Anisa Johnny, Senior Lecturer in Fashion Marketing & Management at Raffles College of Higher Education Singapore, grapples with the question of how many garments we should own.
Last week I was lucky enough to participate in a panel discussion hosted by The Wedge Asia entitled ‘Are We Fashionably Sustainable’. The session included a short film Slowing Down Fast Fashion, hosted by ex Blur band member Alex James. The presenter piqued my interest – if a musician was concerned about the effects of the fashion industry on the planet, then something had changed in culture. Had fashion sustainability finally become mainstream?
Four panelists including myself gave their unique perspective on fashion’s impact on the planet, outlining what their organizations contributed to the conversation in the process. During the session, Devonne from Matter Prints, raised a question which I think has become sustainability’s elephant in the room. As customers, when it comes to sustainability, we should all be asking ourselves – how many (clothes) is too many?
Why The Question Is Important
Fashion’s effect on the planet is becoming overwhelming. According to Fashion Revolution, in the USA alone, 10.5 million tonnes of clothes are sent to landfill every year. The equivalent of 30 times the weight of the Empire State building. While in Singapore, Channel News Asia reported in 2015, that 156,000 tonnes of clothes were discarded and only 8% recycled. To give you an idea of the scale of the waste, that’s the equivalent of 30,000 elephants.
Facts and figures are useful, but there is nothing like seeing textile waste for yourself to help you appreciate the scale of the problem. Last year as part of Eco Bank, a zero-waste event organized by Eco Business and City Development Limited, students and lecturers from our college volunteered to sort out donated items. Clothes, shoes, toys and household items were collected as part of the event. We spent over two hours sorting the items into piles for resale, whilst selecting some of the best items to create Instagram content and upcycling. It was hard work and the quantity of discarded items seemed endless.
Our session was only the tip of the iceberg, across a few weeks, many more items were sorted by other volunteers. By the end of the drive 17.5 tonnes of clothes, accessories, household goods and toys, mostly in good condition were collected. Students were impacted by the volunteering session and they fully understood the critical issue of throw-away fashion and the urgent need to change their own habits.
How The Number of Clothes We Own Has Changed
A Singapore YouGov Omnibus survey cited that over 70% of those who took part, had thrown away clothes in the past 1.4 years and 25% had thrown away more than ten items of clothing in the past year. For Millennials, the statistics were staggering – the same study found that 30% had purchased at least half of their clothes in the past 12 months.
According to a survey carried out by The Daily Mail, a UK newspaper, the average woman has 150+ garments in her wardrobe, over 50% of which are never worn.
In the USA, research indicates that the average woman has 120 items of clothing and only wears 80% of her wardrobe. Compare this to the 1930s, when the average American woman had 36 items of clothing.
From primary evidence historians can ascertain that in the 18th Century people had even less items of clothing. From a surviving document in the Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University, a certain Mrs Ann Bamford’s owned a grand total of 12 gowns, including nightwear. She was from the upper classes, so just think how little the rest of womankind got by with.
What Has Changed
In just over 200 years women living in developed nations have gone from owning only 12 items to 120, thanks to cheap disposable clothes. That means, we now have the ability to change our entire wardrobes every year if we wish to.
To make matters worse, today’s clothing is designed to only last 6 months, because they are essentially poor quality copies of international catwalk styles produced at a fraction of the cost in order to supply consumer’s appetite for novelty. It doesn’t have to be this way. Clothes can and should last much more than half a year. Indeed, the oldest known surviving garment – The Tarkhan Dress – is 5,500 years old.
The Purpose Of Clothing
Do the clothes we wear have a purpose other than representing our mood or taste? Mankind has used clothing to protect itself from harsh climates, for modesty, adornment and physical and psychological protection (think of firemen and soldiers).
Clothing is used to communicate status and uniforms help us recognize authority. Clothing is also a signal that someone belongs to a group such as a school or a religion. Clothing is so integral to society that sociologists and psychologists study how dress affects human interactions. Experiments have proved that our relationship with clothes goes much deeper than just surface motivations to own things or look attractive.
Clothing and Identity
How we dress is part of how we express our identity and thus is intricately tied up with our concept of the self. Significantly, this is based not just on our individual beliefs but also on what society says is acceptable – for example, women have long hair and men can only wear trousers.
These so-called cultural norms are also reflected in spending habits. The global womenswear market for apparel & footwear is worth over $600 billion and the global menswear market is worth over $400 billion. Researchers have attributed this discrepancy in spending, to women being subjected to advertising since the 1950s and traditional gender roles aligning the feminine with beauty ideals.
Clothing, Identity, Socio-economics and Brands
Clothing is not only linked to culture but our socio-economic backgrounds. Fashion for some academics is about capitalism and some would even go as far as to say patriarchy. Fashion (products) are made for the elite and cannot be afforded by the masses, those luxury items are then turned into more affordable diffused copies for the middle class to purchase. Those items are then quickly discarded by the elites in order to select new products to show their status, leading to a never-ending cycle of purchasing.
Psychologists suggest we use clothes as impression formation. We select products as symbolic extensions of ourselves, not our actual self but our ideal self-image or rather the image which we wish others to see. Experts use the theory to explain why branding has become so important. Brands now express who people are or aspire to be and they can be used as a status symbol to signify a social class whether real or aspirational.
Whether we are mainstream or individuals striving to be unique, experiments have proved participants rate none branded Vs branded luxury goods as almost the same when the brand is not revealed. When the test is repeated and the luxury brand name is shown side by side with a similar unbranded product, respondents will more often rate the expensive luxury brand as being better. Proving that the brand plays a significant part in how consumers rate products and make their buying decisions. If products are an extension of our ‘ideal-self’ then the logical conclusion is that there is a real danger we may use brands to ‘feel better’ about ourselves.
Clothing as Conformity
Since the 1980s, psychologists and sociologists have been studying how clothing influences our sense of group identity. Brands understand these consumer motivations and some choose to use messages that tap into those aspirations in order to influence consumers to buy their product.
The brands we select can often be about conformity or keeping our group stable. We select brands to be accepted, to reach our goals or to ensure our participation in the group and its continuity. Young adults especially seek acceptance by their peers, which brands tap into by creating branded messages of belonging. To wear the brand makes you part of an ‘in group’ or idealized subculture either on the basketball court, at school, or the most important, in a social setting.
Adults also dress to be accepted by groups. In a corporate environment, suits are worn to conform and sales or service roles may expect women in full makeup. Recently a fashion entrepreneur, once a successful banker, shared that she started her own handbag company because she was fed up of other extremely successful women carrying identical branded bags. She would turn up at a meeting and all the women carried the same few brands. Those women working in finance had no idea they were confirming to expectations of their industry, but conforming they were all the same.
Clothing as Communication
American presidents often arrive for canvassing photo calls without a tie and their sleeves rolled up; and focus groups reveal ordinary Americans vote based on how much they ‘like the political candidate. A presidential candidate should be able to identify with the common man and voters often cite “he’s the kind of guy you can have a drink with” as an important factor. Former British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, in order to be taken seriously had to change her style of dress. To become more authoritative her dress style showed no cleavage and lower skirt hems. Allegedly, she was asked to stop wearing pearls, a request she refused because they were a gift from her husband. Incidentally, she also had speech coaching to lower her voice.
Clothing Reflects the Spirit of the Age
Fashion is whatever people adopt. As such, it reflects society’s interests and aspirations. Fashion is a fundamental component of the Zeitgeist (‘the spirit of the age’) thus it holds a mirror up to society. For example, the 1920s saw the emancipation of women, who abandoned the corset, and led a less restricted life, playing sports such as golf and tennis – once considered pursuits for men. As a result of this new-found freedom, hemlines get shorter and middle class women cut their hair short to follow their screen idols – an act that was considered scandalous and unfeminine.
In the 30s during wartime rationing in Europe, fabric production plummeted as factories were focused on the war effort. Middle class women had to join the workforce (working class women always worked), taking over the jobs men had left behind to become soldiers. As a result, women required more practical clothes and society began to accept women wearing trousers in Europe.
The ‘Zeitgeist’ that led to fast fashion was the fashion industry becoming cemented as part of popular culture. In the 90s, international fashion had adopted a grunge look from the streets, coined ‘heroin chic’. The term ‘supermodel’ was a commonly used phrase and since the late 80s models had become celebrities in their own right. It was also the beginning of the renaissance of luxury brands as we know them today. European heritage houses were bought up by big conglomerates with spending power and media access, this exposure spawned copycat high street versions by the fast fashion behemoths we’ve come to know.
During the early 90s, most fast fashion brands had only expanded to one or two other countries, most produced cheap clothing for teenagers and consumers with lower disposable income. However, as they grew, their branding and image-making became more sophisticated. Sourcing strategies improved in line with technical innovation leading to low cost materials and more efficient automated production. Fast fashion brands could now create products with a luxury look, developed at a fraction of the price; adding legitimacy to those companies as ‘brands’ in their own right.
By the early 2000s, American TV Show, Sex & The City had made luxury fashion brands household names and the high-end labels including the ‘it bag’ reached its peak. The hipster was born and fashion was about eclecticism, mixing vintage with luxury, spawning a trend of high and low. It became acceptable for insiders of the famously snobbish fashion industry to wear high street brands. Fast fashion brands dominated the high street and fashion magazines, traditionally only endorsing luxury brands, started to feature high street clothes on their pages. By 2010, H&M’s controversial store opening on the Champs Elysee, an iconic Paris street was the epitome of how times had changed.
Is Fast Fashion Coming to an End?
Fashion has always been an expression of culture and society. Fast Fashion was invented in the 1990s – I was able to observe the changes in consumer behaviour first hand as a trainee in the Buying Department of Marks and Spencers. That was over 20 years ago, which some would argue is towards the end of the natural life cycle of any mega trend or business model.
Indeed, it could be argued that fast fashion’s demise has already begun. Thanks to social media and a more digitally connected globe, we now have the means to understand the devastating effects of an industry that needs to change. The worst excesses of the fashion industry are more visible, including inhumane labour practices, poor conditions for workers and building safety resulting in the Rana Plaza building collapse, killing 1,134 people.
Not to mention pollution from dye waste leaking into water systems, pesticides killing farmers in developing countries, land being diverted from agriculture to fashion, and increasingly scarce drinking water being swallowed up by garment manufacturing.
Minimalism and Why Fashion and My Culture Is Changing
The good news is that there is some evidence that the tide is turning, millennials (in the US) are possession-averse, preferring experiences over things and are more open to renting and co-sharing resources. They also care about the impact companies have on the environment and are willing to pay more for sustainable alternatives.
According to Robin Lewis of the Robin Report, these values are a result of having grown up with uncertainty – from the financial crisis, the inability to get onto the housing ladder, record university debt, terrorism and other issues. As a result, Millennials are increasingly concerned about the future, leading to changes in consumption patterns. One such lifestyle trend is ‘Minimalism’, a phenomenon sweeping the internet. Minimalists eschew material goods where possible and reduce their possessions to the very basic items needed to subsist, as a rejection of a consumerist society.
Minimalism is rooted in a conceptual art movement that emerged around the late 50s in the USA. The idea is that art should have its own reality and therefore should be reduced to its purest form – shapes such as the triangle and the square – everything else was a distraction. Minimalism has influenced all facets of design from interiors to fashion, music and visual communication.
These new Minimalists however, go beyond Minimalism as an aesthetic. Their approach is having the smallest wardrobe possible – usually a few items that can be worn interchangeably. There is no holy grail or magic number, a minimalist’s wardrobe could consist of 24 items of clothing, the ideal fashion capsule wardrobe or 30 garments including underwear, accessories and outerwear. Follow the correct hashtag online and you will find that many people have started to reject the idea of amassing unnecessary possessions; instead opting for experimenting with a limited number of clothes. After all, clothes unlike food and water are not a necessity.
The Fashion Sustainability Challenge
Have the Minimalists hit upon the solution? The question of ‘how much is too much’, is for each individual to answer and I hope by exploring the social psychology of fashion you and I as consumers can understand the choices we make are not just random or inconsequential. On the contrary, our decisions reflect our self-concept, the standards and gender roles of the society we belong to, our group identity and our willingness to confirm or present an ideal self to others.
The fashion we adopt also says something about the age we live in; excessive, wasteful and inconsiderate of our effects on the planet but with pockets of hope, as more conscious brands such as MATTER have popped up in the last few years. Ultimately, how much we choose to consume is question we all have to ask of ourselves. Minimalists have stepped out of the rat race and the endless cycle of purchasing. Can the rest of us?
Anisa Sia Johnny is a full-time Fashion Marketing & Management Senior Lecturer at Raffles College of Higher Education Singapore and co-founder of social enterprise Boheme Style Nomads, the product of an idea to help marginalized women in Singapore become employed while still being able to look after their children.