Marks and Spencer have a big campaign running about swapping/recycling clothes. It is fun, being pushed in an innovative, fashionable way with help from the London College of Fashion – who are helping to run a ‘Shwop lab’. Marks and Spencer have an overall aim of encouraging the recycling of as many clothes as they sell – 350 million units a year. Their scheme is really interesting - when you buy a new item, hand in an old one to be recycled (sold at an Oxfam outlet).
The overarching logic of this campaign is that the Fashion industry – and specifically the fast fashion industry – is destroying the world through the overproduction of unwanted clothing (a billion items thrown away a year in the UK). We can save the world a bit, by producing less unwanted (pecticide, herbicide, chemical dye used) clothing. I was at another event a few months ago where one speaker promoted stopping to buy anything at all for 6 months. Reuse, don’t consume was the key message.*
Let me play devils advocate for a bit (and please excuse any inaccuracy in the numbers below – I am (obviously) not a journalist).
The Unite union was making a fuss a few days ago about HSBC needlessly dismissing 3000 people from it workforce. What would a union representing workers in garment factories, sales assistants in shops, and fashion designers say about a massive push to shwop?
According to this website over a billion people (or 1 in 6 people in the world) are employed in some way in the clothing, shoe or textile industries. I am sure if that billion people were to form a union they would probably focus on more important things like labour standards, but wouldn’t they also take exception to M&S, Oxfam and the shwoping industry(!) –This example is interesting in that they are encouraging you to buy their new products and swap the old, but with the presumed end result that the item you swap will be resold at Oxfam stores.
If we get to the stage where we reduce by half everything we buy related to fashion, won’t that mean forced redundancies globally of 500 million people? What would this do for the global economy? Picture the headlines now “Marks and Spencer Shwop and boom in Oxfam shop sales leads to rioting in Dhaka”.
I know this argument is ridiculous (calm down!) – but the overall point is interesting. Are we facing a choice between the world, and peoples’ livelihoods - however abhorrent the conditions they work in?
Is a better answer to the problem to not recycle or swap, but better consumerism? Buy Fairtrade. Buy organic. Know the people who made the item and be happy with what you are doing.
* As an aside – in a discussion about independent retailers that someone came up with the statement “consumers need to start spending”.