I arrive at front gate in the morning. The route I take to the Hamilton depends on how I look that day. If it’s a good day I’ll barrel down past the Arts Building and the Berkeley. If I’m feeling worse about myself, I’m inclined to wind down by the GMB or the Museum Building.
This has less to do with what my hair or my makeup looks like on any given day, and more to do with what I’m wearing. When I walk around the city, I find myself looking at people’s outfits before I look at their faces, and that scares me. Generally I like to maintain that appearances are not something to value in any comparable way to the other aspects of a person. When did they become important to me?
Why do we feel compelled to buy new clothes when there is nothing wrong with what we have? This is actually not a difficult question to answer, although some might disagree with me. The answer is the fashion industry.
We’re bombarded by marketing in almost every form of media, pushed to engage in faster and faster fashion. Seasons are no longer divided into the simplistic duality of fall/winter or spring/summer. There is an acceleration of trend turnover. Some estimates put the number of these new “micro-seasons” in a year at 52. Studies have shown that the average person is exposed to more than 5,000 advertisements a day. That figure is 10 years old, so it’s most likely higher.
Through this exposure, we are made to feel that there is something missing from our lives – shampoo, a fancy car, a Rolex – and that if we could only procure that product, then we could achieve happiness. Insecurities are constantly forced upon us, and we are taught that the way to remove them is through consumption. So the more often advertisements, new trends, and insecurities compel us to feel unattractive and out-of-date, the more money these companies make.
To a certain extent I suppose we communicate who we are through what we wear. Whenever I enter a new space or community, I feel a tangible panic to define who I am as clearly as possible. Others might feel the same.
Perhaps when we are younger, too, we feel this desire to quickly sketch the outlines of our personalities, as if we are uncertain of them. Almost as if we’re afraid they’ll shift and shimmer away. As if when we find discover a new trait or passion within ourselves, we need to shout, “Look! Look what I’ve found here! Turns out I like Surrealism! Someone write that down!”
We express ourselves in any way we can – through song, and dance, and blogs, photography, poetry, art, sport, and inevitably through fashion.
I’m probably getting too abstract here, so I’ll use an analogy. Many fish emit light from organs called photophores that appear as luminous spots on the body. Scientists now believe the blue-green luminescence is used for inter-specific communication. So in the same way that one dragonfish might recognise another because of its flishy flashy photophores, I might recognise someone who I could get along with because I like their Monet t-shirt.
Obviously the fashion industry has its benefits. However, it is also deeply flawed. I see it as one of the most ingenious scams ever pulled off. Of all the examples of built-in obsolescence in the 21st century – renewed software designed to render old phones useless, cars that won’t sputter past 15 years on the road, college textbooks which publish a new edition every second year – fashion is the most obvious example.
It’s also the example we would think of last, perhaps because we apply such cultural connotations to it. Yet clothing sold in high street stores is intentionally poorly made. If it falls apart, the consumer has another motivation to buy. Besides, nowadays, if you buy a shirt to be “on-trend”, within two weeks that trend is over, the shirt will have fulfilled its purpose, and it is then useless.
It’s not only the fact that we are commercially and socially conditioned to waste our money on the fashion industry that bothers me. Globalised production means that we can outsource the massive-scale production of our clothes to developing countries with low-cost economies. There, workers are paid disgraceful and inhumane wages for their labour and work in dangerous conditions.
Thereby fashion house giants can buy in bulk for cheap, and sell to us – still at a low price, but with a considerable mark-up from what they paid. We often forget that fashion houses are above all companies, and operate like any other industry: buy cheap, sell dear, and do this as much as possible.
As citizens of the Global North, we can afford to buy and discard oceans of fabric every year. Someone has to pay, and we all know who it is.
What happens if a company’s employees in Bangladesh, Cambodia, or India rise up in protest of hours, for example? If they say there are no more margins to push, and that the product just cannot be made cheaper? Do you think Topshop care? Of course not. They pick up, leave, and settle on the chest of another impoverished community who have nowhere else to turn to. This is how it works. A handful of people profit from the violation of the humans rights of millions. It has been estimated that one in every six people in the world are employed in some part of the global fashion industry.
There is a feminist inequality underlying this industry also. The factory managers are middle-aged men, and the sewers are often young women. Displays of resistance are met with violence. The CEOs of Zara, Topshop, H&M, River Island, Next, and Gap are all male. The list goes on. Another example of a capitalist trading system in which those dominating the bottleneck of power are men, and those at the bottom are women and girls. And that isn’t even starting on the modelling industry.
Then there are the environmental repercussions. When producing the raw materials and fibres for clothing, nitrogen fertilisers and pesticides are overused. This damages the soil and causes cancers, birth defects and mental illness in local populations. Tanneries pollute water sources irreparably. Suicides among farmers are at an all-time high.
However, most textile waste produced today is made of plastics or plastics by-products and is non-biodegradable. It will sit in landfills for more than 200 years
I’d like to make the point that this cannot all be offset by charity shops. Buying your clothes from a Temple Bar vintage shop and bopping around campus in 90s leather jackets and mom jeans is surely a lot better than buying from Penneys. However, the vast majority of clothes chucked into charity shops simply pass through, and are shipped to be “donated” to developing countries, which then destroys local industry.
The global fashion industry is the second most polluting industry in the world after the oil industry. It is growing on an exponential and infinite scale – in a world that is utterly finite.
I’ve never found it easy to relate the negative facets of this industry to my own life until recently. When I stroll up Dame Street to get my bus. I pass the massive hulking H&M. I feel a need to go in, pick up anything – despite the fact that I didn’t need any new clothes, and couldn’t really afford them if I did.
It’s a very strange sensation – to be aware of the fact that you are being manipulated, but to feel a certain way regardless. It makes me fearful for the power that these near omnipotent companies have, and makes me reconsider the frailty of my own free will.