There are two big fashion moments I remember as a kid. The first was when I was nine. I had just started at a new school, and so had another boy called Robin. During our first week we had PE class, and Robin showed up wearing the first edition of Reebok pumps. He proudly explained how they worked, and that they cost $400. I humbly existed the discussion, loving the shoes and loathing the price and my family’s economic position.
The second was when I was a bit older, perhaps 15 or 16. By this stage my family’s economic position was such that I was able to wearing some Nike clothing, fitting in with the fashion taste of most of my friends. It was also around this time that I started to become interested in social issues, with the most memorable for me at the time being that of sweatshops. It was the perfect intersection of my own clothing preferences, the protestors that bemused me, the big name athletes I adored, and the thought that there were kids my age in another part of the world that were making my clothes, in conditions I couldn’t comprehend and for less than I used to get for pocket-money.
I didn’t join the protest or change my shopping habits, and it was with relief that I started to hear that sweatshops were a resolved social issue. And that is how I stayed until my conversation a few week’s ago with this week’s guest Sigrid McCarthy.
Siggi is all about fashion to a level I never was, with a nuanced understanding I have never had. Her curiosity into fashion started at high school, wondering why it was that all the girls wanted to dress like each other. She started recording these musings in a blog, exploring why it was she was so drawn to fashion and the way we all engage with it.
Clothing is all but ubiquitous: we all use it to say something about ourselves, whether it be what we do, how much money we have, how we feel, who we identify with. We can use it to reveal truth about ourselves or to lie. We can use the process of purchasing to be an exercise in numbing our feelings or expressing them. Fashion has become a process of consumption over design or function, and even further behind are issues of ethicality about how our clothes were made.
Siggi has continue to follow her thought process to the point where she now works figuring out the answers to these questions across her two jobs. For four days a week she works at Ethical Clothing Australia, an accreditation body that maps an organisation’s entire local supply chain and marks them as an ethical provider, enabling them to use the ECA logo on their garments, shoes or fabrics.
With the remainder of her working time Siggi produces the online magazine she has founded called Intent Journal. Intent Journal continues Siggi’s quest of exploring people’s relationship with fashion, including both editorial and profiles of people involved in fashion and the slow fashion movement. This history and body of work place Siggi in a great position to talk about whether there are in fact still pressing social issues in the world of fashion, or if my convenient teenaged presumptions of them all being resolved hold true.
To put it simply, I will not be shopping in the same manner after our conversation. Here are the key issues as Siggi describes them:
- Lack of traceability: outsourcers who then outsource makes it very difficult for brands and companies to keep tabs on who ends up making their garments, and the conditions under which they do so. China, India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka still have many people working in unrealistic and inhumane conditions.
- Environmental impact: the fashion industry is the second largest polluter behind oil. Enough said.
- Fast, throw-away fashion: some of the biggest clothing retailers today produce vast volumes of poorly made clothing, produced by people who are mistreated. This cheap clothing is typically worn only a handful times before being discarded, so people can purchase again and repeat the cycle.
The issues are large, and for the purchaser issues of this magnitude can too overwhelming to engage with. It becomes difficult to know where to start, or how to shop. How can one know where a particular item came from if the company making it has no idea itself?
One of the things we can do, something that the minimalist movement and people like Marie Kondo and Courtney Carver are proponents of, is to only bring items of clothing into our life that bring joy and that have a purpose. Siggi talks about brining mindfulness to our purchases: Of understanding our values and how they can be applied to our purchases; of thinking about and curating our wardrobe and purchasing for quality over cost and brand; of thinking about clothing as a long-term purchase.
Obviously we can also look to purchase clothing that has an ethical endorsement, but we can also start to ask questions of brands about their supply chain – where and how things are made. This in turn would help more brands who have good stories to tell speak out about their own positive practises, bringing the making process to the fore rather than trying to pretend it does not even exist.
It is in celebration of the relationship between purchaser and maker that brings Siggi to daydreaming about a community where makers, crafters and artisans are celebrated and appreciated, where skills are traded instead of money, where there is an appreciation for the time and effort it takes to make something.
And in regard to making a subtle change in her own life, Siggi notes how subconsciously she has become selective about who she hangs out with, people who believe in what they do, are passionate genuine people…and often people who run their own small business.
I learnt much from my conversation with Siggi, and left feeling inspired rather than guilty to be mindful in my future fashion choices. However, reflecting on the number of items of clothes I currently have, it may be some time before I need to mindfully make another purchase.