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Trapped in a fashion cycle: is sustainable consumption the solution or should we avoid buying new clothes?

Riikka Kalmi
Are you tired of clothes that just end up in the back of your closet? The clothing stores and fashion industry want you to believe that you should constantly buy new items to stay on trend – but at what cost? The clothing industry is one of the most polluting sectors, and fast fashion contributes to the problem. Would more sustainable consumption free us from a fashion hangover or should we avoid purchasing clothes altogether?

University of Vaasa doctoral researchers Essi Vesterinen and Tiia Alkkiomäki have interesting insights and new research on the theme. Vesterinen studies reducing clothing consumption or anti-consumption, and its connection to well-being, while Alkkiomäki examines the handling of clothing waste, fast fashion, and the justification of consumption.

Is it acceptable to buy new clothes?

– Yes, you can buy new clothes, but you should buy clothes that bring joy and are worn as often as possible, encourages Alkkiomäki.

– Clothing is a necessity and you can still enjoy your clothes. Anti-consumption does not necessarily mean living ascetically. It means reducing consumption. The primary goal is to get away from overconsumption and consume only what is necessary, says Vesterinen.

Should we celebrate Buy Nothing Day instead of Black Friday?

– I think it's more important to look at how you consume throughout the year rather than what you buy or don't buy on Black Friday. You may avoid the shopping frenzy of Black Friday by making a shopping list in advance and only including those items that you really need, suggests Alkkiomäki.

Vesterinen agrees. 

– It's better to focus on overall consumption rather than what is bought or not bought on a single day.

Can purchasing sustainable clothes compensate for not reducing consumption?

Essi Vesterinen says that the clothing industry is an example of a sector which has improved its so-called eco-efficiency significantly in recent years. Nevertheless, the industry pollutes more than ever before.

– In the clothing industry, it is possible to produce products more environmentally efficiently, but overall emissions have still increased significantly because consumption has increased and the lifespan of clothes has shortened. This underlines the fact that simply replacing a product with a more sustainable one is not enough if our consumption habits do not change. In other words, we need to reduce consumption, Vesterinen says.

Doctoral researchers Tiia Alkkiomäki and Essi Vesterinen.

Can fast fashion be sustainable?

According to Alkkiomäki, fast fashion is associated with many ethical problems, such as poor pay, the use of child labour, and environmental issues, starting with the cultivation of cotton. In fast fashion, the lifespan of clothes is short, and this development feeds on itself. Its consequences can be seen in Africa's and South America's huge mountains of clothes and massive dumps of discarded garments, where the journey of used clothes from Europe and North America often ends.

However, fast fashion also has some positive outcomes.

– It democratises clothing and clothing consumption. More and more people, regardless of social class, have the opportunity to dress according to fashion styles, Alkkiomäki says.

Consumers can also bring more sustainability to fast fashion through their actions.

– According to research, it does not matter where you buy clothes from. Even if you buy from a "hated" fast fashion chain – it is not a sin in itself. What matters is how many times the garment is worn, Alkkiomäki says.

It is also important to take care of clothes, whether it's a four-euro t-shirt or an expensive designer shirt.

– You should iron clothes, remove lint with the lint roller, follow the washing instructions and avoid using the dryer, Alkkiomäki advises.

Can reducing consumption make us happy?

– When anti-consumers and particularly anti-consumers of clothes have been studied, it has been found that when they stop going to stores and stop buying clothes, their attention turns to their wardrobe and their style. They start to see clothes more creatively and get to know what they already own. They begin to appreciate their clothes more, and as a result, they also feel better about themselves, Vesterinen says.

– The things that make us happy do not necessarily have to cost anything. It can be the simple things in life that make us happy – such as spending time with loved ones, exercising, or having hobbies. It is important to think about what really brings joy to your life, Vesterinen concludes.

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