Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Consumption: How much and what kind?

No Impact Man, one of my very favorite green bloggers, poses a nest of discussion questions about our consuming habits.

Doesn't reducing consumption make perfect sense? Why is it the elephant
in the living room? Are people too selfish to consume less? How do we
move towards a less consumptive society? How much would it help with
the climate crisis?

What I know best is clothes, and I can see what ideal consumption might look like,for me:

  • 80% of my wardrobe would consist of basics (underwear, socks, classic skirts, jeans, plain tops) that would form the backdrop and foundation for the 20% of my wardrobe devoted to really special pieces (accessories and festive clothing)
  • the 80% basic wardrobe would be made by fairly paid workers, using environmentally sound materials and methods
  • the 20% "special" wardrobe would artisan-made, either by me (in my ample free time) or a fairly-paid craftsperson.
  • a robust textile products recycling system, including refashioning, second-hand clothing and raw material recycling similar to existing paper, metal and plastic systems.
  • expansion of clothing rental programs for women -- wedding dresses, formals, high-end maternity wear.
  • better labeling so consumers could easily identify green, ethical and fair trade products.

This wish list makes me very aware that when it comes to reducing the impact of clothing, the rate of consumption is key. To really make an impact in this area, consumers will need to buy new styles less often, wear their clothing longer before cleaning, launder it responsibly, mend or alter clothing to extend its life, and dispose of it responsibly.

The fashion industry (manufacturing, promotion and retailing) needs to shift its focus away from fast fashion (short trends and rapid obsolescence), and this will be the hardest part. There are millions of contractors and workers in this industry, and it is highly competitive. A sudden shift in America's demand for cheap T-shirts and trendy clothing will be felt by many, many low-wage workers around the world. I don't know the answer to that. I do remember a talk by an ILGWU representative thirty years ago, when a similar question was asked about preserving jobs in American clothing factories. She said, "Almost none of our workers want their kids following in their footsteps. These are not great jobs". But they are jobs.


Soul Economy said...

Less and more ethical purchasing and disposal is critical. Yes, it might mean reduced jobs in the short term. However, if we as consumers band together then market forces will create new, ethical and sustainable markets longer-term.

Jo said...

I agree! It would also be good if the governments and industries in clothing and textile-producing nations did a better job of re-training and supporting their workers than we have. The market doesn't have a great track record of providing safety nets.