Who made my clothes?

I recently blogged about my big-deal-but-not-really-a-big-deal decision not to buy any clothes for a year.

If I were the kind of person who didn’t like clothes or was not easily swept up in the whispers of commoditized fast fashion that would not be worth telling you about. But I am, or was, that kind of person.

As I have previously said, I think expressing yourself through the clothes you wear is a wonderful thing. It just becomes a tad more complex of an issue when you discover that it takes 2,700 litres of water to produce one cotton t-shirt.

For the English among us, that’s 4,751 pint glasses of water.

If like in the 1800s we all wore one shirt per year*, perhaps that would be a sensible ratio of resources to output and no one would be getting so hot under the collar (I’m here all week) about the impact the fashion industry is having on climate change.

And that is the essence of fast fashion; more. More of the same, but in 5 different colours. More tops like last year but this time with more ruffles around the collar. More heels because the last pair broke and you might as well buy two pairs since you’re here anyway.

And so the cycle continues; more becomes more water, more cotton, more oil and more trees.

Which is why in my quest to buy better quality and far fewer clothes in the future, I’ve been exploring some of the amazing initiatives that are taking place to make fashion a much cooler, more sustainable industry.

My old uni, The University of Exeter and Fashion Revolution, an organisation set up to do exactly what it sounds like, have created a (free) short course designed to take the user on a journey of discovery about where their clothes really come from. It doesn’t start until 26th June and takes only 4 hours a week.

I’m really interested to find out more about the people, methods both good and bad, and the material that creates some of the clothes in my wardrobe. It means that when I shop in the future I will start to understand the places to go, the materials to look for and the true cost of what I’m wearing. You can sign up here if the idea excites you, too.

And to end with a piece of highly relevant trivia, did you know that H&M has created a ballgown entirely out of waste marine plastic for their 2017 Conscious collection? Well you do now, and apparently the material  is ‘unlike other plastic-based fabrics, it’s supersoft and can adapt to almost anything you want to make, from jeans to cocktail dresses.’

Which gives me hope, because if being good can also mean looking good, H&M may just be on the cusp of unlocking a new, and rather large customerbase.

 

*Completely uncited but in some cases probably quite accurate statement, merely used to make a point about modern shopping habits.

Slowing down fashion: a year-long experiment

I like clothes. Rather a lot. They’re beautiful, versatile, and help you be anyone you want to be. Or at least, that’s what they whisper at you from the mirror of the dressing room as you try them on.

Which is why the conclusion I came to last month, to try not to buy any new clothes for a year, felt like a dramatic one. And certainly left me wondering how many new hobbies I’d need to pick up the slack on all the time I used to spend shopping.

When I told my boyfriend however, he seemed nonplussed. This is the same guy who subsisted in the same pair of black skinny jeans for 3 years before I met him, so I may have been pitching to the wrong audience. While I am well aware that excessive shopping is not a vice that plagues everyone (and I salute you for it), it is a preoccupation of more than a few friends and family; and indeed a large chunk of the Western world.

So why the big gesture? Well, there’s no singular reason and it was not a sudden revelation. There has been a sickly feeling in my stomach whenever I’ve bought clothes for a while now. I know there will be some caveats and rules I’ll need to establish; what about special occasions like my brother’s wedding, or when all my socks inevitably have holes in?

So while I am still working out the details, the need for change is obvious. According to the Economist, global clothing production doubled from 2000 to 2014. That can’t have been me doing all the buying. Every year more clothes are being made, and more are being thrown away sooner. Again from the Economist; Zara used to make do with a handful of yearly collections, now they have twenty.

When you compound that with another stat, from McKinsey – that simply producing 1kg of fabric generates on average 23kg of greenhouse gases – the sickly feeling gets a little stronger.

Must looking good really necessitate killing the planet?

I don’t think there’s a single answer to that question, and I don’t want to speak for others. Personally I get frustrated with clothes that are better suited to the dust bin after only a year of wear, and I get angry with myself for so easily falling prey to  promotion after promotion in the sales. But I don’t think liking clothes is wrong.

What about the confidence-boosting, the creativity, the buying power of fashion, which all bring immeasurable positives. Charities like SmartWorks show the difference a good outfit and the right training can do for women out of work. But there has to be a better way to do this. The opportunity is ripe for more brands to tackle clothing production and consumption in a profitable and sustainable way. Following in the footsteps of brands like Patagonia, and encouraging more people to make do with fewer, higher-quality items of clothing is surely the way forward.

This is after all a personal experiment and I’m doing it to learn. I want to understand what really goes into the process of making clothes; the environmental and the human cost. Yesterday was the anniversary of the 2013 Rana Plaza disaster, one of the most shameful days in the history of the fashion industry.  I’d like to better understand the psychology of it too; the reasons why new clothes have been so important to my self-esteem and why my choice of outfit is as important to some as the words I say in a meeting.

12 months from now I think I’ll still like clothes, but maybe I’ll respect them too.

With every percentage

That scrappy bit of paper above is a list of life ambitions I wrote, aged 18. You can see I didn’t exactly hold back.

That scrappy bit of paper is a list of life ambitions  I wrote, aged 18.  I didn’t exactly hold back. In full it reads:

write at least one novel
have a photographic exhibition
speak 5 languages
save someone’s life
work for UN/NATO
sing in a band
visit over 50 countries
publish a historical/political work

learn a form of martial art.

To complete this grandiose document I then apparently scribbled some train times upside down at the bottom. In a similar vein, I didn’t find this note carefully stored for future reflection but by chance, stuffed in an old folder, when I recently moved house.

A few ambitions have changed in the 10 years since then; I never did apply for that NATO job nor have I seriously picked up a camera since I was 19. Ambitions change as we grow older, sometimes for better sometimes not (although me not singing in a band is almost certainly doing the world a favour). But what really hits me looking back on that list now, is the fact I had no limitations. My 18 year old self saw no reason for me to dream smaller or be cautious.

And why should I have been? At 18 I hadn’t had a single IV admission, I didn’t take any regular nebulisers, I hadn’t developed CF related diabetes, I only took about 10 pills a day. I’d just been prescribed my first inhaler. I was not by any stretch, what you would expect from a young adult with CF. I am proud to have dreamed so big.

The thing is, those big dreams may have evolved but they haven’t gone anywhere. I am loath to accept limitations, and the list I’d write aged 28 is just as ambitious as the old one, Cystic Fibrosis or not. But a little life experience has taught me that achieving every dream takes time and compromise.

A thought popped into my head the other day, and I found myself speculating how much lung function I had permanently lost in the last 3 years due to normal stresses like long hours at work and city air. I settled on 6 percent. Lung function fluctuates naturally, mine has gone up and down by 20% in the last year depending on how well and generally fit I am. But there is something called a baseline measurement in lung function, and CF doctors will use it to assess what your best figure is.

After my morbid moment, I mentally slapped myself and went back to mindlessly scrolling through my Facebook feed. But navel-gazing Elly had a point, there’s an opportunity cost in everything we do.  We all need a method of measuring how we spend our time – even if spent percentages of lung function is a little niche – how else will we work towards our goals?

I thought about all the hours that made up those three years, some spent in pursuit of goals big and small, others spent happily pursuing no goal at all. I wouldn’t go back and change them; they’ve led to personal and professional achievements I’m proud of. But I do wish I’d spent more of that 6% in pursuit of the things I really measure myself by. The motivations, beliefs and dreams that inspired that little list in an A5 notebook aged 18.

Which is why, 2 weeks ago, I quit my job. I’m spending the next few weeks working on a writing project I’ve been awarded a grant for.  Beyond that I’m looking for a role in a creative agency where I can work on the kind of social change, charity and sustainability projects that get me really excited.

I’d like to make every percentage count.

…And another thing from this millennial

Technically, aged 25, I am a millennial. Glossing over the fact that this term throws together millions of young people- at a time in your life where a couple of years, for instance, can make the difference between a near affordable degree and one that will land you with a debt worthy of a small country- does it actually help anyone?

I wrote this two years ago (25 seems like a long time ago) but never posted it. Oops.

I hate that word. Technically, aged 25, I am a millennial. Glossing over the fact that this term throws together millions of young people- at a time in your life where a couple of years, for instance, can make the difference between a near affordable degree and one that will land you with a debt worthy of a small country- does it actually help anyone? Consider that the baby boomer generation is often considered to be from 1946-1964. That groups together roughly 70 million people. If that isn’t reductionist, I don’t know what is. Still, sociologists get a kick out of it so we’ll go along with it for now.

I do identify with some of the challenges of the millennial gen and also recognise some of the criticism of our generation I’ve read in many, many an article.

Yes, we were promised it and yes we do want it better than our parents. It’s a natural thing to assume that each generation will build on the last and there’s no shame in it; that’s progress! Not to mention, a consequence of 30 years of pure, unrestricted good ‘ol capitalism. From birth we have been taught to ask for more, more, more. Still, we also need to adapt and be proactive when times change, right? You’ve got to pay your dues no matter what generation club you’re in.

I  worked hard at uni and I enjoyed my degree in International Relations, but graduating in the heart of the recession with a ‘vanilla’ humanities degree and no concrete idea of how to get my dream job -or even what it was- I wasn’t under any illusions. I made myself readily available and put in hours as a bank teller, marketing assistant, recruitment consultant, etc.

In the last year, armed with those skills and a much better understanding of what I like and don’t like, I’ve searched for the kind of career that I think I’d be good at and that I value.

Here’s the thing. I want to work hard, but I also want to work well. And that’s a sentiment shared by many of my peers. If we’re going to dedicate increasing decades of our lives to businesses, in many cases with long hours and no real ‘off switch’, we want it to matter; to be worthwhile. And I sure as hell don’t want to be clocking extra hours at my desk just because it looks good to do so, when I’m actually too tired to work. Just think what else I could be doing with that time (probably sleeping, no judging).

That’s where my CF comes in. A lot of people with CF are simply too ill to work. Many don’t have the luxury of pursuing a career and have to make choices that healthy people never think about. But I’m not. I am able and I wanted my career to be a priority. Obviously I don’t want that to be at the expense of my health, but it will have an impact. That’s just common sense, workplace stress as a cause of illness is an epidemic already; and it doesn’t discriminate, it affects us all.

I am not a religious person, but I do believe there is a lesson to be found in our challenges. I think a lot about where that lesson might be in my CF. The way I see it, If I’m able to have a career, then I better make it count.

It’s not about trying to get on X Factor or being plucked from obscurity to become an internet celebrity because of that funny thing you can do with your ears, but I think everyone has an achievable dream in life.
What other people choose to do and how they make their living is irrelevant. All that really matters is, that you believe what you’re doing and the time you spend doing it, is worth it.

Oh and if you’re not at the point you want to be yet (like 99.9% of millennials) don’t worry, there’s always wine and cats to make you feel better until then.

 

What’s purpose anyway?

We’ve all read about the girl who has months left to live and is following her bucket list through to completion or the cancer survivor who lives each day as their last. I dont know what its like to truly live day to day, not knowing whether there’s another one, so I won’t pretend I do.
But what if the time limit was 10 or 20 years, not 1 or 2? 10 years is a funny length of time. It’s too long to live as if each day were your last- where your next pay cheque is coming from and what your plans are on Saturday are as much a concern as ever- but it is short enough to want the answers to a lot of questions that you probably wouldn’t be so fussed about if you knew you had 50 years left to figure them out.

Am I doing something important? How do I make the best of what I have? Am I the best I can be? What is my purpose anyway? Will the Star Wars franchise reboot again in another 20 years? All important, difficult questions.

Granted, some of us who are expecting to live for 40 or 50 years will not make it past 10 anyway. The world is always uncertain. But that doesn’t stop us from making assumptions. We work long weeks and have a certain set of priorities because we assume there will be time to re-order those priorities later. There probably is time. I think most people take that chance, it’s the most natural thing to do. I’m not sure I know what ‘live each day like your last’ really means anyway.

I’ve been thinking about ‘our time’ and how we spend it a lot recently. I’ve been wondering what a compromise might look like between thinking you have 10 years left instead of 50.

From the big stuff. Being truthful with yourself about what you really want, and planning bit by bit, (year by year, not decade by decade) how you might make that a reality.

To the smaller things. Not turning down friends for a drink because you’re tired and have somewhere on Netflix to be. And at times, realising that time alone is exactly what you want and not being afraid to have that, either. Not looking away when someone is tireder than you and wants a seat on the train. Smiling at more of the many people who pass you by each day, instead of keeping your head down. Speaking to someone who you think has nothing to offer you, just to learn more about their story. Being brave enough to say what you really mean when it matters.

I don’t know what that 10 year compromise looks like yet – to be honest the idea of it scares me silly – but I’m hoping starting with the smaller stuff is how you find it.

The image is the amazing parcel I got sent from work today while I take time off on antibiotic IVs. It really made a difference to my day, thank you. Xximage

“Do anything nice on your day off then?”

…Why yes actually, I spent a very engaging 6 hours in hospital taking part in a first-of-its-kind phase III clinical gene therapy trial.

Could have done with an actual day off though, come to think of it.

So I’m currently taking part in the UK’s only ongoing major gene therapy trial for cystic fibrosis patients. To be considered you have to be well enough to be living a fairly ‘normal’ life with a lung function that is mild to moderately affected, but ill enough for them to clearly observe any potential improvements as a result of the trial. I am one of those lucky people.

As far as I’m concerned, it’s my first real attempt to ‘give something back’ to the CF community. I have fund-raised before, but never to a significant level. I’ve filled out a few surveys in hospital and taken part in some very brief product trials but nothing more. I thought it was an appropriate time to do more and of course, with a potential benefit to myself.

Here’s the catch though. Like any major medical trial these days, there has to be a placebo involved in order to verify results for the wider world. This means, every 2nd person on the trial, will be taking a placebo treatment for the entire duration, (obviously) without their knowledge.

The trial is a year long, with monthly appointments that take a minimum of 4 hours and a maximum of 8. That is at least 72 extra hours I will spend at hospital this year, in addition to other routine appointments I must attend every other month. Not to mention any unscheduled time for treatment due to illness.

I must do this around a full-time job with hours that often extend over 9-6. I also have several side projects on the go, not to mention my career ambitions, regular exercise (an essential part of staying well) friends and family to see, a life to live and a decent amount of shopping to fit in too.

I could spend all that extra hospital time receiving nothing more than a simple saline solution with no medical benefit to my lungs. Which is why, I think, it’s very important to take part in things like this for reasons other than my own health. By participating, I’m helping scientists and doctors help the next generation of CF sufferers live healthier, longer lives, and perhaps even bring that all-elusive cure a step closer for us all.

That, I think, is a venture worth taking part in.

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One of the more successful recent shopping sojourns. Cheers Zara!