In 2018, as part of an effort to be a more responsible consumer, I’d resolved not to buy any new clothes or accessories . There were some compelling factors pushing me to take on this challenge; angst at the amount of crap I was hoarding, most of which were barely worn; the exploitative slave labor system in garment factories enabled by fast fashion; curiosity to test my ability to differentiate between a ‘need’ and ‘want’.
So on the 31st of December 2017, I hopped across shopping malls amidst throngs of crazed shoppers to stock up on a couple of wardrobe essentials such as versatile black trousers that didn’t need ironing and a few workout clothes that could entice me to hit the gym. As I stood in long queues and used my peripherals to check out what other people were buying, I realized that my quiet urge to shop would henceforth go into hibernation. And then at the stroke of midnight, I began my tryst with sustainability.
So how did my 365 days of no indulgences in retail therapy go?
Before I get into the epiphanies that the attempt at engaging in a minimalist lifestyle provoked, I must disclose that there were instances I faltered. I bought a few sports bras (although no girl in her senses would ever label this boob-smothering apparel as a ‘want’) and pilfered clothes from friends and family who were spring cleaning or unable to return stuff they bought that didn’t fit them.
This means I was not entirely constrained to the monotony of my outdated wardrobe; a mixture of somewhat decent pre-pregnancy clothes that I was most likely never going to fit into again and post-pregnancy functional ones purchased with the sole intention of hiding the freshly deposited baby fat on tummy and arms. I also purchased three pairs of footwear, only one of which was really necessary. Apart from these infractions, I managed to steer clear of shopping.
Looking within: My relationship with shopping
As a teenage girl, most of my clothes and accessories were picked by my parents which is how I often ended up floating in unisex Giordano t-shirts and billowing skirts. I envied the cool kids who were allowed to choose and wear tank tops and hipsters. All attempts to drag the folks to chic stores like Mango or Zara went in vain. Being a potent combination of conservative and practical, they did not want their young daughters investing excessive time, effort and money on their appearances.
Which is why landing my first job and credit card offered me more than the thrill of success, it gave me the freedom to wander and cloak myself with enough pzazz to fit in. And yet at parties or clubs, in the midst of alluring women , I shrank silently with an inexplicable sense of inadequacy. It may seem ridiculous as to why a young and intelligent college graduate still harboured such insecurities about her appearance. But aren’t we like those Matryoshka nesting dolls, holding little unshakable fragments of our past selves beneath?
Why clothes matter
Perhaps the deep-rooted connection I developed between clothes and self-esteem is valid. Some anthropologists call it ‘social skin’; the idea that what we wear extends miles beyond the basic purpose of protecting one’s nakedness. Our garb serve as symbols of style, class, status, mood and personality.
Movies have also been successful in selling the idea of makeovers; how transforming yourself on the outside can change your life, bring you success, love and happiness. There are so many examples; Vivian the Hollywood Boulevard prostitute in Pretty Woman who enters billionaire Edward’s world by ditching her tacky leather miniskirt and boots for sleek designer clothes; the dungaree-wearing Anjali wins handsome widower Rahul’s heart when she morphs into a sanskaari sari-clad lassie in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai; Andy in The Devil wears Prada goes from basic to haute to further her career in the fashion industry.
Inner beauty is great but limited in scope. Clothes help people feel good, express facets of their personality, navigate social hierarchy and enable sensuality.
Mindless emperor versus conscious consumer
We’ve read ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’ and laughed at the poor man’s obsession with finery to the extent that it eclipsed his own common sense and led to him strutting naked through the kingdom. Apart from a moral that emphasizes the dangers of excessive pride and blind faith in leaders, the Hans Christien Andersen tale hones in on how vanity controls us.
Not being able to shop made me realize how much time I devoted to wandering through malls and bazaars or browsing online stores with no specific purpose. I missed the feeling of picking a dress off the rack and seeing it fit well, the elation of a ‘steal deal’ during festive sales, how wonderful it was to return home after a long day with an armful of shopping bags.
They term this short-lived bliss ‘retail therapy’ but what is the practice of purchasing stuff to fill our time and, to a certain degree, ourselves really treating?
During the year, I made several visits to the tailor for alterations. At times I would argue with the grumpy man taking my measurements for charging me far too much just to snip and trim my clothes. Once when I told him it was cheaper to buy than go through all this, he laughed and told me to go ahead.
The morbid truth is that affordable fashion hides its tragedies well. We are disconnected from the sleep-deprived people sweating behind sewing machines , mountains of wasted clothes dumped in landfills & the toxic trail in mass production processes. When I compared the cost of buying material and stitching simple tops and dresses against buying getting them ready-made, it was at least one and a half times more expensive. And this is from a tailor employing 5 men in a 400 sq. foot space working 9 to 10 hours a day. Doesn’t it make you wonder how big brands manage to give it to us at cheaper rates and still cover their production and marketing costs?
So much has to change – where do we begin?
It has been six years since the Rana Plaza garment factory collapse in Bangladesh. Around 1,100 people lost their lives because they were forced to go back to work despite warnings from authorities of the cracks in the structure. We could blame the corrupt officials who gave the building owner permission to add additional floors, a government who refused international aid during rescue operations to uphold their national pride, the irresponsible international clothing brands who paid them a pittance . But these are just appendages to the main cause – consumer indifference. OUR indifference.
The fact that our lifestyles demand such suffering and environmental damage is appalling. We underestimate our purchasing power. Caring about the source and processes of our commodities is really the only way to bring about long-term change. Unless brands see their profits eroded at a large scale, they will do little to add ethical sourcing to their agenda.
So what can each of us do:
- Never forget – Be a conscientious consumer who recognizes that a pair or more of human hands have worked on what you’re wearing.
- Purpose – Have a clear idea of what you need to buy when you enter a store (or browse online). Then stick to it! Don’t get tempted
to pick items heavily discounted items not on your list of for by the ‘Spend X and get this free’ sort of deals.
- Choose wisely – Growing awareness has brought about several independent labels that design and produce sustainable and ethically-sourced apparel. Granted that there is a premium for both quality and transparency of processes to ensure minimal exploitation. But on the plus side you’ll end up buying less and freeing up some clutter in your life.
As for me…
Not caring about what I wear has given me an odd sense of liberation. When one of my friends asked me – ‘ Don’t take this the wrong way but don’t you have any other pants?’ , I cringed for a couple of seconds but was quickly able to shake it off and not care.
I’m still a material girl in a material world who likes pretty things. There’s a long way to go for me to be content with the bare necessities. What matters is I am doing better by checking impulsiveness and making more informed choices.
I highly recommend the shopping detox to anyone who wants to curb spending or make small impactful changes. Not only does it help re-condition the approach towards buying and hoarding, it exhumes nagging insecurities that need to be let go.
Post header image source: Unsplash