How can I wear it well?

My paradoxical relationship to sustainable fashion.

I have personal dilemmas to sustainable fashion that are very unfashionable. The term alone annoys me: it is vague for a start, an empty term that has no concrete meaning. What am I meant to be sustaining if I consume an organic t-shirt, purchase overpriced second-hand fashion or take my clothes back to a high street store for recycling? In my mind sustaining something means keeping it the same, I don’t want the same, I want better, I want ‘flourishing’. For me and for others.

I would like to make my fashion-consumption contribute to human wellbeing but not through a process of being made to feel guilty. Much of the current marketing around environmental concerns and the welfare of those involved in the production of our clothes invoke me to feel bad about loving fashion — which I do- and even worse about shopping on the high street — which I also do. There is something about sustainable fashion that is moral, that tells me I’m a shallow, selfish person for loving that new dress unless its ethical credibility can be traced every step of the way adding pounds to the production costs and making it only available to high-earners. If you can purchase sustainable labels you are a better person than those of us lesser mortals who can only afford Primark; don’t you care about the world you ignorant fashion-lover? Wear what you already have until you can save up enough for the safe the planet version.

It seems to me that the focus on what is wrong with fashion as an industry hasn’t offered us positive solutions to the issues of fashion as a path to flourishing. We are told how detrimental and damaging buying fashion is, how as an industry it causes harm to everyone involved, is greedy, negligent and wasteful. It should make me want to only wear sackcloth and ashes but instead I take my culpability shopping to make me feel better.

I have a knowledge-behaviour gap which I can’t always contain. I recently succumbed to a £3.00 t-shirt. The day had not panned out as I had hoped; I was thoroughly fed-up, I only had enough in my purse for a coffee but as I walked past a chain-store window I knew that having something new to wear would change my mood more than caffeine. I had a need that could only be met with a striped T-shirt. A red one. And it worked. That red and white striped top has made me very happy. In the last two weeks it has been either worn or being washed. I know that in order to produce a shirt at that price point production is unsustainable. I should feel bad. As a regular high street shopper who is made happier by clothes what should I do? I try not to overindulge in fast fashion, 70% of my wardrobe is second-hand, either purchased from charity shops or cheaper vintage stores. I still wear clothes that I bought twenty years ago, I wear hand-me downs, mend much loved items. I care about what I wear and who or what I may be harming in the process. I don’t want to cause harm, I convince myself that an occasional fast fashion purchase won’t make much difference in the scheme-of-things. And when I do give in I want to be allowed to indulge in the positive emotions that my new garment generates.

So how do I deal with this paradox of purchasing? I turn to research and ask how those who do buy fashion with a conscience are able to do so in such a way as they are still able to enjoy the process. I want to know what works so that I can see if I can apply it to those of us who are not managing the conundrum so well. I want to know how we can create flourishing fashion for all, how my small contribution can actually make a difference and whether the common good can prevail in the fashion system.

I want to be part of a positive fashion movement that shares and cares, whilst enjoying all the emotions that loving a new dress makes me feel. If you have any tangible solutions I’d love to hear from you. How do you combine fashion and personal ethics?