Feb 1, 2023

No New Clothes 2023

My New Year's Resolution

No New Clothes
On slowing down consumption, removing myself from a system, and how the fashion industry exports pain and suffering across the globe.

New Year, Old Clothes

I'm not really a New Year's Resolution guy. It's an odd, arbitrary day in the middle of winter – not exactly the best time for me to begin any sort of new habit. Too cold, too unpredictable, and frankly, too lazy. Resolutions are so often about doing: from diets to exercise to budgeting. January is never a good time for me to do. In fact, it's far easier for me to not do. So my thought for this year is simple: what's something I could not do? What sort of not doing can I incorporate into my daily life that can make mine and others just a little bit better? And the answer was sitting on me the entire time.

One nasty habit of mine is the careless acquisition of clothing. The endless hunt for the perfect jawn. The constant desire to both appear my age and also stay young and hip. And don't even get me started on sniffing out the diamonds in the frequently rough clearance racks. But for every hit, I get one or two misses. Something that somehow looked cooler on the model than it did on me, or immediately becomes misshapen after one wash. And what am I left with? A pile of clothing that either gets donated or cycled into the pajama rotation.

And I certainly don't need more clothes. I have enough to make it through a year, if not five. Is this sort of consumption really sustainable? Is it making me any happier? Any cooler? So this year, I'm putting it to the test. One full year without the purchase of new clothing. A proof of concept that not doing in a world of doing is not only possible, but perhaps even a virtue.

La Règle du Jawn

The rules are simple: if I'm going to buy, buy used. I'm not a minimalist, at least dogmatically. I'm not Marie Kondo-ing my life. I'm not beginning a personal revolution. It's simply a slowdown. A turn to a more thoughtful acquisition of clothing through the second-hand market. But with each purchase, I also need to ask myself a few questions. What do I need? What do I really want? And more importantly, what will last?

This past year, I've discovered something that most people found out about a quarter of a century ago: Ebay. Turns out, people have a lot of stuff. And sometimes, they want to turn that stuff into money. And there are other people out there who want to turn their money into stuff! If you belong to either of these demographics, then you simply have to check out this little website. It's incredible! Absolutely filled to the brim with stuff.

But it isn't just about access to second-hand clothing, it's also about searching for the cream of the crop. If I'm buying second-hand, I don't want to buy something designed to fall apart after a year. The fast-fashion houses of H&M, Zara, or Shein are non-starters. The mid-range mall brands like J. Crew, Banana Republic, and Polo Ralph Lauren are generally a pass unless it's something I'll actually use. What I'm looking for are the long-term staples at the highest quality I can reasonably find. Things that I could in no way afford to buy new and will happily take off the hands of whatever rich person is bored with. I'm talking Ralph Lauren Purple Label, Brooks Brothers Golden Fleece, or vintage J. Press. Ivy-league heavy-hitters. The uncool kings of longevity.

Ebay grants me access to premium, high-quality clothing for a fraction of the price. Longer lasting, durable pieces that are out of my typical price range. But it also frees me from the guilt I experience from impulse buying. That worry that I made too rash of a decision or that it looked better in the changing room mirror. It also frees me to try out a different style – something more left-of-center or perhaps even hyper-conventional – without the typical baggage of shameless consumption.

Now, this doesn't prevent me from making bad decisions. I recently purchased a vintage 90's colorblock shirt – the kind that turned Zach Morris into an unbeatable teen heartthrob. It fit me perfectly! Great condition and even better vibes. My only mistake was wearing it to the office. Though I thought I was looking like a Slater, I was being treated like a Screech. Sure, the shirt might have been a miss, but at least it didn't have a major effect on the world around me. Socially. Environmentally. But I still think it's a good shirt.

Now, there are exceptions to the rule. There are certain clothes that I simply cannot trust on the second-hand market. Things like t-shirts, underwear, socks… those will remain untouched by another person's skin. But I can be more conscious about those purchases. Buy Made-in-the-USA products. Find eco-friendly materials. Try my best to track the source of everything to something nearing sustainability.

The oft-repeated phrase "There is no ethical consumption under capitalism" has become so rote, it's nearly lost all meaning. A knee-jerk response; a hand-waving of responsibility. But ultimately, it's true. No matter what you buy, it's likely the direct result of some form of exploitation – even more so in the age of untraceable global production networks. What is labelled as "Made in the USA" could have had its cloth sourced from overseas factories with lax safety protocols and remarkably low wages. Shipping to and from South East Asia may be cheaper than ever, but pumps more carbon into the air than ever before. And that isn't even factoring in the environmental devastation that textile production wreaks upon the planet daily.

Each purchase I make of a new product is the result of some form of unethical exploitation, both directly and indirectly. And while buying used won't fix the problem, it can at the very least remove one consumer from the equation. Which is, admittedly, quite pointless, but at least it's something.

The Color of the Year is Green

It's difficult to find ways of not harming the environment. Every step we take could have some twisted butterfly effect on our climate or kill off an entire species. The good news is that we've become far more cognizant of our impact. The bad news is that we aren't doing much to limit ourselves. I'm not sure what can realistically be done. The modern necessity of capital prevents us from creating meaningful restrictions. It's a limit to our limitations. The only way to make meaningful change is from below; to cause a massive, popular threat to industrial profits. Which given the necessity of clothing, is difficult. But at the very least, we can educate ourselves.

I was aware that fashion -- particularly the fast-fashion that has come to dominate the market -- was environmentally offensive. It wasn't until researching this project that I discovered how offensive it actually is. According to the United Nations, the fashion industry alone is responsible for up to 8% of global carbon emissions – surpassing both air travel and shipping combined. We've built Twitter bots and websites to track the excessive private jet trips by the ultra-wealthy, but how often are we tracking the emissions from our shirts? How often do we shame ourselves for our contribution?

But it isn't just about emissions either. According to a recent Bloomberg article that I've kindly un-paywalled for you, the rise of synthetic clothing has detrimental effects:

It also accounts for a fifth of the 300 million tons of plastic produced globally each year. Polyester, a ubiquitous form of plastic that’s derived from oil, has overtaken cotton as the backbone of textile production. Garments made from polyester and other synthetic fibers are a prime source of microplastic pollution, which is especially harmful to marine life.

The use of polyester has ballooned since the start of the 21st Century, both deepening our over-reliance on petroleum and poisoning our water supply. The destruction of marine habitats is one thing, but just recently, we've also found microplastics in human blood. We still don't yet know the full extent of microplastic consumption on our health, whether it be heart disease, increased cancer risk, or worse.

Not too long ago, there was a major backlash against the existence of microplastics in our body wash. The exfoliating kind with little scrubbing beads. In came a flood or articles and public health notices about their environmental impact, causing an industry-wide pivot away from these unnecessary particles. In my mind, this was a major win. Surely, we had beaten back the worst offender, right? Wrong. The fashion industry is by far the biggest contributor to microplastic contamination:

The U.S. Geological Survey found that 71% of microplastics found in samples of river water came from fibers. Scientists estimate that, globally, 35% of the microplastics found in oceans can be traced to textiles, making them the largest source of microplastic pollution in the world’s oceans. A study in England found that marine mussels exposed to microplastics had broken DNA and deformed gills and digestive tubes.

But this project isn't just about reducing my carbon footprint. It's also a way for me to reframe my consumption into a social act.

The Anthropology of Anthropologie

It's remarkable how much our clothing dictates our social standing. It's a silent signifier of class. It can communicate our belonging to certain social groups or subcultures. As with all red-blooded Americans, we prove our individuality through our consumption, only buying certain brands or wearing particular styles to prove how different or similar we really are. I'm not necessarily saying this is a bad thing, as it's only human nature. But if we so carefully curate the clothes we wear to optimize our social lives, then the least we could do is consider how that affects the lives of others.

The production of textiles has been tlinked with exploitative and outright abusive working conditions for centuries. In the early days of the United States, the mass production and export of cotton formed the backbone of our economy, which itself was built upon the unpaid labor and brutalization of black slaves. In the lead-up to the American Civil War, the South believed themselves to be economically impenetrable, declaring that "Cotton is King". Even after the abolition of slavery, the textile industry continued to subjugate their employees with subhuman working conditions. Women and children were forced to endure high temperatures and poor ventilation. Unreasonable hours with little to no breaks. There's a reason they were dubbed sweatshops.

These conditions led to innumerable tragedies. The fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory caused a deluge of laws and protections for workers, like rudimentary worker's compensation and hourly regulations. The mass unionization movement helped to destroy sweatshops around the country, creating a safer and more ethical product for us to buy. Right?

Wrong. While these conditions became illegal in the U.S. (or at the very least more difficult to maintain), mass globalization allowed the industry to export their production lines overseas for pennies on the dollar. To this day, there's significant evidence of child labor within the fashion industry in countries ranging from Brazil to Kazakhstan to China. Fast-fashion companies like Nike or Shein are constantly in the news for their use of overseas sweatshops and questionable labor practices. A quick Google search will lead to plenty of evidence.

It isn't just about the production of new clothes, but also the disposal of old clothing. The U.S. alone generates about 34 billion pounds of textile waste a year. Most of this waste ends up in landfills, which have adverse effects on neighboring communities. We can all agree that those neighbors aren't exactly the 1%. And consider the petroleum-based clothing I mentioned earlier. These polyester threads likely won't decompose within our lifetime; and when they do, they'll release toxic chemicals back into the environment, causing unknowable and lifelong health problems.

And that's just in the U.S., where only about half of our textile waste remains. The rest is exported to other countries to rot in massive, unreal landfills. We dump nearly 39,000 tons of clothing waste into the Chilean desert each year. A similar story can be told about Ghana in which a literal mountain of clothing caught fire, as well as causing a cholera outbreak that killed over 200 people.

Our addiction to trends has a real effect on the livelihoods of others. We may not see it, but the constant cycle of staying "in" is the direct cause of others' pain across the globe. It's difficult to visualize how our purchases can cause such heartache. It's out of sight. Out of mind. Most of us will never see where our waste ends up. But for some, it's all they know.

Stitching It Together

So how can I move forward this year? How do I stay relatively stylish without wreaking havoc upon the world? Is it possible to thread that needle?

No. As I stated before, there is no ethical consumption under capitalism. But that doesn't mean that I can't try.

I've already been exploring this project for a few months. Though I've made few new purchases within that time, I found that the concept of only buying used is surprisingly achievable. But it isn't just about the acquisition of clothing. I also discovered that it added a new social aspect to my consumption that had been missing from my usual lifestyle.

I've been making more trips to local resale shops. Not the Goodwills or Salvation Army's of the world, but the ones owned and operated by members of my direct community. I won't give exact locations for my own sake, but I will say that Chicago has an amazing array of locally-run stores to explore. Boutique resale shops with curated selections. Antique stores with more interesting options. And a constant rotation of stock that is only blocks away.

I've also started to frequent my neighborhood dry cleaner's for some quick tailoring. A lot of the stuff I've acquired on Ebay wasn't quite a perfect fit, but she's managed to do the impossible. Everything from hemming jeans to a near total reconstruction of a laughably large dress shirt. Sure, it costs a little money, but it's worth spending a few extra dollars -- maybe $5 to $15 depending on the job -- when I've already purchased the shirt at a steep discount. She's come to know my preferences, but also has some expert knowledge of her own. In fact, I trust her more than myself when it comes to making decisions.

Rather than thinking of fashion as a way to consume, I've started to consider it as a way to build my community. To strengthen my relationships to a place, not an idea. I've long believed that the biggest political impact you can make is voting in your local elections. It has a more direct effect on your life than any Presidential election will. It plants the seeds of progress in your own garden. But the only way to do that is to actually visit it every once in a while.

But it's also more than just a political game. It's about creating a network that exists offline. About putting a face to each product I buy in a way that's nearly impossible today. About slowing down and removing myself temporarily from a system that I can't control. And while I don't expect myself to be an absolute purist when this project is over, it will at the very least help to break me out of a very bad habit. And to prove that you can do it, too.