My son came home from primary school recently and asked why we were still using plastic bags. He’d just been learning about climate change. Like most people, I’d long been recycling and trying to avoid plastic. But being warned about it by my ten-year-old somehow did what photos of giant islands of rubbish had not: it galvanised me into further action. Suddenly I pictured all the iced-coffee cups and take-out containers I’d blithely tossed into bins over the years, along with everything else I’d done to harm the planet. I’d dabbled in environmentalism when it suited me. My son’s question made me realise it was time to get serious.
I’d always thought that the main failing of the fashion industry was to make me feel fat. Though I’d noticed new “eco-friendly” boutiques, and seen headlines about big retailers vowing to make “sustainable” garments, I’d assumed this was all just an excuse to charge more.
But evidence of the industry’s contribution to climate change is staggering. It emits more greenhouse gases than the air and shipping industries combined. Growing enough cotton for a single T-shirt requires some 2,700 litres of water – plus land, fertiliser and pesticide. And my comfy fleece jacket and stretch jeans both lose thousands of tiny plastic fibres every time I wash them, which then enter the water supply.
Perhaps most overwhelming for me was that the environmental emergency had entered the sacred realm of my wardrobe. I need to learn to live with the mountain of clothes I already own, and somehow suppress my great indulgence, pleasure and hobby: shopping.
For me, fashion is a family thing. Generations of my forefathers were tailors; my mother owned a succession of clothing stores. Shops were the backdrop for much of my childhood. My only broken bone was a shopping injury: I was playing around in a department store when the counter holding a cash register fell onto my wrist.
I’m not proud of it, but shopping is still part of my identity. I’d come to think of adulthood as a series of increasingly expensive outfits. It’s not just the rush of getting new stuff, it’s also the implicit optimism. After I had cancer, I knew I’d recovered when I started trying on clothes again. Doing so suggested that there’d be a future in which I could wear them.
Now that the future seemed to depend on my abstinence from shopping, I needed to recalibrate. Step one was desensitising myself. When, out of habit, I walked into a shop, I’d force myself to picture all the garments rotting in a landfill. It was the equivalent of imagining a cockroach crawling on a slice of cake to stop myself eating it. Step two was training myself to view second-hand stores as viable places to shop. Old would become my new new. In one vintage store I eyed some silk blouses with cautious enthusiasm. Instead of thinking about other people’s sweat and dirt, I imagined our stories poetically mingling as we wore the same dress.
Step three – not buying anything new, for a long, long time – is still a work in progress. I’m taking it day by day. But I plan to tell my son about the project. I think he’ll be pleased. It will surely help that he’s watching.•