Disposable items

June 21, 2020

Our addiction to fast fashion has created a toxic culture

Dear All,

Last week ‘non-essential retail’ shops in England were allowed to reopen following more than two months of lockdown. The shops had the social distancing rules in place so there were long lines of shoppers waiting outside for hours. And since many businesses had drastically reduced the prices of much of their stock, shoppers were prepared to put up with the wait and stand in the queue.

In the past the western media has tended to illustrate news reports of countries ‘in crisis’, with images of empty supermarket shelves and pictures of people queuing up outside stores. But those people (in the communist bloc or in Venezuela, in Zimbabwe) had been queuing up to buy a limited quantity of essential food items, here people were mostly queuing up to buy clothes and shoes.

Are new trainers (however much reduced in price) an essential item? It seems they are to a society addicted to the acquisition of material goods. The way people have flocked to the shops seems to indicate a sort of addiction to the whole process of shopping. We buy not because our old clothes are unwearable but because society and the fashion industry have brainwashed us into thinking that they are. This culture of disposable clothes has many negative outcomes. The mass production of ‘cheap’ items encourages the exploitation of labour who slave away in unsafe conditions (please recall here the factory fires in Baldia Town Karachi and in Dacca) and it encourages people to buy such items routinely whether they need them or not. Moreover, this increased production of such items, many using synthetic materials, has resulted in a burgeoning environmental problem.

A recent report in The Times narrated how ‘fast fashion cast-offs from the west are choking Ghana’s rivers as “15 million pieces of discarded clothing arrive in vast bales every week” at the capital city Accra’s main bazaar. The excess cast-off items are now choking up rivers, waste grounds and landfill sites. A few years ago a survey in Australia found that almost a quarter of people dispose of clothes after just one wear and forty per cent said they just throw such items away (in the rubbish bin) rather than attempting to recycle or repair them. Similarly, a study from four years ago reported that Americans dispose of about 12.8 million tonnes of textiles annually – which is a shocking 80 pounds in weight of clothes per person.

So, there are two things at play here: a fashion industry which wants to make money so it convinces consumers that buying new trend items is obligatory and consumers who are increasingly willing to (literally) buy into this idea (yes, this is the capitalist way). This throwaway clothes culture has become a terrible addiction: an activity in itself and a way to affirm social status or assert self-worth. But this tendency leads to an increasingly narcissistic and almost amoral outlook: people perceive the new outfit as a ‘need’ rather than a luxury and the justification almost always concerns the self (“I worked hard to earn the money, I can spend it on myself” or “I deserve this”) or else there is the excuse of social status constraints (“What will people think if I wear last year’s style?” or “What will people think if I haven’t made new clothes at Eid?”) or peer pressure (“all my friends have these…”)

The toxic piles of discarded clothing and other items clogging up the world have also left in their wake a toxic culture of waste and conspicuous consumption. There is no concept of mend-and-make-do, and most people now do not even possess such basic skills as attaching a button or threading a needle. Consumers with any moral qualms tend to comfort themselves with various false justifications like saying that their buying a very expensive outfit is actually ‘helping’ any number of poor people involved in the production process.

Unfortunately, such activity is mostly helping designers and manufacturers who are basically laughing all the way to the bank. Consumers have become addicts to fast fashion and throwaway clothing and in the process they have corrupted not just their physical but also their social environments. We need to take stock of the situation: instead of encouraging production of goods that are linked to conspicuous and frivolous consumption let’s use our resources on constructive social activity – education initiatives, community projects, the sustainable production of food – and let’s move away from the conviction that the label on a handbag or an outfit affirms one’s status in the world. Because all it really affirms is that one is a very gullible human being who has been beguiled by relentless advertising and the propagation of false values, and has thus been relieved of a very large sum of money…

Then there’s the question of how this sort of attitude towards acquisition can affect our attitudes towards people. How long before they too come to be considered as disposable, replaceable and not worth investing time and effort in?

So instead of shopping to pass the time, try reading. Or talking to somebody (about things other than shopping or new trends); or creating something; or teaching somebody something. Reclaim your life, and your time, and your money.

Best wishes

Umber Khairi

Disposable items