The theme of sustainability and ethical consumption has now reached the #menswear magazine and blogging world. In brief, it manifests as a call to buy better and to buy local. This is laudable – it’s harder and harder to avoid shocking headlines like the one about the 15 largest ships in the world (all or almost all container ships that move the world’s merchandise around) emitting more nitrogen and sulfur than all of the world’s cars combined. However, as with so many other aspects of clothing, complications lurk under the surface. A suit made with British wool, for example, may have been made up in Mauritius, out of wool that was taken from sheep in New Zealand, that was then spun into yarn and dyed in Chile, and then woven in Scotland. It’s dizzying. And country-of-origin labelling laws are remarkably flexible, often allowing clothes to be largely made elsewhere as long as a vague significant step has been taken in the labelled country.
How much more do we have to pay to get out of the tangle of exploitative supply chains that burden most production? What does it take to both dress well and do good? We want to feel good about what we consume, to imagine that it was sheared off of happy sheep, woven by bluff blokes who get to go down the pub at five, sewn by dutiful grandmothers who treat the thread not just with wax, but with love. Perhaps we imagine smiling children carefully planting trees in a park under the watchful eyes of their parents, using a portion of the dollars we have paid for such a garment, while the sheep graze nearby. Certain makers have successfully sold it-takes-a-village narratives like this as part of their clothing’s mystique, apparently built into their exorbitant prices.
Unfortunately and despite the pleasing narrative, buying and consuming the new is still consumption. Our very behaviors and tastes will need to change before we can congratulate ourselves. For example, cotton is incredibly resource-intensive to grow and pick, compared to certain other textile sources. And even if our custom clothing is made locally to its tailor, air travel to and from that tailor’s town (assuming you’re not local) generates a shockingly large amount of carbon. (A round-trip flight across the United States generates approximately 0.9 metric tons of CO2per passenger, while the annual American generates on average a bit more than 16 metric tons of CO2 per year.) So if you’ve ever travelled for a fitting, or met with a visiting tailor, you may already have offset much of the environmental benefit of local production. Not to mention that despite significant advances, the dyeing and tanning necessary for the production of textiles and leather are still poisonous, hazardous processes. And cashmere goats themselves are contributing to climate change.
The four R’s of sustainability are instructive: reduce consumption and waste, reuse, recycle, and recover what material and energy can be reused or recycled from items that otherwise can’t be. Thus, reducing implies not buying more in the first place, something that magazines beholden to advertisers would hesitate to suggest. Can luxury be an environmentally sustainable area? In a world of urgent environmental concerns, we may be forced to recall that luxuries are those parts of life that are unnecessary. Perhaps we could do without owning the panoply of garments for different occasions that luxury magazines recommend we own. Or at least owning them new.
For reuse, the second R, may be the sustainability savior for our luxury clothing tastes. (While certain luxury clothing companies have begun to act on R’s three and four, recycling and refurbishing their old garments for sale in select boutiques, or recovering materials from old clothes for use as filler in new coats, it’s yet a small activity unless we visit the strange world of etsy self-styled upcyclers.) If we are wealthy enough not to live physically on a landfill we are still beset by pollutants our forebears have put in the air and allowed to leach into our ground and our water, dumped in the sea, and on another level, the blitheness with which we have paved, cleared, burned the planet. We are surrounded by the detritus of others’ consumption. At least one positive of that is the array of existing items used by earlier, more formal generations. And in the midst of our degradations, the internet has at least made our excavations of others’ trash-treasure cleaner, simpler, easier, putting a world of heirlooms and cast-offs, including thousands of beautifully made older clothes that can be altered locally to oneself without further demands on natural resources. Or these vintage sterling julep straws, bought for a song and brought out each year in julep season. I shall use them and then, in the theory of best use, pass them on for reuse.