For the better part of my twenties, my clothing purchases have followed a fairly predictable and reiterative lifecycle. The cycle begins, as so much does today, on Instagram, that beautiful universe of perfectly curated, supremely enviable content. There, I scroll and scroll, absorbing the “must-have” trends while leveraging the research of a few frugally minded bloggers to unearth copies of luxury originals. Finances permitting, I stock up on these high-fashion dupes with unbridled enthusiasm, convincing myself that a very peculiar type of “everywoman” justice is being served. “Who cares about where I’ll wear this or how it was made as long as it’s affordable!” I tell myself. Over time, the cheap clothes begin to fray—shoes become detached from their soles, as do zippers from jackets, while polyester dresses devolve into staticky, clinging messes. Without much thought, I throw the items away, a disposal that feels ethically uncomplicated—straightforward, even—given how little the clothes cost me.
With alarming, near-apocalyptic gusto, 2020 has forced me to finally reckon with the narrow-mindedness and irresponsibility of these habits. It all started in January when I decided to pick up Dana Thomas’ Fashionopolis: The Price of Fast Fashion and the Future of Clothes. In the book, Thomas positions fashion as an ecological and humanitarian menace: Collectively, she tells us, the industry accounts for a fifth of all industrial water pollution, a tenth of all carbon emissions, and a quarter of all chemicals produced worldwide. Moreover, though the industry employs one out of every six people globally, fewer than two percent of workers receive a living wage, with millions forced to spend ungodly hours confined to rat-infested, ill-ventilated workplaces that are constantly at risk of fire or implosion.
If fashion is the villain of Fashionopolis, then fast fashion is its most potent and lethal weapon. By encouraging the “lowest-bid” option throughout the design, textile selection, inspection, and manufacturing processes, Thomas writes, the model enables companies to drastically cut retail prices without ever hurting profits. The resultant prices are so low (hello, $5 tee shirts!) that we buyers find ourselves unable to resist, consuming to a degree and at a speed that far exceeds need or reason. In the end, what results is a veritable “race to the bottom,” in which cheapness, over-consumption, and instant gratification are the ultimate prizes for both the producer and the consumer.
For me, Thomas’ book was a huge wake-up call, opening my eyes to all the ways in which fast fashion has infiltrated my own values and judgment by ascribing powerful moral value to the affordability of looking stylish or glamorous. By replacing exclusivity with democratization, fast fashion seemingly renders expensive-looking clothes something of a political right, transforming the buyer into a modern-day Robin Hood whose noble mission it is to universalize conventionally unattainable style. Over the years, I have fancied myself such a Robin Hood, buying several fast fashion dupes under the justification that the prototype garments were just too exorbitant (and thus somehow morally problematic). As I’ve stocked up on cheap knock-offs of voguish sweaters, headbands, and boots, I’ve often felt vindicated, sometimes even triumphant—as if I’ve finally beat the arcane system that is high fashion by finding a more reasonable and democratic alternative.
2020, however, is looking quite different. Inspired by Thomas’ book, I began the year by trying to “unlearn” my shopping habits while educating myself on several famously eco-friendly brands, such as Reformation and Stella McCartney. Yet with the upheaval of the coronavirus, my research has shifted gears. More and more, I have found myself wondering, Is this research actually helpful, or is it just a distraction from a far more intractable problem? Are “sustainable” brands really untainted by our ethos of excessive and individualistic consumption?
Over the past few months, COVID-19 has turned our world upside down, lending new perspective to what NYU Professor Eric Klinenberg calls our society’s infatuation with “market society and hyper-individualism.” I myself have become more conscious of the things that I truly need and the things I don’t, including many of the wastefully purchased clothes hanging in my closet. During past crises, Americans have been summoned to make similar distinctions between want and need, particularly as they pertained to their wardrobes. Historian Meg Jacobs observes that during the Second World War, Americans were advised to “repair a shirt rather than buy a new one, paint on nylons instead of wearing the real thing, go without cuffs on your pants.” The government also banned boots taller than ten inches, heels taller than two-and-five-eighths inches, and “fancy tongues, non-functional trimmings, extra stitching, leather bows, etc.”
Fighting a war, of course, is very different from fighting a pandemic, and the sacrifices required by COVID-19 are admittedly much less sartorial in nature. With that said, I believe the virus may offer us a precious opportunity to reevaluate our parameters for distinguishing want from need and, ultimately, for building a more sustainable future. In just a matter of months, we have started to see signs of real ecological healing due to COVID-related restrictions: there has been a 25 percent drop in China’s carbon dioxide emissions from last year and a 50 percent drop in New York’s levels of pollution; satellite images are showing nitrogen dioxide emissions dissolving over northern Italy as well as Spain and the United Kingdom; and Venice’s storied, yet often turbid, canals appear clearer. Perhaps, in a strange way, this restoration is the kick start we’ve needed to start thinking more meaningfully about our planet’s future.
Yet, as the COVID-19 pandemic has spread, fashion companies have continued to eschew this ethos of restriction and sacrifice, framing heightened consumption as an essential ingredient for a successful stay-at-home experience: “Dreamy candles, cozy textiles & more ways to settle into your space,” exclaimed one retailer. “Everything you need for a relaxing day indoors,” urged another. Some companies have gone a step further by playing to our pandemic-related anxieties and fears, offering soothing enticements to shop like: “Color is mood boosting,” “De-stress SOS,” and “We could all use some glamour right now.” Remarkably, even many famously-sustainable brands have harnessed this kind of artful rhetoric, encouraging consumers to buy clothes that will “increase serotonin levels,” “restore much-needed structure to our days,” and help us “pretend [we’re] on vacation.”
Now, don’t get me wrong—I am by no means advocating an “end to fashion” (I actually love it!), nor am I encouraging fashion companies to discard their profit incentives, especially in this time of economic crisis. But by sharpening the distinction between want and need, COVID-19 has revealed how even the most sustainable, well-intentioned brands hinge on the premise that our lives will be materially, authentically, and morally enhanced by the clothes that we buy—that we’ll feel more “structured” with that new blazer . . . that we’ll feel less depressed with that technicolored dress . . . or that we’ll feel less worried about our planetary well-being with that vegan $1,000 handbag.
Going forward, it is my hope that this crisis will catalyze a new era in fashion, predicated not on veiled indulgence but on true simplicity, functionality, and fairness. Above all, I hope that coronavirus will help to cement the important truth that our lives are irrevocably linked with those of people we may never know, and that our decisions—fashion-related or otherwise—have real and reverberating consequences. It is a lesson that needs to be learned, now more than ever.