Monday, 25 July 2011

Sustainable Style: The Guilt

There probably aren't too many people who've never ever felt guilty about buying something. I've felt guilty about buying clothes. I've spent money on clothes when I should have been more concerned about paying my rent. I've bought clothes that I didn't really need. I've bought clothes knowing that they'd be a one-season-only purchase, and I've bought clothes just to make myself feel better. Last week, as I was in the middle of doing research on sweatshops and the environmental consequences of our style choices, I stared deep into my wardrobe, and felt compelled to count how many pieces of clothing I had that were made of cotton. I was going to figure out how many pounds of pesticides had been used to help me have all these clothes. I started with tank tops and t-shirts. I got too depressed and stopped counting after 10 pounds of pesticides. Even without counting, my guess is that I have bought at least my weight in pesticides, and probably much, much more.

When I decided to write about sustainable style, one of my fears was that I was going to sound judgmental. I was worried that I was just going to make people feel guilty and that no one would comment. Who am I to tell people that they should line dry their laundry when I hardly ever do it myself? Who am I to forbid people from shopping in stores they like, just because labour rights in Bangladesh are not on par with ours? I went back and forth: on the one hand I wanted to write about these topics with a more general, informative approach, and on the other hand, I felt like I needed to study my own personal dealings with style and sustainability. To be honest, in the end it just felt easier to start with the information. It felt actually pretty easy to list the facts and the figures. Was I sad and shocked about what I was reading and then re-writing in the posts last week? Heck yes. But that was just the beginning. The more I learned about sweatshops and the environmental impact of clothes, the more and more painful it was to look into my own history of shopping and the mindless decisions I have made. Whatever guilt I have felt before about shopping was nothing compared to how low I was feeling when I started to count the pounds of pesticide hiding in my closet.

I have asked this before, but I just can't seem to get my head around it. I'll throw it out there anyway: is the idea of personal style always connected to consumerism? At the end of the day, the stuff we wear is just that: stuff. It's stuff that's been manufactured, stuff that we've somehow acquired. Often it has involved money, but that's not really the point. We develop emotional connections to the stuff. We protect it and shelter it. It is important to us. We use it to define who we are and what we love. We let other people see us through our "stuff choices". Even if we've got all of our stuff for free, we, at least to some extent, are slaves to our objects. And yet it is not just stuff. My books used to be trees. A lot of my clothes were made by some nameless young woman in a dirty factory in a developing country. My t-shirts came from pesticides in the soil. How can I possibly live with that?

An old friend of mine, Alan, used to go through odd phases that I couldn't really understand at the time. One day he'd splurge on a pair of luxurious Italian leather sandals, and the next day he'd feel guilty and decide that he didn't want to own anything. One day he'd praise beautifully bound and illustrated old books, and the next day he'd promise to read everything online, free of the weight of anything material. I was around when he took all of his books to a second hand book shop. I was also there when he bought books to replace the ones he'd gotten rid of. As much as he hated his weakness in front of things of beauty, he couldn't live without stuff. I feel like I have become Alan.

I see beauty in objects, and I feel comfortable when I am surrounded by things that are dear to me. But I also feel like those things are meaningless clutter when you take me out of the equation. The stuff in itself is not meaningful - it is the meaning that I've created for them that, in the immortal words of Diana Ross, keeps me hangin' on. I love my old, favourite clothes with a passion, and I love my collection of books on the history of psychiatry. I love my insane asylum postcards and my boxes of jewelry. I love to drink my tea from a pretty teacup and I love to walk around in pretty shoes. But take the way my brain processes all of it out of the picture, and it is all just carbon footprints. The guilt that goes with that is unbearable. I wish I could just not think about it.


Anonymous said...

I don't know that I have the solution to this I have been guilty of poor consumer decisions myself. So much of my "stuff" is second-hand to start with and I am not deeply attached to it...once I have "used" it, I am perfectly willing to pass it along for free. I think of it has holding things loosely.

jesse.anne.o said...

Yep, it's a really bitch to think about. Even worse is when I realize how poorly I've chosen some items and then am tasked with finding ways to divert it from the steam of waste.

Thank god for resale shops, swaps and thrift stores.

Ana said...

I think that currently I'm in the same mind frame as you. A year or so ago I saw a French documentary and that it takes loads of water to make cotton t-shirts (they said up to 7000L for a t-shirt). They didn't even mention pesticides. And since then my guilt has grown. And yet, I still buy clothes. And shoes. And also book. And I love jewelry. Really love it. And then I remember the documentary... In general, just like you said, I like pretty things around me. I'm still trying to figure out how to solve it, how to find balance. Or how to find a way not to get attached to stuff. But for now I'm a bit stuck in something that seems like a vicious circle of me deciding not to buy unnecessary stuff, then buying 2 shirts and then feeling guilty and deciding this is the last time i do it. But it helps to know I'm not the only one that's a bit torn when it comes to this. And it gives me hope that I'm not the only one, because to me it means the word is spreading. We are getting it into our conciousness that whatever we do impacts the environment. And thinking about it and spreading the word is the first step to solving it.

Katarzyna said...

A very, very thoughtful post - again.

I have felt guilt over my clothing choices not once, not twice- countless times. I have - and I am happy to admit it - got rid of most of my guilt. Perhaps this is just self-justification followed by wheedling apologies, but feeling guilty makes no sense and more importantly, it does not make things any better.

Let's look at the fact that we become attached to things, to stuff, to meaningless objects. If we become emotionally attached to something and feel bad about it, there is a simple and obvious solution- to stop feeling it. But what happens if we stop? If a bunch of clothes that we own, or any other things for that matter, become just a bunch of meaningless stuff, we are more prone to get rid of it. But let's face it, we need clothes. Unlike books and CDs, we cannnot have online clothing. We virtually need them to live and function. Therefore if we do not feel any emotional attachment, we can throw things away and feel no regret. And since we need them, we buy more and throw them away as soon as we get bored. Emotional attitude toward things makes us possess them for much longer; makes us not throw them away. I get very accustomed to stuff I own. I like my mobile phone and cannot imagine changing it every three months. I like the scratches on its back because they bring memories. Similarly, I like my clothes, because they bring memories. If I did not feel this way, I would throw all of them away without a slightest feeling of remorse. Emotional attachment - I think - stops me from that and consequently stops me from buying new ones and causing more damage to the environment.

I used to feel very guilty about the amount of books I own (10,000 roughly). Just the thought of how many trees were cut down to make them, how much bleach was used to make the paper lusciously white and so on, made me quiver and shrill inside. I pronounced myself a tree murderer. I had similar phases as your friend Alan, blaming myself for the fall of rainforests and for global warming (no joking). And then I realized that I had already bought those books. There was nothing I could do to un-do the damage I had made. I now buy less books, most of them second hand (just like clothes) and the ones I do not use anymore are sold online to serve other people. If there is nothing one can do (and in most situations there is nothing or very little), there is no point of wrapping oneself in blame. It will just make one unhappy without helping anyone.

And then there is the question of consumerism. I begin to think that this term was coined purely to make us feel guilty. Because- what exactly is consumerism? Is it any act of buying any sort of thing or is it mindless consumption (again, whatever that may mean), or is it an addiction to buying? There is a slogan on a building that I pass every day on my way to work that says "There's more to life than buying". It is hard not to agree at the first glance but when you think more deeply about it, well, is there? Everything we do is connected with some kind of trade. Food, entertainment, travel- you name it. If you grow your own food, then you buy seeds and tools, if you hike across the country, you buy equipment. It is nigh impossible to do anything without buying stuff and virtually impossible to live without buying. Unless you want to become Thoreau.

Ok, that was long. Too long perhaps. I will shut up now and get back to my dissertation. Have a nice day, Waves!


Gracey said...

I had a boyfriend once from a war-torn developing nation in West Africa who walked into my bedroom once when I was transitioning clothes between seasons and they were strewn all over and he said "Too much stuff. You Americans have too much stuff."

And it drove me crazy because I couldn't disagree with him. Not just the clothes but all the tchotchkes and doohickies we decorate ourselves and our homes with.

One could argue that it's the sign of a civilized nation, that we are past the point of having things for *function* only. We can afford to have things that serve a purpose of *form* only. But, is that really progress? Especially when we look at the cost (not monetarily) but to the environment and to the economic structure of the countries we use to create our stuff?

I guess there is progress and then there is progress.

Quinn said...

You might enjoy reading the book, The Thoughtful Dresser. She begins with the story of visiting a Holocaust museum and seeing a pair of red heels that someone had packed with them when they were transported to the concentration camp. The essay was about how we build our identity, and how clothing is an essential part of that.

I have felt guilt, but mostly I feel appreciation for the things I can have. When I was growing up, as a poor immigrant to this country, I didn't have a lot of things. All my clothes fit into one dresser drawer, and all my personal items fit into a shelf (I shared the dresser and bookshelf with my sisters). So now I take great pleasure in clothing, adornment, beautiful things, because I remember what it was like before. I realize that all this is transitory, just as life is, but it's nice to have and hold onto for awhile.

In the end, this situation strikes me as a first-world problem, and even excessive indulgence in guilt is a privilege. I think it's great that you raise the issue, though.

Teeny said...

Stuff. If it came down to choosing the things that matter, like family, pets, clean water, food and sheltar - we'd happily do without all the meaningless stuff I'm sure. And that is all very well and good when you HAVE to choose. But while we don't have to choose, we'll always choose it all. It's something to do with the human psyche...I just don't know what.

Anonymous said...

I haven't been reading your blog for very long, but I like it so far.
I read your post the other week about the production of clothes, it's a very good post, and daring of you. This one here is even braver I think. Because it's hard to know something horrible, and then to look at oneself and realise some of the horror comes from oneself, and to post it publicly. Salutes. Some of the horror comes from me to, but I've promised myself, next I'm thinking of buying something, to remind myself of your post, of what I'll be contributing to if I buy unneccesary clothes and things. So thank you for being brave, for looking out and in, and sharing what you find.
And doing small things to avoid adding to the horror is nomatter how you twist and turn it, better then doing nothing ;)
Have a nice weekend

Roberta said...

I second the recommendation of The Thoughtful Dresser (get it at your local library!). She made me think about style separately from consumption. Purchase less, but own your style.

I also feel better about how I buy clothing because of eBay. I never thrifted because I disliked the sifting through sad, ugly, poorly made items. Now I browse online for the brands I know and love, and get them for a pittance. Occasionally I sell them again; a little money changes hands, and the item finds a happy owner.

Madeline Quaint said...

I went through a similar guilt phase centered on the people who make our clothes in terrible conditions, and the matrials that are sourced god knows where and god knows how.

I started to feel terrible even when buying something that's handmade by a local artist - as their materials come from shops as well, their copper or glass was produced in inhumane ways...

I remember just trying to get my head around the fact that the only way I can be sure that my clothes didn't harm anyone is if I buy them second hand.

I also have this strange feeling sometimes that objects have "souls". That I can think about my pieces of clothing as if they had a life - they got around, they were worn, they saw the world... I sort of owe them a good life.

I really don't own many clothes and wear most of them until they fall apart, and that makes me feel they did their duty and their "lives" were worthwhile.

A way of coping with the guilt, huh? :)