Elizabeth Kerr thinks our obsession with clothes is ruining our finances, our self-esteem and our planet

Elizabeth Kerr thinks our obsession with clothes is ruining our finances, our self-esteem and our planet

By Elizabeth Kerr

“I like my money right where I can see it… hanging in my closet” said Carrie Bradshaw, the famous character from HBO’s Sex In The City series.

Joking aside, for many this is a very real fact.

But it’s not just our money machines which are suffering…it's our entire planet!   

I get it. Clothes are more than things we use to cover up our private parts. They are ways of communicating who we are and what we stand for. We wouldn’t expect our lawyer to wear track pants and a hoodie, or our bank manager to be wearing a white lab coat. If it really does take us less than a sixth of a second to make an impression on someone then clothes have a lot of value to add here.

My problem is our obsession with the amount of clothes we have.

Our suburban closets are brimming with more clothes than our grandparents could ever have dreamed of.

And everywhere we turn there is a sale, because retailers release new styles every week, meaning clothes are so cheap they have become disposable - like plastic party plates.

Online young girls and boys create You Tube videos called “hauls”…as in clothing hauls showing everyone what they’ve just brought. The feigned high pitched shallow enthusiasm for each unnecessary cheap purchase described in detail makes me want to puke!  

Womenswear in the UK alone is now a $19.6 billion dollar business per year. The manufacturing of clothing garments is now the 2nd biggest polluter of our planet after oil and coal. Young people spend thousands of dollars on designer brands while buried under student loan debt and complaining that they will never afford a home...and in third world countries people die making our t-shirts. Doesn’t that all read completely bizarre considering clothes are a non-essential? As a species we’ve all gone completely mad for fashion and if we lift the lid on this obsession we see the ugly truth is just nasty!

How did it happen?

Back in the day kids had one outfit, often sewn by mum or an auntie, which was worn every Sunday to church, to every birthday party, every school photo and family gathering until they grew out of it and could pass it down to their siblings. We wore our roman sandals until our toes grew over the front edge and one winter coat served 3 years – 1 year too big, 1 just right and 1 too small.   

Skip forward to the present day and the fast fashion industry has changed our entire approach to how we shop for clothes rendering us mindless, entitled consumers rather than taking only what we need and no more.

Clothing advertisers try to connect the purchase of a piece of clothing to the idea that your life’s needs will be met once you’re wearing it.

We have stopped buying clothes to keep us from being naked and we are being suckered in to thinking we are buying a lifestyle, or a story. Buy the latest jean dress and 70s inspired hat and you are “free and friendly”; a baggy mens cardigan and low-crotched pants and you are “relaxed and relevant” (no matter how stupid you actually look). You and I know that’s all just smoke and mirrors but we buy into it all the same. 

What is Fast Fashion?

‘Fast Fashion’ is the name given to the incredible pace with which new lines of clothes are hitting our stores. Retailers once released new clothes for sale dependent on the weather and seasons, now it’s a new trend every week or two. In whose interest do you think this is? It's certainly not us!!!

The Human Cost to our fashion

Stupidly cheap prices for clothes are now the norm for some retailers and this has led to a totally new approach to garment manufacture. Fast Fashion also refers to clothes that are disposable because they are cheap. Instead of people using up their clothes until they are worn out, we just use clothes until we feel like buying new ones.  

There are 40 million garment workers in third world countries working their butts off making our clothes. That in itself isn’t the problem, it’s the price we are willing to pay now for these clothes that is. With all other costs remaining equal the reduction in our retail price means the garment manufacturer has to cut costs somehow to keep the business coming in. First to go is any investment in workplace health & safety and workers' wages.     

Its an interesting conundrum because these manufacturers don’t have much negotiation power – they need the work orders. Their garment workers are already on the bones of their arses financially and would rather work longer days and for less money than any of the alternatives, or having no work at all. So they say yes, squeeze their costs and hope that the next garment factory down the road doesn’t take their business by squeezing tighter than they do. 

The 8-storey building that collapsed in Dhaka squishing its workers wasn’t because management ignored the giant cracks in the slabs of concrete, but because we Westerners don’t want to pay $20 for a plain t-shirt when it is sold for $5 elsewhere, leaving those manufacturers no wriggle room to do anything about the buildings structural concerns.

Our obsession gets worse at the other end of the spectrum as well. In America, only 10% of the clothes that are donated get sold in 2nd hand stores and the rest are shipped across to developing countries like Haiti where they have so many second hand clothes they don’t know what to do with them. Huge piles of clothes swathe villages and become ‘textile waste’. Textile waste is non-biodegradable and can sit there for 200 years or more releasing harmful gasses and chemicals.

What should we do about it?

The good news is that there is push back.

Fair trade clothing manufacturers and retailers do exist, but will often cost more money in the short term. But there is something you personally can do – buy less clothes! This is good for your wallet and the environment.

EK’s plan for taming your compulsive clothing habits.

1. Stem the tide going out:

The first thing any personal stylist does is cull your current wardrobe right?  Wrong!!   Don’t go throwing out all your clothes.   Style comes around and in the meantime you’re going to need every piece of clothing you have.   If its still got wear then keep it and for gosh sake just wear it!

2. Stem the tide coming in: 

Shop smarter!!! You are not entitled to buy something just because you like it, or because you’re bored one weekend. Look at the clothes you already have and commit to wearing them all out before replacing them.     

3. Build a ‘capsule wardrobe’. Google it – there are heaps of pages to help you!!! (Basically it's 8-12 items of clothes that look good together and give off 30 or so different outfits). Think about how much you leave behind when you go on holidays. One suitcase is plenty enough and there is no reason you can’t manage the same at home. You really don’t need as many clothes as you currently do.

4. Take a leaf from The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up and keep only that which brings you joy and sell the rest.  

4A. Remember that Hedonic Adaption will eventually set in so that which gives you joy now will probably be redundant in a few months. Knowing this means that you should probably choose the more versatile options over the sequins.

5. Quality is hard to recognise these days because it is so rare.  (Ladies, don’t buy dresses that cost over $80 unless it is fully lined, and men the same applied to pants. If the crotch isn’t lined just don’t bother – you will look like a tool every time you stand up).

6. Check out the Australian Fashion Report here, which grades retailers’ supply chains testing for workers exploitation and slave wages.

7. And finally, take the EK 2nd Hand Clothing Challenge. Decide right now that your future clothing purchases must be bought second hand, AND funded by selling clothes you no longer wear. Post your thrifty finds on my Facebook page.

In closing this week, the more that you focus on fashion the further away you get from its purpose. Clothes are to keep your private parts covered, and you need much less than already have to achieve this. As long as you are clean and smiling people will never notice how ‘last season’ your clothes may be. In addition, it is absolutely unacceptable for someone to die making cheap t-shirts for you to wear so please start to question where you clothes are coming from and the conditions in which they are made.

We welcome your help to improve our coverage of this issue. Any examples or experiences to relate? Any links to other news, data or research to shed more light on this? Any insight or views on what might happen next or what should happen next? Any errors to correct?

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26 Comments

I will forward this to my daughter.

Great idea !! This column should be read by everyone who is NOT a nudist *wink*

Why do we even wear clothes in summer?

I dare not answer that one.......

Only someone who's never had sunburned nipples would ask that.

Ergophobia only wears what his nephew gives him or what he picks up in the Salvos OP shops.

Todays column is inspired by the 2015 documentary The True Cost. You can find all the information and movie at http://truecostmovie.com/.

Elizabeth must be stopped from spreading truth. My mother made my clothes by neccessity. Nowdays it's elite status at Rodd and Gunn. My sense of self is being undermined. DC do something.

Great article Elizabeth :) I know I've spent a lot of money in the past on clothes I didn't need and barely wore, and I've got far more clothes hanging in my wardrobe than I need. This year I've been trying to buy very few new clothes - apart from basic items I need to replace & can't get second hand because they wear out quickly (leggings/tanktops etc). If I need anything else I've been getting them 2nd-hand from Savemart. I'm spending 50% less on clothes than I used to, and I estimate that about 20% of my wardrobe is now 2nd hand (the dress & cardigan I'm wearing today came from Savemart). I've just finished reading "Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion" (by Elizabeth Cline). After reading that I decided to count all the items of clothes I have - the total amount was between 200-300, which seems like a ridiculous amount. I'm trying to wear different things more often so that I value what I have.

Respectfully, I disagree (not entirely). The problem for the vast majority is not fashion and labels, it's lack of quality. Nowadays you spend $50 on a top and find holes in it after only a few wears. $50 is not cheap. I've bought $150 dresses and leggings from Icebreaker that are meant to be "high quality", only to find they barely last a year. It's very difficult to find quality clothing that lasts (one exception for women's work attire are pants and shirts from Express in the US. They ship to NZ). And for low-income people, they don't have the capital necessary to hunt out high-quality clothes (it's often trial and error), so they get stuck in a cycle of buying cheap, poor quality clothing from the likes of Kmart, Glassons, The Warehouse etc. Save Mart is an option, but I've never found any decent items there either. Shoes are just as bad, though at least with international brands you can find reviews before you buy.

LL Bean are pretty good too, especially for coats. Can buy one with extra layers of insulation that you'd never find in a craptastic NZ retailer, and their end of season sales are well-timed for us on the other side of the world.

For shoes, I buy one pair a year, usually Dansko clogs. Dressy enough to be versatile, lots of styles, amazingly comfortable, can walk miles in them, and they last. As far as I know they aren't for sale anywhere in NZ, but easy to find online.

One could easily argue that our obsession with wealth and money is also ruining our finances, our self esteem and our planet (especially our planet).

They are ways of communicating who we are and what we stand for. We wouldn’t expect our lawyer to wear track pants and a hoodie, or our bank manager to be wearing a white lab coat. If it really does take us less than a sixth of a second to make an impression on someone then clothes have a lot of value to add here.

We have been taught to expect that people should dress a certain way depending on their "profession". Obviously a lab coat has a function but most modes of dress were/are a distinction of "class" and provide no proof of ones ability to perform the job. Who we are and what we stand for cannot be communicated by clothes only by words and deeds. Maybe that is one concept/illusion that requires shattering along with the idea of having to make an impression on someone.

You might find a lot of people wear clothes to keep warm...or even cool (or kool). Kiwi chick is right, clothes dont last. Buy a jersey and one wash....by hand even....the pilling makes them look old immediately. Its really frustrating. More often than not the materials used are nylons which are awful against your skin. And has anyone else noticed the cotton used in mens clothing is great. In womens clothing its awful, especially undies! I went shopping for my grand daughters in winter and discovered the girls clothing was made with such awful nylon rubbish I was better to buy them boys stuff.

It's has occurred to me that many people don't know how to recognize quality in a garment anymore. Sure, we all know after a couple of washes and it starts to pill, so what do you all look for when it comes to quality?

There's a woman who writes a lot about spinning, who has ended up as an expert because her parents were anthropologists specialising in textiles, and when she was five, they took the whole family to a small town in Peru, to live and study the traditions. Abby's written a lot about being dropped into that society as a small child, and having to learn to handmake things to high standards efficiently as was expected, and the trade-offs that happen between time/materials/money. When it's hats for the tourists, quality isn't much of an issue. The tourists mostly don't know how to recognise quality, and they're buying cheap, so materials are downgraded (acrylic rather than handspun alpaca, for instance), and it's important not to spend too much time on it. But when they're making for themselves, the standards are incredibly high at every stage, from spinning to weaving, and the product is expected to last a lifetime. Quality can't be disregarded if you're making a significant investment, whether that investment is money, or time and skill.

But having said, quality doesn't exist any more, even at the most expensive end of the market. Everything has been downgraded. An interesting read on the subject is Deluxe: How Luxury Lost It's Luster, by Dana Thomas. Top priority now is return to the shareholders, which means downgrading thread quality, skimping on linings, lowering standards in quality control inspection, and watering down ingredients.

Great comment. Thanks I'll hunt that book down.

It's an eye-opener. I had a blog to link you to, but unfortunately it's been closed down. One of those people who takes on an experimental project and documents it. In this case, it was living for a year on the WW2 clothing ration. Because the money wasn't limited, but the stuff was, all the incentives were towards getting quality, repairing things, remodelling things, and making it last. One of the more interesting entries in the blog was an exploration of whether we're in a new age of austerity, where everything is 'shrunken', 'cropped', 3/4, unlined, loss of nuance in sizing (particularly shoes), not because of genuine shortages of materials, but for reasons of maximising profit and turnover. In 1940s utility clothing buttons and pleats were minimised by strict regulation due to genuine shortages of materials and difficulties with distribution. Now quality and materials are limited by the requirements to maximise shareholder profits, and screw everything and everybody else.

That is an incredibly good question. I wonder that often as well....

Have you ever noticed or has it occurred to you that the given ratio between the number of men's and ladies clothes shops in any town you care to name is way out of all proportion..

In our town is about 25 to 1.

Ladies are the problem with the dressing up large to ruin our finances, I am afraid.

Economically, no contest.

This stays with them all their lives.

That is why there is the old joke.

"Why do men die before women'

"Because they want to, they are sick of dragging around dress shops all their lives"

I agree. There does appear to be more stores for women than men, but that doesn't automatically mean that women own more clothes then men. Women may just buy fewer items per store whereas men will buy more items from the one store. Id argue that younger men in (15-35) are buying just as many clothes as women nowadays.

I agree. There does appear to be more stores for women than men, but that doesn't automatically mean that women own more clothes then men. Women may just buy fewer items per store whereas men will buy more items from the one store. Id argue that younger men in (15-35) are buying just as many clothes as women nowadays.

Why stop with clothes Elizabeth your column could be renamed .........obsession with consumerism is ruining our finances, our self-esteem and our planet. Its easy, reassess our lives think about what we actually need not what we want, follow blogs like http://www.mrmoneymustache.com/ and take control of your finances.

*laughs* you make a good point. But if i did do that i might not have anything to write about next week.

Love MMM blog.

Great column Elizabeth. I just came across it in the last few weeks whilst looking into investing in the Smart Shares world funds.

Interesting article on the clothing industry. I agree with a lot of it. I work in the Thorndon hospice shop twice a week and they have some great bargains on recycled clothing. I would have never considered buying from those shops until I worked there. It takes a bit of looking through but there is some quality stuff, hardly worn etc.

I'm about to declutter my wardrobe just now. You really don't need that many clothes, as I always wear the same ones! Another interesting blog is the Minimalist Mom, she has some great articles with an anti consumerism angle.

I've got a pair of trousers and a couple of skirts i still wear that are about 15 years old! they were very expensive at the time but well worth it. I think I would struggle to buy clothes today that would last that long.

I've got a pair of trousers and a couple of skirts i still wear that are about 15 years old! they were very expensive at the time but well worth it. I think I would struggle to buy clothes today that would last that long.