In the second of a two-part series, Cosmos looks at the role of the wearer in the wasteland of fast fashion.
Part 2 of 2: changing wearers’ understanding. Part 1 appeared last week.
Erin Skinner is a PhD student at the University of South Australia, analysing the psychology of fast fashion. To her, it’s more than an academic pursuit; it’s also an issue to which she brings personal reflection.
“I myself am a reformed fast-fashion shopaholic,” she confesses. “I’ve always considered myself to be a really environmentally conscious person, I’ve always cared about the environment. But I never connected those dots previously. The clothes on my back, essentially, were having an impact on the environment.”
Skinner says a video that came across her timeline on Facebook was her catalyst. It depicted the life cycle of a T-shirt, from the place it was made, past its initial purchase and cursory jaunt through secondhand markets, to its ultimate disposal.
“It totally blew my mind,” she says. But as a psychology student, she had a sense of what was happening to her.
“In psychology, we talk about cognitive dissonance, where people have identities based on their values and attitudes and behaviours. And then if they have kind of conflicting attitudes or behaviours, that doesn’t line up with that identity, all of a sudden they become really uncomfortable.”
Skinner picked up an Honours project on the subject, and is now taking the work into her PhD. In the next phase of her research, she seeks to replicate her realisation among other fast-fashion shoppers.
“The start of it was really about setting a baseline and collecting that information: where are we at?” she says. “What do Australians actually think and how do they behave? And then the second part of that is: how do we then take that and use psychology to perhaps change this behaviour?”
Skinner and colleagues are designing an intervention to try this.
“In the initial stages, we’ll just be following a big group of participants and they’ll be recording their clothing consumption behaviours and reporting to us fortnightly to set that baseline,” Skinner says. “And then in the intervention phase, they’ll be split into two groups.”
The control group will continue recording their purchases. The intervention group will also record purchases, but not until they’ve received a “feedback document” on how they’d been buying.
“We like to describe it as kind of an electricity bill,” says Skinner. “It’s really going to contextualise that behaviour, give them self-reference.”
Obviously, the research hasn’t been done yet, so the team isn’t sure whether it’s going to work.
“It’s quite a commonly used behaviour change tool, but it does have really quite mixed results, depending on the way that it’s presented and the data they’re collecting,” says Skinner.
“If we get findings that work, what’s really important to us is that we communicate with the participants. Loads of them might get positive results, but say ‘this is really hard to do’, or ‘this could have been made easier’.”
Can it really be that hard to escape the fast-fashion mindset? After all, the most sustainable garment you can have is one that’s already in your wardrobe. What could be easier than not buying something?
Lydia Manieson, who is nigh on completing a PhD in the School of Design at Queensland University of Technology (QUT), has the evidence to show that it’s more complicated than that.
“Fashion is very personal and deep for a lot of people,” she says. “It’s not just about buying the clothes or throwing it away.
“To be able to really change that, I have to really understand the wearer and their values. That’s what led me into doing this research.”
Like Skinner, Manieson’s interest in the fast-fashion industry was personal, though she’s come at it from the opposite direction.
“I’m Ghanaian,” she says. “My mother was a fashion designer – still is, but not full time.”
As Manieson studied an undergraduate degree in textiles, she watched the Ghanaian garment industry shifting.
“There was a lot of conversation around how the local Ghanaian textile industry is declining because of the secondhand clothes trade,” she says. Ghana is the ultimate home for a huge volume of the Western world’s secondhand clothing.
“We call the clothes ‘obroni wawu’, which is ‘the white man is dead’,” says Manieson. The assumption is that the clothes must come from deceased Westerners. “No one in their right frame of mind would throw away clothes this quickly. They must have died.”
The massive influx of secondhand clothes has permanently changed Ghana’s economy. Cheaper new clothes, made by unpaid or poorly paid labour in other countries, had an effect as well.
“Truth be told, the local textile industry crumbled and came to its knees because it couldn’t compete, pricewise, with secondhand clothes,” says Manieson.
Manieson decided to chase the dead white man’s clothes to their origins – heading to the UK for a master’s degree, and then on to QUT for her PhD.
Her PhD research began with interviews: asking people, among other things, to describe the most- and least-valued items of clothing they owned.
“While I was conducting the interviews, I realised that there was one thing happening to most consumers,” she says.
That thing was a disconnect between the clothes people bought and their identity.
“I realised that, when it comes to acquisition, people have an idea of who they are as a wearer,” says Manieson. “But it’s not firmly grounded. So they end up buying things that don’t align to who they are.
“You need to understand: who am I, as a wearer? Once you get that knowledge, you can make informed decisions and strategy that works well for you and works well for the environment, the society.”
Then she got practical, developing a tool as a way of taking wearers through a cognitive process, “the outcome of [which] is they will better perceive themselves,” she says.
This tool currently lives on Excel, but Manieson hopes to turn it into an app or website when her PhD is wrapped.
“I asked wearers to choose five clothes that they positively value, and five clothes that they valued least,” she says. “I had some questions I asked about the clothes, and based on the answer the tool generates: who are you? What do you prioritise in your clothes? What does this mean?”
It then makes recommendations for how to acquire, and use, clothing.
Manieson’s choice of words for her participants – “wearers”, not “consumers” – is highly deliberate.
“The first thing I want wearers to be more conscious about is to stop seeing yourself as a consumer when it comes to clothing,” she says. “You are a wearer, you are not a consumer.
“Garments are not consumed. You need to use it, you wear it. They are not disposable items, but they are valuable and they are reusable.”
“You’d be familiar with the reduce, reuse, recycle and the like,” says Dr Alice Payne, an associate professor in fashion at QUT, and one of Manieson’s supervisors.
Once they’ve understood this, there is a number of other things wearers can do to reduce their impact.
“There’s actually so many more R strategies that can be employed by consumers, to ensure that our garments stay at highest and best use for as long as possible. That’s thinking about the repair dimension, about before buying anything, determining whether you need it at all – refusing to buy it.”
Payne also points out the increasing interest in renting and sharing clothes.
“Buying should be your last resort when it comes to acquisition,” says Manieson.
“If you need to buy, buy wisely, buy responsibly, buy well-made, timeless pieces that you can wear long-term.”
And, like Payne, she urges people to learn to repair their clothing.
“If a button falls off, that’s not reason enough to dispose of the garment. Learn to put back a button. Learn to stitch the little snips and tears. Learn to appreciate what you have. Love your clothes.”
Skinner, Payne and Manieson all emphasise that the problems in the fashion industry don’t stop with the wearer.
“There’s no silver bullets, I should say that,” says Manieson.
“There’s no one solution that will absolutely solve the problem because the problem is systemic. You think you’re solving something, but the ripple effects are giving off another problem.”
And yet, the industry is so pervasive that everyone does have a role to play in it. “Some people would say, ‘Oh, I’m not into fashion’, but your wear clothes, and you make decisions about your clothes,” says Manieson.
Ellen Phiddian is a science journalist at Cosmos. She has a BSc (Honours) in chemistry and science communication, and an MSc in science communication, both from the Australian National University.