4 November 2021

Why wearing your clothes twice won’t save the planet

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What does a red blazer have to do with climate change? When Carrie Johnson met other G20 leaders’ wives in Rome wearing a jacket that she’d previously sported at the Conservative Party Conference, it was interpreted in some quarters a sign of her ‘eco-credentials’.

Cue Twitter wags claiming they must be Greta Thunberg because they wear the same T-shirt twice a week, and Nick Robinson declaring himself a ‘fashion influencer’ on Today because he’s had the same pair of jeans for 10 years. Hilarious.

There’s much that could be said here about the scrutiny women in the public eye face – the number of times Carrie’s husband wears the same suit in a month passes completely unnoticed – but I want to talk instead about the superficial, self-serving concept of ‘sustainable’ fashion.

To be clear, whether the Prime Minister’s wife wishes to re-wear a favourite item or buy something new for an important occasion is a matter for her. Good on her for making choices that align with her values and using her position to promote a cause she believes in. The same goes for the Duchess of Cambridge, who is often lauded for her ‘thrift’ in ‘recycling’ couture gowns. The problem is when vested interests in the fashion industry lecture women about their consumer habits.

Take Kate Fletcher, a professor of Sustainability Design & Fashion at the University of the Arts, who told Today that ‘the most radical item in your wardrobe is something you already own’, and that nobody should buy distressed jeans because they’re bad for the planet.

Leave aside the question of whether most people get dressed in the morning for ideological, rather than practical reasons, Fletcher misunderstands fundamental economic principles. Fashion, she says, suffers from both an ‘over production’ and ‘over consumption’ of clothes – but these are conditions that can’t coexist in a market. By definition, you can only have ‘over production’ if there is insufficient consumption. Her real issue then, is with the immense demand for cheap clothes, and that’s not something you can sermonise away.

The bogeymen among the ‘sustainable’ crowd are the fast fashion retailers like Boohoo and China’s Shein. These outlets add as many 6,000 new items to their websites every day and sell dresses for as little as £5. Thanks to these pocket money prices and strong relationships with celebrities like the Kardashians, these businesses are extremely popular with teenage girls – a client base that’s all too easy for those who preach about sustainability to dismiss as trivial.

These companies are extremely lucrative – Shein was recently valued at $15 billion – and therefore a threat to other players in the fashion industry. That’s not to deny that their practices are dubious from an environmental perspective – the use of synthetic fabrics may be responsible for up to 73% of the plastic in the oceans. But demonising consumers isn’t the answer, what’s needed is a supply-side solution, yet sustainable fashion advocates seem incapable of offering one.

Instead high-end designers like Stella McCartney and Vivienne Westwood, make the transparently self-interested argument that we need to spend more money on clothes, while others say it’s somehow ‘ethical’ to wear your own clothes twice – which most people already do.

Nor do the environmental arguments stack up. Frankly, if re-wearing your clothes is enough to beat climate change then it can’t be the world-ending threat sustainability obsessives say it is. If, on the other hand, it’s a challenge so great that only concerted, co-ordinated government grandstanding of the kind we’re seeing in Glasgow can stop it, then our individual consumer choices will make no difference.

The reality, of course is somewhere between the two. The only way we’ll seriously reduce emissions is by doing the kinds of things eco campaigners tend not to like – like building nuclear power stations and enabling market-led innovation in green technology and less polluting garment production methods.

Ultimately debates about sustainable fashion are a bit like Carrie’s blazer – bright, distracting and a little worn.

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Alys Denby is Deputy Editor of CapX