Discover more from It's Not Sustainable with Tiffanie Darke
The new rule of five
A new report says we need to cut our wardrobe purchases to just 5 new items a year. That's a massive shift. Could you do it? Should you do it?
Imagine if someone told you you could only buy 5 things for your wardrobe next year. Only 5 things. Sit with that for a second. How many have you bought already this year - can you even remember them all? Were they worth it? How many times have you worn each since?
I’m asking because it turns out, 5 things is all we can afford. Amidst the exhausting blizzard of this weekend’s Black Friday/Green Saturday/Cyber Monday shopathon, (when I was almost tempted to buy a £600 set of saucepans. I mean, really), a report came out from the Hot or Cool Institute. A public interest think tank, the Institute crunched the numbers and worked out that if fashion wanted to stay below the 1.5C target everybody keeps telling us is the CEILING of what we can afford, and which every fashion house is telling you it's doing because it's immoral to admit otherwise, then the top 16 countries in the G20 need to just - stop consuming. Stop consuming so bloody much, and that's the only way it's going to happen. All the biomaterials, rental, resale, charity shopping, regenerative agriculture in the world is not going to get us there, they say - slowing down our buying habits will. If you want to see how they worked it out, go to the bottom of this newsletter.
Before we get on to the subject of 5 however, let us just consider the state of the fashion industry. Suffice to say it has NOT been a good week. Balenciaga has been caught up in a shit show of promoting child pornography, whilst simultaneously promoting the dystopian nightmare of a pair of £700 trainers so distressed they are unwearable. Accusations of “vacationing in poverty” now sit alongside child abuse. Meanwhile news from Bangladesh is that the cost of living crisis means garment workers are no longer able to buy meat or fish or books for their children this winter. And this is an industry built on glamour.
Don’t know about you, but I’m ready to reconsider. After you’ve got over the initial shock, it’s actually quite a nice thought. If you’ve really only got 5 purchases for next year (and yes that's all we have) - what would you buy? If it's only going to be five, I'm going to make them count. They will be good quality, long lasting, they will work hard in my wardrobe. They will be mendable, resilient, they will be beautiful. I will cherish them, care for them, love them. Suddenly they become rather valuable.
But the shock! There have been single shopping trips where I've bought five things (ok, more) in one go. It’s such a profound shift in mindset I can't quite compute. So I call my fashion friends. “WTAF?” I screamed down the line toas I stood outside the school gate on a Friday afternoon. Stacey wrote a column for Elle for years and was my fashion editor at Harrods. (She responded by pinging me a picture of her latest dating misadventure which was front cover of The Times that day). “Do you know what, I’ve already done this,” she said. Stacey, for one divorce reason or another, has moved house nine times this year and coped by culling everything in her wardrobe down to 10 pieces. For financial reasons, she had looked at her Jimmy Choo boots and her gas bill and shook her head. The two didn’t add up.
I Whatsapp Daniela Agnelli, the Vogue fashion editor and my partner in our Ibiza fashion store, Agora. She sends a more fashion appropriate response:
“It’s a bit extreme,” she says.
What about blokes? Stylist Tom Stubbs loves the idea. “I think it’s a brilliant prospect. Not only because of its limiting power, but because it’s the right diktat for style, particularly for older people, and particularly for men.” Men are much more likely to lean into a uniform and stick with it - whether its Steve Jobs’ black polo neck or Karl Lagerfeld’s high collar white shirt.
And when you’re older, you're more confident about your identity and personal style. “I’ve been wrestling for years with the thinking around not duplicating,” says Tom. “The khaki jumper I’ve got on now is perfect in every way for my lifestyle, my existing looks and pieces, the colouring and the aspiration. So, instead of thinking 'I must get another' because it yields such high satisfaction, it’s the reverse - DON'T GET ANOTHER. That box is ticked. I’ve done it, and I don't need to repeat.”
“Your 5 pieces a year limit should be factored into long term wardrobe plans,” he says. “Careful strategising, not scatter gun knee jerk wants, right?”
Ten magazine fashion editor Claudia Croft loves it too. “I’m a big believer in buy less, buy better and wear everything to death. Don’t save anything for best. Five things doesn’t sound like much but it is very doable - especially as you can fill any wardrobe gaps with renting, vintage or second hand.”
Hmm, sorry Clauds, but that might be cheating. “Second hand shops are a good idea but they are not the main avenue to address the magnitude and urgency of the problem we now have,” says Dr Lewis Akenji, who led the team compiling the report. “We are all consuming too much - your wardrobe gets overfilled. There's room for second hand and donation but this does not tackle the need to reduce consumption and production.” Just because you’re not buying new, doesn't mean you are not consuming. The idea is to get the fashion companies to produce less.
The Institute goes on to describe ‘a sufficiency wardrobe’. It should comprise 74 garments, they say, to cover all seasons. You’ve got 6 outfits for workwear (up to 4 items in an ‘outfit’); 3 outfits for homewear, 5 outfits for sportswear, 2 outfits for ‘festive’ occasions, and 4 outdoor jackets. I’ve copied the plan in below and you can see they are also advocating secondhand which they say should make up more than 20% of the wardrobe, as well as renting, redesigning and swapping.
The Hot and Cool Institute are very keen they aren’t branded as fashion killjoys. They understand that fashion is emotional, it's part of our experience in self expression, and it’s fun as much as it is practical. But, they urge, we need to rethink the business model. “Fashion is brilliant at branding,” they say. “Maybe fashion could just rebrand ‘rationing’ to ‘entitlement’ - so, instead of rationing yourself to 5 items, you are entitled to 5 items.”
Kirsi Niinimaki, Associate Professor in Design at Aalto University School of Arts Design and Architecture agrees. “Fashion is about emotion, identity, beauty, experiences,” she says. Limiting consumption however could just make it more creative: “Fashion could be a lot more personalised in future, more interesting; like the Japanese art of decorative mending on clothes.”
Rachel Arthur is the co-founder of future of fashion movement Fashmash and a systems thinker around change. She says “Buying less is full stop the most comprehensive route to getting us to where we need to get to, and finally this is a report which breaks that down in facts and figures.” Rachel likes the responsibility piece in this. “You always hear ‘I’m just one person, how am I going to make a difference?’ Well now we have it.”
The fact this report came out on the eve of the shopping orgy that was Black Friday makes its message all the more apposite. There was some quite revolting stuff going on last week, with brands like Pretty Little Thing posting dresses for 83p. “I checked the comments section on their feeds,” says Rachel, “and it was just people complaining that these pieces were sold out. There’s a narrative in fashion now that we somehow deserve cheap items, that it’s our human right to have them, in spite of the human right violations they are causing most of the time.”
If you’ve been searching for a way to make a difference, then this report now gives it to us. I’m really encouraged by the way my friends in the industry have responded so positively - how do you feel about this? Do you think you could do it? And what would your 5 be? Let me know in the comments below, I’d love to hear what you think.
About the report
The Hot or Cool Institute is a public interest think tank that covers the intersection between society and sustainability, and is guided by three key principles: wellbeing and prosperity, justice and fairness and living within ecological limits. The report is called ‘Unfit, Unfair, Unfashionable’ (you can download the whole thing here) and the gist is whatever we are doing or intending to do, it is nowhere near enough. Fashion has been getting too much of a pass, considering that as an industry, it is one of the worst contributors to climate change. If we want to retain global warming to 1.5C above pre industrial levels, (which is what every country signed up to in the COP Paris agreement), then consumption needs to reduce by 60% among the G20’s high-income countries, and by 40% in upper-middle-income nations.
Lifestyle carbon footprints are currently at 4.6 tonnes per person per year but they need to go down to 0.7 tonnes per person. For the purposes of the report, the Institute calculated an intermediary figure of 2.5 tonnes by 2030. That requires a 60% reduction from 16 of G20 upper income countries - the worst offenders being Japan, Australia and the UK, and 40% in upper-middle-income nations. The richest 20% cause 20 times more emissions than the poorest - therefore in the UK fashion consumption needs to go down by 83% by 2030, 75% in Italy; in France by 50%. While the richest 20% in the UK emit 83% above the 1.5-target, 74% of people in Indonesia live below sufficiency consumption levels of fashion.
Dr Akenji says, “The richest 20% are over consuming, while the bottom 20% of income earners are not keeping up. So the narrative that it's the poor people buying cheap fast fashion who are at fault is simply not true.”
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Instead of limiting emissions, the report reveals that the triple threat in the fashion industry is coming from:
Consumption per person that is rising sharply
Goods which are just getting cheaper
A shorter time use for each item
As such, the fashion sector is set to DOUBLE emissions by 2030. Which is a horrific stat. Some more detail:
Around 10% of emissions in the industry is caused by disposal - export, incineration, landfill, second hand - so donation or exporting should not be a priority. Instead, just buying fewer items alone has the greatest impact.
Also reducing washing and drying and increasing use time for each garment (fact here: 75% of garments are not used again after 6 months of wear).
The sufficiency wardrobe was calculated on the idea that it will meet needs, allow a dignified social presence and stay within climate targets. Just to put it in perspective, most of the workers who make our garments come from lower income countries like Indonesia and Bangladesh, where they could nowhere near afford to have a 74 piece wardrobe. In fact, they cant afford food, or books for their kids.
“Most of the existing climate mitigation approaches towards net-zero goals prioritise production, while disregarding or downplaying reduction in consumption levels and the adoption of alternative consumption modes,” the report says. We need a fundamental cultural shift to make this happen.
Fun France fact
Regular readers will know that France is the country in Europe most ahead of the game when it comes to legislation. This is picked up by the report, which notes that while it is a fashion capital, the per capita emissions of France are lower than Germany, Italy, the UK and even Argentina. Legislation that banned the destruction of returned and unsold garments; that made carbon labels mandatory for textiles and and imposed extended consumer responsibility on recycling and other practices, has led to this lower score. France is obviously not perfect and its impact is still too high but it’s a good example of how intervention can start bringing about solutions.
See you next week,
I hope you enjoyed today’s report. I’d like to make this into a campaign - what you think? If you’re in, on whatever level, please do consider becoming a paid subscriber, as I think together this could grow into an important part of systems change.