Image by Elle magazine
7 min read
Moments of crisis have a strong power of illuminating our hierarchy of priorities. As the COVID-19 pandemic globally enfolded the world, our everyday lives got flooded by single use face masks, empty hand sanitiser bottles, endless paper napkins, and plastic packaging for food and deliveries. We believe that these items can guarantee at least partial safety in the rare events of being exposed to the outside, since the rare events of leaving our homes are experienced as some sort of a Russian roulette. Concerns for environment come in the last place: surely, we praise the natural rejuvenation cause by a halt in industrial production, but at the same time we rely more heavily on personal transportation and non-eco-friendly safety precautions.
Fashion, on the other hand, turned out to be one of the few spheres in which our hopes for growing sustainability have recently become optimistically high. Since everyone stays at home, then what is the point of buying that new dress? On multiple occasions in the last two months I have heard the stories of my friends who were suddenly confronted by the sheer volume of useless clothes in their wardrobes which they neither recall consciously buying nor wanting to wear. We finally have time to focus on our lifestyle and discover our true desires and preferences. For others, a decision to stop shopping was driven by concerns for well-being of essential workers. When you think that your new garment might come at a price of someone health, any purchase instantly becomes more emotionally loaded. And finally, it was impossible to ignore the triumph with which the sustainability ambassadors have welcomed the news of several fast-fashion and retailer chains losing money or even going bankrupt. It seems like there is something positive to learn even from the grimmest circumstances, and fashion sustainability has definitely profited from the newly found mindfulness of consumers.
However, as I am writing these hopeful observations, I am also waiting for a parcel from a clothing brand due to arrive in the next few days – and I am definitely not alone here. Yes, I had time to prepare a box of clothes for charity and swaps and to think of ways to upcycle some of the things that I already own, but that has not fundamentally changed my approach to fashion. On Instagram, countless stories with modest shopping hauls are uploaded, necessarily followed by shy comments like “for better times” or “online shopping is the last normal thing we’ve got”. To be fair, I cannot be completely hopeful about the death of some fashion giants either. I am lucky to have a financial capability to make sustainable fashion choices even if that means spending more money; but what about people who have been furloughed, laid off, or lost their jobs entirely during the lockdown? This issue is especially pressing since another route of affordable shopping, second-hand market, will probably be haunted by the COVID-fear in the minds of public for much longer than the pristinely clean shopping malls. There is a strong possibility that what we imagined to be the death of mass-market will eventually turn into its centralisation at the hands of the most powerful of the surviving corporations.
“The COVID-19 pandemic created a unique momentum, bringing the global and the personal together.”
In the last few decades, we have encountered innumerable proofs that our routine shopping habits have to become more sustainable for the good of the society and the planet. And I won’t be the first person to suggest that the reason why they remain so persistent lies in the abstractness of such goals. The huge gap between individual responsibility and global change makes it difficult to conceptualise our personal victories and failures as meaningful. At the end of the day, on the global level one parcel is just one parcel. It won’t single-handedly reinforce poverty or exhaust natural resources. But on a personal level it can bring a lot of comfort and happiness, especially being that “last normal thing” amidst the chaos in turbulent times.
The COVID-19 pandemic created a unique momentum, bringing the global and the personal together. We have suddenly become aware through extensive discussions of transmission rates of how our personal decisions contribute to the wellbeing of the most extended social connections that we are a part of. And this knowledge is stressful. We are exhausted by playing out different scenarios in our heads, by worrying about our family, friends, neighbours, high-risk groups, key workers, other countries. For many, this global responsibility, no matter how much they honour it, is experienced as a burden. It is no surprise that under such high pressure the most natural reaction would be to dream of returning back to the times when personal decisions where not so dramatic. Simple, easy times, when a parcel that arrived at your doorstep was no one else’s business. Times when we could afford the luxury of turning the blind eye to the structural context of personal decisions.
What I am saying here might sound gloomy and disillusioning – but it shouldn’t. COVID-19 has demonstrated to us the tension with which we encounter the merging of the global and the personal. But what if we changed the scales? What if we looked at sustainability not as a global, but a local problem? We see it successfully implemented in the sphere of household management. For example, people frequently engage in recycling and local grocery shopping primarily with a goal of creating and sustaining a certain neighbourhood image. Local support, after all, is a tangible thing with visible outcomes, as opposed to a globalised fight against some distant inequalities. As small businesses we were strongly hit by the pandemic and the lockdown measures, local communities expressed unprecedented unity in attempts to keep them afloat. Same people who would not usually think about the political dimension of their everyday actions suddenly felt that such local causes were worthy of their attention and support. And this, rather than the fleeting temporary mindfulness, I believe, is the main thing to learn from the current circumstances. It can be difficult and continuously challenging to think about our personal lives in an abstract global context, but local initiatives can be powerfully inspiring when everything else fails.
By organising swaps, buying locally and visiting the tailor down the street we participate in strengthening our social bonds as much as fighting the invisible carbon footprint.
Of course, my thoughts are based on circumstantial observations and are not applicable everywhere. Not every community has coherent local ties, or local fashion and garment businesses for that matter. Fashion, whether we like it or not, is dictated by global trends – and local initiatives cannot physically be as quickly to respond to them as major corporations. And finally, no level of local involvement is enough to educate people on all aspects of sustainability. We still need to maintain a global outlook to see our actions as a part of the bigger picture. But sometimes we don’t want to do that, because it is stressful and hard, and we are afraid and tired of never being able to do everything just quite right – or we don’t really have the resources to care. This is when a local focus can provide some fresh and much-needed motivation. That “one parcel” can become something more than a personal choice and something less than a global problem – it can turn into a tangible opportunity to choose supporting our close ones instead of sending money into the corporate abyss. By organising swaps, buying locally and visiting the tailor down the street we participate in strengthening our social bonds as much as fighting the invisible carbon footprint. Maybe it’s time to drastically re-conceptualise sustainability from “me against the world” in a search of a more affirming and positive message. The 101 message for “beginners” has for a long time been “no change is too small”. Maybe it’s time we brought that change closer to ourselves.
Written by Jane Pakhomova.