The world in a wardrobe

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Later today I’m contributing to a Festival of Ideas event organised by Zoe Svendsen linked to Metis Arts and co’s World Factory project. I’ll be talking about sustainability, fashion and the clothing industry, basing my contribution on a chapter in the Routledge Handbook of Sustainability and Fashion, (eds Kate Fletcher and Mathilda Tham) due out next summer. Here is an excerpt from the draft conclusion. Rather than writing a few thousand well referenced words on the geography of care I wrote an essay about the life of the contents of my grandmother Betty’s wardrobe across her 100 years. I’m saving all the fun bits e.g. about what she did with WW2 parachute fabric for the chapter and event today, but this offers the concluding argument.

We may be making a mistake in implying that there is a need to move ‘from’ unsustainability ‘to’ a new unimaginably distant and radically different state. The composition of and care for the garments in Betty’s wardrobe over a century can be patched together into an account of a more sustainable life with clothing. Many of these elements are covered in far more detail in other contributions to this book, but they can be shoehorned into a paragraph.

Investing in some pieces of long lasting quality rewards the maker and the owner. These are heritage items where the expertise and skill of the designers and makers needs to be well rewarded, but the garments carry and communicate value for many years. Learning and practicing skills of mending, maintaining and refreshing clothes is a satisfying thing to do that increases self-respect and independence. If time and enthusiasm is short, people can spend small amounts of money rewarding someone else’s skill in order to keep good clothes going. Consideration for the well being of the makers of textiles and garments is an obligation upon the wearer. Awareness of the realities of their lives is within easy reach (though eyes are easily averted). The business of buying clothes can be done within a fairer economic system that supports the welfare and striving of people near and far, as the British post-war settlement demonstrated. The price paid for ‘good’ clothes should permit decent and secure lives all the way along the supply chain, whether it stretches across a few miles or a few continents. Innovation should be treasured just as much as the classic piece. New developments can result in pleasure and surprise but also less environmental and social cost if the right priorities are set in design and manufacturing training and practice. Researching the whole life cycle of a product, and stripping out waste and harm with the rigour that economic globalization has previously only applied to cost will result in dramatic reductions in resource consumption in production, use and disposal of garments. Price signals that reflect or are driven by changing social pressures and values can be a powerful and rapid way of expressing ethical commitments and a shared vision of the future. Assigning adequate prices to the value of labour and of material inputs, including water, crops and fossil fuels provides intuitive ways of delivering change at pace and scale throughout a system.

Can we really imagine all of these things happening? To do so it is necessary to look away from the static political imaginary of the present time – one concerned solely with the idea that salvation lies in another burst of impact-blind consumption and GDP figures going up. Rather it helps to look back and reflect upon the scale and pace of technological, economic and political system changes across the last century. Human beings need to remind themselves that the devices and systems we live with aren’t mysterious natural forces to be endured, but rather human artefacts that we can drive towards deliberate purposes. The Edwardian household economy of service, the colonial economy of resource exploitation and the stark class divide in life chances of 1930s Britain were all transformed in the course of only the first half of her lifetime. At the time these changes were going on some if not all of them would have been met with some trepidation, if not opposition, by people of Betty’s class and background, but it is now difficult to imagine that the world could be otherwise.

Looking into a lifetime of wearing and caring for clothes has demonstrated a whole set of practices and experiences that are present today or within easy reach, from care for clothing to care for others through modifications to the economy. This century long life story confirms that system changes are possible, and can be determined by positive goals. It includes the development of personal and professional skills, the responsible judgments of consumers, rigorous environmental protection and guaranteed reward of workers as well as changes to the regulation and pricing of global commodities. These are ways in which we can, across the space of just one generation, choose to ensure that we wear is, in all senses, ‘good value’. 

 

Bibliography and suggested reading

The piece has been written as an unreferenced essay, but the following suggested readings are drawn from human and environmental geography and science and technology studies. They have informed the argument and would support any exploration of notions of geographies of care around fashion:

 

Barnett C, Cloke, P, Clarke, N and Malpass A (2011) Globalizing Responsibility: The Political Rationalities of Ethical Consumption, Wiley-Blackwell, Chichester

Cook et al, I. (2004). Follow the thing: papaya. Antipode, 36(4), 642-664

Latour M. and Weibel P. eds (2005) Making Things Public: Atmospheres of democracy MIT Press, Cambridge MA

Massey, D. (2004) Geographies of Responsibility, Geografiska Annaler 86 B, pp. 5-18

Veblen, T. (2009) The Theory of the Leisure Class, Oxford University Press, Oxford

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