Who does the consumer think he is? There is a great offer of clothes out here, often even 50% off, and the consumers simply dares to NOT buy. And if he does, he does not buy enough or wants even higher discounts. The nightmare of retailers and brands has long become reality.
What could be even worse than a consumer who does not buy out of laziness or disinterest, is a consumer who does not buy out of civil obedience: because he consciously does not want to consume. At this point let’s take a look at the Extinction Rebellion (or ‘XR’) initiative that started last year in England and now has many international branches. The organizers behind it encourage consumers exactly to show this civil obedience. XR’s goal: create awareness for the massive negative impact that mass consumerism has on the environment–and do something about it.
Under the signet “Boycott Fashion” XR has also put a focus on the fashion industry in the last months: “We will not significantly mitigate this crisis without total systemic change and a drastic reduction of our consumption. We must act now. We can no longer afford to use land to grow crops for producing clothes and extract oil to produce synthetic fibres. Enough is enough. Business as usual is leading us towards extinction,” it says on XR’s website.
What “acting” means becomes obvious through several campaigns and actions. For example, an open letter was sent to the British Fashion Council with a plea to cancel London Fashion Week in September: “In recognition of the existential threat that faces us, we ask the British Fashion Council to be the leaders the world needs now and to cancel London Fashion Week. We ask that instead the industry convene a People’s Assembly of industry professionals and designers as a platform to declare a Climate and Ecological Emergency, to face the truth and to take action following in the footsteps of The Tate and Culture Declares.”
On a closer level to the consumer is Extinction Rebellion’s #BoycottFashion campaign that asks everyone to stop buying any clothes or textiles for 52 weeks. Supporters are “encouraged to repair and up-cycle; share and swap; rescue and repurpose to establish a new, ecologically friendly relationship with clothes”.
Under the roof of agency A Novel Approach (co-founded some years ago with hair/make-up artist Khandiz Joni) she now also consults and offers services and concepts for sustainable fashion brands and retailers, which reaches from creative direction for shoots to event curation and organizing sustainability workshops. Wilby also teaches the short course in Sustainable Fashion at Central St Martins, London.
How come you got so deeply involved in sustainable fashion?
I have been working in the fashion industry for many years. But when I started to discover the facts about how detrimental Fashion’s environmental impact is, I knew I had to make a change.
The topic of sustainability is all around yet it still feels that not much has really changed...
Of course, we can all do something in our personal lives, like produce less waste or consume fewer clothes, but what we actually need to effect massive change is a system overhaul. The current system of extraction and mass manufacture is broken. We are taking raw materials from the earth at a terrifying rate, and not replenishing. Big brands are no policing themselves. It has to stop.
That quickly leads into a political discussion...
Definitely. But it is not about being a capitalist or being a communist, but rather making the facts about the climate emergency we’re facing, common knowledge. We cannot go on with our current lifestyle forever. We need our governments to finally tell the truth about what’s happening with the climate crisis. We need legislation in place to force the fashion industry and other industry’s to change their harmful ways. I mean there are regulations and laws in place for much less important things...
What role does the consumer play?
It is about educating consumers, but not by blaming anyone or pointing fingers. Because we all have these toxic habits of consumption, we are all conditioned to shop and buy more and more things we actually don’t need. Sadly these days’ people feel it’s their democratic right to buy cheap fast fashion. But it’s not, because mass production comes on such a high cost, to people, our planet and animals. Sadly this is mostly been hidden from consumers, so now we need to Tell The Truth about how environmentally unfriendly our habits of consumption are.
Ok, but what about the democratic aspect to make trends accessible to everyone instead of seeing fashion as a privilege for a wealthy elite only?
There is no democratization in fast fashion, as many might think. It is just the opposite. Because on one hand these clothes are only that affordable because we are exploiting workers and nature in order to make them and on the other hand because we buy without any reason, just because we are bored or programmed to shop, but not out of an actual need.
We have become conditioned to be consumers.
I am very aware that it is a very complex matter. It’s very nuanced and not about lecturing people. Rather it’s about showing people different ways to live more sustainably with their wardrobes.
There are many options: start with mending and learning to fix things again instead of throwing them away when they have a small hole. Keeping clothing in active use for 9 extra months will reduce its carbon, water and waste footprints by 20-30%. Or buy secondhand clothes. We already have more than enough clothing made and in existence. So you can also swap or higher clothing. Or if you have to buy something new, shop with brands that offer sustainable and ethically made products, such as Birdsong in London. They only produce in small quantities and manufacture with women’s co-ops, paying their workers fairly.
...Or boycotting fashion consumption altogether, as in XR’s current campaign. How do you answer accusations that these kinds of initiatives put many jobs on risk?
I am often confronted with this argument. Sadly some of the countries where garments are manufactured are on the front lines of the climate crisis. So the garment workers will be badly affected, because a system that is greatly contributing to the climate emergency has been allowed to continue. Business as usual is killing the planet. Why can’t we build a new system that both people and planet benefit from?