This article was originally written for and published on LYV-ON. They gave me full provision to post it here.
My favorite boots are very likely made with some form of modern slavery.
And they are produced in a possibly high toxic and unsafe environment, using harsh chemicals and creating lots of water waste.
Because, the brand behind them, Dr. Martens, makes amazing and super durable shoes, but does it in a very dirty way. Their business strategy contains no concrete actions to reduce their environmental impact, no proof of responsible production. And their Code of Conduct is full of empty words. In 2020, Fashion Revolution gave them 10% in their Transparency Index, meaning that the brand publishes some limited information about their supply chain but are far from transparent. The Good on You rates them as Not Good Enough.
These Dr. Martens boots are the last fast fashion thing I bought, probably three years ago. That is, the last fast fashion item bought new, not second hand. It’s not because I didn’t know about fast fashion. I did. It’s more that I didn’t quite know how to always recognize it and I fell for the combination of rush, nostalgic feelings for the brand, and, well, greenwashing.
I still wear the shoes proudly, though I do not stand behind the brand. I’m not particularly proud of the choice but I don’t feel guilty either.
Because, to borrow Dr. Charlene Y. Senn’s idea, I recognize that I’m living imperfectly sustainably.
Today, I want to reflect on this, particularly through my wardrobe. As someone who spends most of her waking hours thinking about the clothes we wear and actively advocates for ethics and sustainability in fashion, it seems appropriate. Because, on social media and in my writings, I know it can seem like I’m living this ideal sustainable life. I don’t and I think it’s time to break that image.
Choice + mindset
Now that I admitted my love for Dr. Martens boots, I feel safe to admit more.
The other day, my partner and I were going through our old travel photos. I guess a year of lockdowns and travel restrictions made us long for times where we in fact could do fun stuff. Anyhow, we came across a photo of me from 2015. Ugh, did I cringe: the photo shows me happily walking out of a Primark store in Dublin. Yup.
It seems like a word difference from now. After all, a slow fashion journey has to start somewhere and it takes time. And this is true, things don’t just happen overnight. But is me no longer going to Primark the real thing that changed?
I’d say no.
Ok, have patience here.
The thing is, I was never a big consumerist, probably because I never had much money. As a University student, when my budget was at its lowest, I shop in both second hand and fast fashion because it was what I could afford. And when I say afford, I really mean it. I remember strictly calculating my fashion, make-up, and accessories budget and buying a thing or two only every couple of months. However, like many of us, I saved money only to buy unnecessary stuff that I thought I needed. Right now, it seems like a waste of that little money I had.
Of course, as I learned about fashion, I gradually let go of fast fashion. But it was largely because I was lucky enough to move to a city where second hand and vintage was much more accessible. Later, I also started earning more money and could afford to invest in some garments. It was a choice. And I believe the greatest thing I did was not stopping to buy from fast fashion. It was changing fundamentally the mindset about consuming and deciding to step out of the consumerist culture. This is more important than I was realising for a long time.
I am very well aware of the privilege to have choices nowadays. Not just in fashion but also in having bulk shops (though limited) and local brands available to me. I’m reminded of this every time I visit my hometown. Not everyone has access or choice and it’s crucial to acknowledge this before moving on.
No one way to live sustainably
Here’s another thing I need to admit: as sustainable options became available to me, I got caught up in so-called conscious consumerism. For a long time, I failed to understand that buying from sustainable brands is only one way of being sustainable. Buying carefully, reusing what you have, taking care of things, borrowing and mending-all the things I did in the era when I was also shopping fast fashion-those are ways of living sustainably too.
You probably heard of, a now-almost-cliché quote by Anne Marie Bonneau: “We don't need a handful of people doing zero waste perfectly. We need millions of people doing it imperfectly”? I largely agree yet I also want to say that “zero waste” is only one form of living more sustainably. Same for veganism, minimalism, and any other sustainable-living movement. We also need millions of people to embrace all sorts of practices and values that can help us navigate this social and environmental mess. Different communities around the world have developed practices and strategies to live in peace with the climate, environment, and one another. Many “innovative” sustainable things today are based on or inspired by indigenous knowledge, local experiences, and old ideas. But that’s a topic on its own.
The point is, sustainability isn’t something “to be” but a constant process of adapting to the current state, according to what is available to us. It must and will look different for everyone and there’s no one ultimate way to be sustainable.
Stop the guilt
Even now, when I’m buying mostly second hand, my closet is full of polyester and fast fashion brands. Because second-hand shops are still a part of the fashion industry that mainly produces those things and it’s almost impossible to avoid them. Especially second hand.
For me that’s fine. For you, it might be different. That’s not the point. Rather, what I’m trying to say is that I’ve been to a point when I started to overthink everything I bought. I was panicking when I wanted to buy a second-hand t-shirt that was originally from a big brand. And I spent countless hours blaming myself for buying something in a charity shop and not wearing it after a year.
Look, I will always advocate for thinking before buying, second hand or new! Yet, that is not the same as putting a burden of perfection on myself. I decided that if I do a mistake, I’ll move on. Feeling guilty isn’t getting me anywhere. And it won’t help you either. Instead of feeling bad about that dress I bought but am not wearing, I decided to take it as a chance to understand why I’m not wearing it. Because guess what: my style and needs change.
Now that we sorted that out, we need to address another obvious thing. It’s not up to us, individuals, to change everything. The world is structured in a way that only 100 companies are responsible for 71% of global greenhouse emissions. States around the world are pouring billions into oil companies. And billionaires got richer during the health and economic crisis when millions across the globe lost their jobs.
Those are the actors that have the responsibility to act: big businesses, international banks, governments, and the ultra-rich. They created, increased, and intensified injustice, exploitation, racism, violence, and depletion of our common resources. While they are directly profiting from those, they are also the ones with the power and responsibility to change their own system.
In other words, if you buy something from Amazon, it’s really not you who’s the problem here. It’s not the end of the world, especially if Amazon is your only choice. Instead of feeling guilty, we can pour this energy into figuring out how we stop supporting and upholding Jeff Bezoses of this world. And there are many different ways.
Ok, realizing the above can also feel like a lot. Especially when you’re told this times and times again. I can’t tell you how many people, starting with my family, would keep reminding me how my individual actions are nothing compared to what a single company does. Like I’m not aware of that!
So, does this means that our actions don’t matter?
Of course not.
I know many brilliant activists will find better ways to explain this but hear my thoughts.
Refusing to buy from a big fashion brand or choosing to buy in bulk instead of single-use packaging isn’t so much about reducing my carbon footprint or my waste. That’s on those big companies and billionaires to do. I’m making my choices for two other reasons.
The first one is because, when I can, I choose to support companies that are doing things differently. Companies and businesses that decided to play against the capitalist race for profit-over-anything and use their business to do something else. When I can, I will support the ethical brand because they care about who makes their clothes. Or I’ll buy from a charity shop that saves some clothes from ending in the landfill and also gives shelter and jobs to the homeless people in the country where I live. It’s not always possible for me (nor anyone else) but I’ll use my economic and social powers to help such businesses exist and make the alternative economy stronger.
And the second reason is the following. Changing my own behavior and acting outside the way the system wants me to is contributing to a cultural change. Loving your clothes, in a system that is convincing us that clothes are disposable and lose their value when we buy them, is rebellious. Thus, by rewearing, buying from better brands, mending, and so on, I’m rebelling against a system that I don’t like. My parents always said I was stubborn, so be it. I’m a strong believer that it’s within our daily actions, habits, and behaviors where the structures and systems are being constantly negotiated, created, and deconstructed. It may seem like a small thing, but choosing to repair a pair of shoes instead of buying new ones is important. Not because this action alone will save the world. I’m not that naïve. But because I go out of my way to say: “No. I don’t like this and I won’t act the way you want me to.”
These little actions create new habits with time. Daily actions and habits, together with values and morals are what makes culture. Right now, we all need a culture that values human lives and our planet more. All of this is to say, the debate on individual vs. collective action is misleading. It’s not “this or that”, these two aren’t opposed nor separate.
As a last thought, I don’t want us to focus on how sustainably we live. Not even how perfect or imperfect we are. I want us to focus on what can we do to change the culture and system that doesn’t serve us. I am here to share tips, stats, and experience, as well as learn. Hope you are too!