“Look here, I have bought this bonnet. I do not think it is very pretty; but I thought I might as well buy it as not.”
~ Lydia Bennet in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.
This quote, extracted from a scene in the much beloved novel by Jane Austen, speaks to a flavor of consumerism which still haunts us all these years later. In this novel, the author offers commentary on the social structure and norms of the day, wrapped in the minutiae of the daily life of the protagonists. In this specific scene, a woman discusses having bought a bonnet which she does not really care for. She had no need or plan for the purchase, but acted on impulse and bought it with what might be called the consumption for the sake of itself.
Though centuries have passed since Austen penned that scene, and very few people spend their time shopping for bonnets, the sentiment remains largely the same. Many people make impulse purchases because they like some singular aspect of the garment, because it appeals to them on an emotional level, because they are filling an emotional need by spending money, or because it is on sale. Retailers understand this cycle and perpetuate it. Sales advertising the “lowest prices of the season” draw shoppers in hordes on specific days. Clearance racks hold a special place in many stores. People love to feel like they have gotten a good deal or that they have found something which might be a “good find”.
This climate flies in the face of conscious consumerism. Rather than purchasing items to fill needs or in a measured way, consumers are encouraged to buy for the sake of buying. I often see the phrase “there is no ethical consumption under capitalism” bandied about. There is a wealth of scholarship on this issue using a variety of lenses. While I have my own opinions about this sentiment, for the sake of this argument, I want to set it aside. Rather than strive for ethical consumption, a lofty and perhaps widely unachievable goal, let us discuss conscious consumption. Conscious consumption refers to the purchasing of items in a considered way, with understanding of the impacts of your economic activity. Conscious consumption does not demand expensive or exclusive taste.
As it pertains to fashion and consumption of clothing, conscious consumption requires planning. Before shopping online or in-person, it is worth taking time to consider what role the items will fill in your life and what will happen to them after you use them. Stopping to consider the future of the items we might purchase creates a moment of pause in the relentless messaging of the fast fashion industry. With an understanding of how the items will be used and what will become of them, consumers can spend in a way that will reduce their textile waste while increasing their joy and utility from each garment they purchase.
Considering the source of the clothing you purchase is an integral part of conscious consumption. Everyone has different constraints on their access, budget, time, and bandwidth. Operating within your own parameters, seeking out second hand clothing where possible and choosing organizations which align with your own values are great ways to consume in a more conscious way.
I have outlined a few general categories for items, some or all of which may be applicable to your specific needs. Think about your own lifestyle patterns and come up with categories that feel useful to you. Considering the kinds of clothing you will find most useful can help to focus your purchases on items you will actually wear and enjoy, rather than impulse buys which you might ultimately regret.
Before you buy, ponder the full lifecycle of the garment. Imagine how it will fit into your closet and what will become of it when it can no longer serve you. Research fiber recycling, organizations that receive clothing donations (including Thrift 2 Fight, of course), and other responsible ways to repurpose garments when you are ready to shed them from your closet. I’m personally not a minimalist. I don’t believe that you must have a streamlined closet with only the bare necessities, unless you want to. However, I do recommend purchasing consciously, from responsible sources with the long term future of each piece in mind.
Fast fashion as an industry perpetuates a myth that clothing items exist only as long as you want them, ready to be discarded to make room for the new trends. The unfortunate truth lies far from this. The production of these garments leaves a massive environmental and human footprint. Furthermore, many garments, if carefully cared for, can endure decades of use. Garments composed of synthetic fibers can literally last for centuries, whether in use or in the landfill. Disposable consumerism, deeply ingrained in the cyclical fast fashion marketing cycle, ignores the longevity of these clothing items and the cost of their production.
Though these may look different depending on your employment and lifestyle, general necessities are clothing items which will be worn with great regularity for the foreseeable future. These garments might be required attire for work or might be best suited to the activities in which you regularly participate. When purchasing these items, look for quality construction and colors and silhouettes which will work for you in the long term. As usual, I recommend shopping beyond trends. Of course, if you happen to love a style that happens to be trendy and you intend to wear it long after the trend has cycled out of the spotlight, go for it. Think about how the items will work with what you already own.
We all have beloved clothing items that don’t get a lot of wear. For me, these include more formal attire which I wear a few times a year to weddings and other more formal events. I definitely don’t wear these pieces all the time, but I am grateful to have them when the occasion arises. When you see something that might fill an occasional need in your wardrobe, this is a great opportunity to expand your closet. Then, when you receive an invitation to an event which demands attire different from what you usually wear, for example, you’re already ready to go! No need to panic or shop at the last minute, which usually leads to overspending on items which aren’t really what you would have chosen if you had more time.
I love a good upcycling project from time to time. Sometimes, you just find the perfect item that just needs a little bit of love to blossom into an incredible addition to your wardrobe. In general, I recommend being very careful about purchasing items as projects. Be reasonable about your skills, free time, and bandwidth to invest in the project. I usually try to restrict myself to one at a time, and to items which have a clear path to completion. If I find a great pair of pants that just need a little mending for a hole in the knee and a hem turned up, I feel confident about my ability to make them work for me. If I find a shirt with cool embroidery that would need to be made slightly shorter, maybe a little looser at the bust, perhaps dyed a different color, and then also reshaped in the shoulders and adjusted in the fit of the sleeves, that falls a bit outside the realm of something that I personally can expect to do in a reasonable time frame. While this kind of project might work perfectly for someone else, it would just probably just sit around until I ultimately gave up on it and donated it again. Whatever the ultimate result of the project, it should be something which will fall into a category of clothing which you will wear and enjoy for seasons to come.
“Art Gallery” Pieces:
Sometimes, you find a beautiful piece that is just stunning. It might not be your size or your style, but you find yourself drawn to it nevertheless. Sometimes you see an expensive brand tagged for a real deal at a second hand store. It can be tempting to scoop up these pieces because they are aesthetically interesting. However, if you know that they are not going to be something that you wear, ever, consider what will become of them. They will languish in your closet until you ultimately clean it out and find a new home for that garment. While it is great to take joy in looking at clothing and to explore your style, it is ok to leave these pieces behind on the rack once you have taken a moment to appreciate them. For someone else, they’ll be the perfect pieces to be worn and enjoyed for years to come.
Eleni Georgiadis is a classically trained horn player currently residing in Kentucky. Outside of music, she enjoys knitting, sewing, composting, kombucha brewing, and spending time outdoors. She is thrilled to have the opportunity to share her thoughts about sustainability and inclusivity in fashion, weaving together her technical knowledge, passion, and research.