I’ve noticed a consistent pattern. Every time we’ve posted on the topics of reinvention, shopping, or the appeal of novelty on our social channels, we usually get slammed by several followers for promoting newness and hindering sustainability. We’ve simply gotten to a point where “fashion is bad”, and you get a slap on the wrist for suggesting otherwise.
Their ire is more than understandable. We’re in the middle of an environmental emergency, and climate scientists estimate we only have 11 years to basically stop the apocalypse. And while many industries are responsible for this catastrophe, fashion, as we know, is a big one, thanks to its use of water, water pollution caused by chemical dyes, the amount of clothes that end up in a landfill, and a host of other reasons. Something clearly needs to change.
“We’ve simply gotten to a point where ‘fashion is bad’, and you get a slap on the wrist for suggesting otherwise.”
But psychologists don’t look at right and wrong. They look at why. In my second-year forensic psychology course, we looked at the motivations of serial killers (rough childhood, mostly). It was never a moral question, which is frankly unnecessary, it was strictly investigative. Psychologists don’t advocate, we simply look at what is. Only once we understand human motivation, can we then find workarounds to anything that doesn’t serve us and the world. Much like dieticians that understand that the body likes fat and sugar, but try to suggest healthy alternatives. If Pretty Little Thing is your common table sugar, sustainable fashion brands are your date syrup.
And so, the hard truth. The brain LOVES novelty. Literally lights up all over the place with novel stimuli, should you see it through an fMRI. It’s the reason we’re addicted to our phones - we crave the flurry of new information. It’s why we love travelling to new cities, and hate doing the same things over and over again at work: a love of newness is hardwired into our brains. A rush of dopamine accompanies fresh experiences of any kind.
I am not writing this to become an enemy of sustainability, only to realize that we need to be realistic about human behavior and can’t just keep telling everyone to “shop vintage”. Many people don’t like vintage clothing, but more importantly, we, by default, want new things that feel in alignment with who we are. With clothing, our reasons for wanting new things go even beyond simple novelty obsession.
The British writer Caitlin Moran said it best: “When a woman says, 'I have nothing to wear', what she really means is, 'There's nothing here for who I'm supposed to be today’.” We seek to redefine ourselves through clothing. Our personas and identities evolve, and we want outfits that feel right to the new versions of ourselves. Our economic circumstances change, and we can finally buy better, replacing Topshop with Theory. Things happen in the world, which shift our collective mindset as a culture, and the design needle shifts.
With all this in mind, I’d like to propose a few ways we can satisfy our desire for newness while minimizing environmental damage.
1. Pressure Mainstream Brands
It needs to be said that a lot of the responsibility is on brands to make the necessary changes. We must pressure them to create locally, to use sustainable materials, to repurpose dead stock, to not create overstock in the first place, and much more. Start with an Instagram comment or write a more formal letter to their sustainability officer.
2. Explore Sustainable Brands
Thankfully, there are now many, catering to many different styles. Google around as there are many “best of’ lists. We like Zena Presley, TOME, Misha Nonoo, BITE Studios, AYNI, Made by Voz, and many others found at ethical fashion etailer Maison De Mode.
3. Know Thyself
Self-knowledge is the antidote to overconsumption. The more you know who you are, and why you like what you like, the more you can invest in that aesthetic at a higher quality, and the less you experiment with throwaway fashion. In my 20s, I often felt that I “should” have a bit of everything in my closet, and felt pressured to try things I didn’t like deep down, such as floral prints and sheath dresses. In my 30s, I know what me is and only invest in that. My evolution, ironically, has become more focused.
4. Don’t Dump The Old Stuff
It’s highly likely that you have a bunch of stuff you want to get rid of, and do a periodical wardrobe cleanse. We know that clothes filling up landfills is a major issue. Don’t throw it away – donate it, take it to a charity shop, sell it on eBay, take it to a clothing recycling center, anything else.
5. Satisfy Novelty in Other Ways
If your compulsion to shop for new things is out of hand, and only you really know whether it is, it could be that you’re not satisfying your desire for novelty in any other ways. Try reading a different type of book (swap chick lit for a badass biography), taking a day trip outside your city, exploring a new part of town, ask a new friend out for coffee, watch an arthouse film that’s different to what you normally like, try a different type of restaurant or cuisine (I recommend Ethiopian). I bet you’ll get out of your head and find that the compulsion for yet another new order decreases.
Quoting Italian journalist and author Luigi Barzini in her best-selling book Eat Pray Love, Elizabeth Gilbert wrote: “Because the world is so corrupted, misspoken, unstable, exaggerated and unfair, one should trust only what one can experience with one's own senses, and this makes the senses stronger in Italy than anywhere in Europe. This is why, Barzini says, Italians will tolerate hideously incompetent generals, presidents, tyrants, professors, bureaucrats, journalists and captain of industry, but will never tolerate incompetent opera singers, conductors, ballerinas, courtesans, actors, film directors, cooks, tailors... In a world of disorder and disaster and fraud, sometimes only beauty can be trusted. Only artistic excellence is incorruptible.”
While we grapple with this conflict, that what feels good to us (new clothes) isn’t good for the world, it pays not to vilify fashion completely, but to fight to adapt sustainable workarounds. Beauty will always be a positive force.