Image courtesy of the Local Wisdom Project. Photography: Paige Green
It doesn’t take much more than a casual saunter down your local high street to know that in the English-speaking world we’re getting fatter. One in four British people[i] and over one in three American adults[ii] are classified as clinically obese. Obesity has been described a response to stress,[iii] and competitive societies, like those of neo-liberal market economies, are more stressful than others. Put simply, our societies are getting more fraught, putting us under increasing pressure and to try to get some relief, we over-consume. Yet – and this is the sucker punch – in doing so, we jeopardise our future well-being. And for every additional ‘mallow, rounded choccy biccy’ we nibble today, we increase our risk of developing well-known fatal diseases later on. But the horrors of coronary heart disease and type 2 diabetes – that is, our long-term physical security – seem distant and hard to imagine. We struggle to balance the visceral desires of this moment (‘me, now!’) with the remote future effects of our choices. We keep on eating.
While fashion is not food; and our physical body does not swell with each garment ‘consumed’, we also keep on buying dress – and this too is a problem for our long-term security and also our happiness (more on this below). In the first decade of the 21st Century (a pattern which it seems was established at least 20 years before this point), consumption of clothes in the UK increased by one third.[iv] Just as in the case of obesity, the rising rate of consumption of fashion pieces can also be linked to the structures and dynamics of our society; a society that is shaped by an almost unquestioned acceptance that the market is the way to organise, develop and better our lives. Today our understanding of fashion is shaped almost exclusively by the commercial and ideological pressures of the market; so much so that we struggle to imagine where else and how else to access fashion experiences if it isn’t through the shops. And because we are trying to do the best for ourselves in a competitive world, we act through the market and continually buy more, many of them garments. We buy now, convinced by the persuasive incentives of consumerism, with scant appreciation of the deleterious effects of this choice on the future. Whatever your views on the role of the market in society, the realisation is that, in this total format, it is bad for us and impossible to reconcile with a world of finite ecological limits and with a planetary system whose climate is already displaying unpredictable and devastating consequences for how we live.
In his rich and wide-ranging book The Challenge of Affluence, Avner Offer[v] teases apart this fraught ground. He states that while short-term consumption isn’t inherently bad, over-consumption of short-term hits decreases our ability to enjoy the stimulation and benefits they afford. We get locked into a cycle of arousal and habituation: the more we consume, the more we have to consume in order to reap the same payback. Intuitively we know this already: as we get used to having more, our tolerance increases so we need an ever-increasing amount to feel the same effect. This spiral is the signature, the hallmark, of our society where the market and the growth imperative, pervade our life story. Where we have an excess of both eating and dieting; of both shopping for clothes and then shwopping them.
Yet if we turn to the body of literature on well-being, it clearly sets out the being well is more than about having more. That beyond a level of affluence where basic needs are met, additional units of consumption deliver, at best, steady or often negative returns to human happiness. That out-and-out consumption is an unsettling and counter-productive path through life.
It is not as if the market it all bad – it has delivered some important increases in health and access to resources. It is more perhaps more about balance. Avner Offer suggests a quietly familiar, yet radical, action: to pace consumption in order to optimise its value to us. To develop skills, devices and abilities to balance arousal in the short-term, that is, our need for stimulation, attention, beauty, etc. with a secure life on a habitable planet in the future; to work across time in such a way that we also strike a balance between our needs and those of others. This echoes the advice of numerous other scholars and elders: that is to overhaul our structures’ emphasis on self-interest, replacing it with an ethic of interest and care for others. This, it seems, is at the root of lives well lived. It is also the preoccupation of designing for sustainability in fashion. Explore it more in the work of the Centre for Sustainable of Fashion, perhaps making a first port of call the Local Wisdom project and its sister initiative the Craft of Use.
Co-author of Fashion and Sustainability: Design for Change (2012) and author of Sustainable Fashion and Textiles: Design Journeys (2008).
[iii]Offer, A. (2006), The Challenge of Affluence, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
[v]Offer, op cit.