A plastic carrier bag stretched full, near the point of bursting, dumped at the door of a charity shop is a contemporary archaeological site. Considering how we interact with our possessions in this era produces this image in my mind. In the bag, there are clothes with only small repairs required to be wearable again, clothes with their tags still on, and clothes that the buyer missed the return window for. None of these are uncommon to find while charity or thrift shopping: once a treasure trove of unique clothing at good prices, now filled with the same over-produced clothing you can find anywhere else.
This speaks on our consumption habits in the West and our relationship with clothing. When you can buy entire outfits on websites like ASOS, Pretty Little Thing or Shein for less than £10, that clothing is looked after and valued in accordance with its price. Many would rather buy a new skirt than replace a broken zipper or button – many do not know how, either. And since you only got the skirt for £5, why would you spend £3 and time to learn how to repair it?
Clothes making and repairing is becoming a more uncommon skill. In contrast, clothing used to regularly have more generous seam allowances so you could easily make alterations to keep up with your body changing. You can still find this in a well-tailored modern suit, but there are few other modern examples of this dressmaking technique. Clothing used to cost more, and used to be treated as such.
Some of us wrongly assume that there must've been some big technological innovations that meant clothing can get cheaper and that there is more of it. As far as clothing sewing goes, not really. It is still people who make your clothing. On the other hand, fiber production has increased nearly fivefold since 1975, with a massive increase in synthetic fabrics. Big fast fashion brands have responded to criticisms of using synthetic fabrics like polyester (which is normally derived from petroleum) by using recycled polyester. This has pros and cons, though, and it shouldn't be treated as a band-aid for our reliance on this harmful textile.
Sewing, knitting and crocheting some of my own clothing as a hobby has brought me new avenues of understanding things, and a greater personal connection to my belongings. By any account I am not a minimalist: I love my objects, I take a lot of inspiration by having lots of unusual things, and personal expression in my dress style is important to me. However, I try to make sure that everything I own is intentional.
It paints a further picture of the ways that many of us view our things when the idea of only having things we need or like (à la Marie Kondo) appears to take a certain level of diligence. But, if you view clothing as disposable or find it acceptable to only wear something a few times, to me this says that many with these habits are not thoughtful with acquiring new things.
I find it hard to blame those who fall into these habits, though. Clothing now is built to break, and the modern online shopping experience is built to make you buy more. Maybe you don't know what size you need and returns are hard to make. Maybe you think you're better off buying £70 and save £9.99 on shipping. Maybe you don't see any point in trying to stop the fast fashion machine, so you may as well get that nice dress before the world ends?
An uncomfortable component of tackling climate change that some are hesitant to reckon with is understanding what habits many of us need to change; bigger things than using tote bags or reusable bamboo coffee cups. Climate change is easy to talk about because it feels far away for many Westerners: not for everyone. Buying and owning lots and lots of clothing was once a luxury, and if we don't slow down we will be leaving behind a legacy of polyester that will live long after we're gone.