Overcoming the urge to endlessly consume requires forming real, genuine relationships with your clothes, writes Janhavi Gosavi.
Reduce, Reuse, Recycle is the sustainability jingle I used to mindlessly hum.
I pride myself on purchasing most of my clothes secondhand and wearing them for years, ticking off the “recycle” and “reuse” boxes. But, like many people I know, I have been failing to “reduce” the rate at which I consume clothing.
I self-identify as a Material Girl and will never be a Marie Kondo-certified minimalist. While I don’t go on elaborate spending sprees and buy a new wardrobe for every season, I do have much more than my fair share of clothing. Collecting trinkets scratches an itch in my brain.
In the past, battling overconsumption was … a battle. It involved a lot of umm-ing and ahh-ing at pretty garments on a rack before scolding myself for being gluttonous. In moments of desperation, I created online shopping accounts and filled my carts to the brim, with no intention of proceeding to checkout, just to feel something.
The issue wasn’t that I didn’t have enough clothes, it’s that I failed to find satisfaction in what I already owned.
That changed once I replaced my old urge to buy new clothes with a new urge to take care of my old clothes. It was the clothing equivalent of feeling hungry as an adult and admitting to myself there was food at home.
I speak to Genevieve Rae, a textile designer based in Pōneke, who supported my new coping mechanism. The best way to build a relationship with your clothes, she says, is to actively engage with them. When you spend your days knocking tasks off of a to-do list, little time is left to truly see objects, let alone give them respect or care. Mending holes and replacing buttons adds a personal touch to an otherwise mass produced item.
Rae applies multispecies philosophy to designing sustainable mycelium materials in her Masters in Design at Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington. She describes multispecies philosophy as a framework to think about how different entities interact with each other and impact the ecosystem they all exist within.
In this case, the ecosystem is my bedroom, and the entities include myself and all of my clothes, shoes and rogue bits of jewellery. Rae conceptualises these entities – inanimate objects included – as having agency. “You can try to control your clothes as much as you want to … but realistically they will morph and deteriorate and change over time,” she explains.
Ecosystems require relationships to be symbiotic; my clothes provide for me, so I must provide for them.
On a sunny Sunday, I make plans with my white tees. Stain remover, bluing liquid, warm wash, cold rinse, air dry. Cleaned by hand, delicate but thorough. With the colder months settling in, I round up my jumpers and use a worn out razor to shave any piling off. For those of us busy with work or taking care of whānau, Rae insists that practising gratitude towards your possessions doesn’t have to be time consuming.
When disposing of your belongings, you could do a quick ritual for them. At the start of the year, I let go of a small leather wallet I had used everyday since I was 17. For my quick ritual, I held my wallet in my hands, memorising the shape of it, and felt the urge to take a photo before throwing it away.
Rae tells me to kick it up a notch. “Get crazy with it and talk to your things. Personify them, sing a song to them, give them life force.”
It’s easy for me to attribute life force to an object made of visibly natural resources. I can look at a straw hat or a cotton shirt and visualise its entire life cycle. It’s hard to relate to clothes made from plastic. While plastic comes from raw materials like coal and crude oil, I can’t conceptualise its creation or destruction. The only emotion I feel when I look at a pair of nylon pants is the dread that they will wind up in a landfill and refuse to die.
Just because I throw those pants away, doesn’t mean they cease to exist. My pants’ synthetic threads are more durable than my flesh and bones. We will both someday be buried and forgotten; I will be absorbed by the earth while my shirt slowly breaks down into microplastics, distant but not gone. That brutal reminder makes me cringe away from enticing window displays at fast fashion stores.
Buying clothes en mass felt like I was going on a string of first dates with a bunch of strangers, without pursuing any of them further. The more garments I had, the more choices I had and the fewer times I wore each individual garment. My attraction to them remained superficial because I kept them at arm’s length.
Buying fewer clothes and wearing garments more often feels like intentionally picking one person to go on a second, third, and fourth date with. A deeper connection blossoms because I’ve gotten to know them better.
I have two suede skirts; one’s a stranger, one’s a partner.
The stranger is deep maroon with gold hardware, fresh off the rack from Forever New. She hangs pristine in a garment bag. I never reach for her.
The friend is heavy and black, salvaged from the Salvation Army for $14. I spent an hour gently spot cleaning the stains off of her with an old toothbrush, and sprayed on three coats of suede protector. While I waited for the layers to dry, I looked up the “Ashley Fogel” tag.
Fogel was a well-established New Zealand designer who started his self-titled label after 40 years in the fashion business. He was forced to shut down his Miramar factory in 2012 after Wellington’s rising rents and competition from overseas retailers made running an independent label unsustainable. Today, Fogel’s pieces can only be found in secondhand boutiques and op-shops. Every time I wear my black suede skirt, I feel like I’m carrying a piece of Wellington’s fashion history with me.
My room is dotted with clothes I’ve mended in some way. Cardigans with reinforced buttons, dresses with shortened straps. I like running my fingers over the botched stitching. The alterations might be janky but they’re my fuckups, and I love my clothes more for them. There is nothing more Material Girl than being so attached to your clothes, you simply won’t part with them for anything, no matter how new and shiny and potentially-on-sale it is.