On being … a dose of consciousness raising

By Ingrid Sapona

Though I’ve never been particularly interested in fashion, I was intrigued by an article by an assistant professor of fashion design, ethics, and sustainability who teaches in the school of fashion at a Canadian university. The professor’s main point was that “fashion lovers need to reflect on how their consumption has an undeniably negative impact on both planet and people.”

The author talked about the slavery-like conditions of the millions of third-world workers, the majority of whom are women. She also talked about environmental degradation and pollution caused by the fashion industry, as well as the fact that more than 70% of the 53 million tonnes of fibre produced each year by the industry ends up in landfill or bonfires. One of the surprising statistics she mentioned is that the average number of times a garment is worn before it ceases to be used has decreased by 36% in 15 years. She also talked about “fast” fashion, which she defined as clothing that’s disposed of in less than one year.

The professor believes business as usual is no longer an option for the fashion industry. She set out some steps we can take that she thinks will make a difference. Besides paying attention to where one’s clothes are made and supporting ethical producers, she urges curbing overconsumption. She encourages consumers to join a campaign started in 2016 by Livia Firth (actor Colin Firths’ wife) called: #30wearscampaign. The idea behind the campaign is to ask yourself – before you buy an item of clothing – whether you’ll wear it at least 30 times. If yes, then buy it. But, if you don’t think you would, don’t buy it.

Neither the article nor the link to a story about the #30wearscampaign explained the significance of the number 30. So, I assume it’s relatively arbitrary. But, I think it’s a pretty reasonable number to get people to stop treating clothing as disposable. Clearly, with things worn every day (like socks and underwear) 30 is low. But, if you’re talking about a top you might wear every couple weeks to work, wearing it 30 times means you’d wear it for more than a year. So, even if 30 is arbitrary, you have to admit it seems a reasonable goal.  

I’m glad I took the time to read the article. It left me thinking about both my relationship to clothing and clothing’s impact on our environment in general. More importantly, it gave me parameters for measuring my own behavior vis-à-vis clothing and the environment. And, it got me thinking about other areas of consumption that I might gloss over but shouldn’t. Indeed, shortly after, a different area of consumption came into my focus.

My main client right now is in the electricity sector and I spend a lot of time at their office. When the dishwasher in their kitchen broke recently, they got a new one. A stick-on label on the front provided some sort of efficiency number. The fact there was such a label leads you to believe it’s a high-efficiency model.

People in that office are in the habit of running the dishwasher every day. Someone usually starts it right after lunch because people like to take home clean lunch containers for the next day. The first time they ran the new machine they chose the “turbo” cycle, thinking it would be quicker than the normal or heavy-duty options. It’s an understatement to say everyone was surprised when it became clear that the 3:00 showing on what looked like a digital clock in need of programming was actually the cycle duration.

When the cycle was done, we consulted the manual that came with the dishwasher. That’s when we learned that the “turbo” cycle (which does, indeed, run for 3 hours) uses less water than the other cycles. While that was interesting information, given that the company’s focus is electricity, everyone wanted to know how the different cycles compare in terms of energy use. Sadly, the manual didn’t provide that information.

Clearly, the dishwasher’s manufacturer – or perhaps the organization that grants the efficiency labels for such appliances – considers water use paramount. And you know, maybe as between water and energy use for dishwashers, that should be one’s primary concern. Though I feel a bit better knowing I only run my dishwasher only when it’s full, my motivation’s been because I figure it’s probably a big consumer of electricity. I’m embarrassed to admit that I never considered the issue of the amount of water a cycle takes. 

Though the connection between an article about fast fashion and efficiency ratings on dishwashers may not seem connected at first blush, to me they’re very much related. They both made me think about tracking my consumption based on some actual measure, rather than in the abstract. In short, they provided a dose of consciousness raising about my consumption, which never hurts, I think.

What about you? Do you give much thought to the different things you consume? Would applying some measuring standard help you change your consumption behaviour? Should we be doing more of that??

© 2019 Ingrid Sapona


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