out the #Klarnaa campaign which is calling for greater regulations and consumer protections in buy now, pay later schemes. This Eco-Age article looks at how BNPL is accentuating the fast fashion problem.

  • With the closure of fitting rooms and a boom in online sales, more and more clothes are being returned. Ruth MacGilp explores how we can fix fashion’s return problem in a post-lockdown world.

  • Ruth Roberts-Islam asks why the fashion industry cares less about garment workers in other countries.

  • A new German study suggests clothing incineration rates are on the rise due to the declining quality of discarded textiles.

  • Lebanon’s fashion industry has been hit by a triple crisis.

  • Read this brilliant profile on Aja Barber - personal stylist, intersectional activist and all-round sustainability legend.

  • Can fashion survive a second wave of Covid-19?

  • The Sustainable Apparel Coalition has updated its Higg Materials Sustainability Index - a tool that measures and communicates the environmental performance of thousands of materials used in creating apparel, footwear and home textile products.

  • The fashion mannequin needs to be rethought, says Rosalind Jana.

  • With heightened demand for brand accountability, will 2020 finally force fashion to break its greenwashing habits?

  • Learn how blockchain is powering transparency in the fashion supply chain.

  • An American survey has shown that Covid hasn’t dampened consumer appetite for sustainability.

  • Good On You shares 20 hard facts about fast fashion.

  • “Some in the industry have even talked about pushing the unseen and unsold 2020 collections to 2021 to avoid losses. The fascinating part is that in order to do that — to give that aged inventory value again — requires literally killing fashion, that nebulous deity that says something is “in” this year and not the next.” - a fascinating longread on how the fashion industry, as we know it, has collapsed.

What is capitalism?

This is the kind of question I’d avoid in my GCSE exam but individualism, money, exploitation and greed all come to mind. Borrowing a better definition from good ol’ Google, capitalism is an economic and political system in which a country's trade, industry and capital goods are controlled by private or corporate owners for profit. Government regulation is minimal, while the pricing, production and distribution of goods is determined by competition in a free market.

Fashion is a hyper-capitalist industry motivated by profit. If a popular fast fashion store sells a £10 dress with a 70% profit margin, other brands will seek to emulate this success by pushing their wages down to generate more profit than the competition. Inequality, therefore, is at the heart of capitalism, as private capital accumulation inevitably leads to the concentration of wealth in a few hands. We only have to look at the fashion billionaire boys club, the huge fashion conglomerate, Inditex, or the fact that 60% of the luxury goods market is concentrated in just 35 brands.

In The Condition of the Working Class in England (1844), Friedrich Engels reflected on the “curious fact that the production of precisely those articles which serve the personal adornment of the ladies of the bourgeoisie involves the saddest consequences for the health of the workers.” Here, he was referring to the plight of 15,000 mostly young female seamstresses who laboured for 15-18 hours a day. This exploitative dynamic continues to characterise the industry today. In a heartbreaking film by Osman Yousefzada, Bangladeshi garment workers imagined the women that wear the clothes they produced, clothes they will never wear themselves. One replied “they’re not black like me, they’re much fairer and very pretty”.

With the onset of globalisation, textile production was competitively outsourced to previously colonised countries, to countries with lax labour laws and environmental protections. Fast fashion only got faster, accumulating more profit through demanding quicker turnarounds, engineering 52 microseasons a year, producing in higher volume, reducing material quality and depending on sweatshop labour. This race to the bottom has generated substantial profits for those at the top, while the workers at the bottom of the supply chain are treated as expendable.

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