New Mode Co-founder
I was once an unethical consumer. Sometimes I still am. I admit that I make mistakes and misjudgements quite regularly. I used to hold a lot of guilt around this, particularly in the first few years of changing my consumption habits towards being more considerate of the impact they had on people and the planet. It took longer than I imagined it would before I made a serious commitment to changing my own behaviour. My gratitude for being led to this space goes to a series of dedicated, kind and gentle advocates of conscious consumption and a few particularly inspiring lecturers and friends from university. It is these people who led me to an intricate web of stories and circumstances surrounding the production of the clothes we wear every day. I continue to be grateful for the people I meet in this community, and hold on to the hope (and fact) that it is growing. Trying to navigate this complex system is both terrifying and elating, as we are faced with a mixture of unfathomable tragedy, beauty and resilience, often in a short space of time. At some point while exploring these ideas I began to notice contradictions and confusion in the purchasing choices of myself and in those around me. This used to concern me, I wondered how we could “figure it out” if we couldn't get it right ourselves. But I realised that the more mindful I became in the way I navigated the world, the more I noticed. I imagine this will be a never ending slippery slope, and have accepted that is okay. Trying to understand my own journey as a consumer sparked an interest in how we go about changing people’s behaviour and the challenges we face. Often our approaches are emotional, in part due to the intense emotions the challenges our world faces bring up. Often advocacy is communicated from a place of anger and sadness, and while I’m no stranger to these feelings, I’ve come to place where I firmly believe that it should not be guided by this.
There is a quote by Thich Nhat Hanh, which provides the foundation for a lot of my thought around behaviour change in the fashion industry; “The situation the Earth is in today has been created by unmindful production and unmindful consumption. We consume to forget our worries and our anxieties. Tranquilising ourselves with over-consumption is not the way.” Understanding conscious consumption, and the best way to encourage it, necessarily involves understanding unconscious consumption and where it came from. An interesting place to begin is with the “I shop, therefore I am” mentality that underlies consumerism which is preoccupied with materialism, status and competitive consumption. In this mentality, people are driven by a desire to appear a certain status and the acquisition of material goods is seen as a key indicator of social positioning. This is further intensified with the dominating belief held by the great mass of people, that finding happiness means becoming richer. The “I shop, therefore I am” mentality underpins excessive fashion consumption as fashion provides an avenue through which to visibly express real or perceived affluence. According to fashion consumption theory the values of a collective society and culture inform the practice of consuming. Engaging with fashion forms part of an individual’s journey towards self-actualisation and identity development, a process by which people either represent social conformity or individuality. These attitudes and social norms around the dominant way of consuming provide significant challenges for advocates of conscious living.
Another set of challenges we face exist within continual developments in media, technology and advertising. The dominant way of consuming, explored above, is further exacerbated by developments in electronic interactions, which have transformed everyday life and granted people access to information that would have otherwise been restricted. Through mass media we are constantly overwhelmed by images of celebrities and the lives we “should” aspire to have. As consumers strive to emulate extravagant lifestyles portrayed in the media, they are fuelled by marketing and advertising industries that encourage aspiring to these lifestyles. People seek to climb the social ladder by copying the latest trend or social media influencer, and see displays of lavish consumption as the way to demonstrate wealth and positioning. Anthony Giddens,1991, explains this, saying that “to a greater or lesser degree, the project of the self becomes translated into one of the possessions of desired goods and the pursuit of artificially framed styles of life.” This project of the self, rather than being about genuine self-development is taken over by a commodified version of self-actualisation.
When I think about the many things that contribute to our world of unconscious production and consumption, I’m not surprised that I’m struggling to figure out how to go about changing it. Each time I think I’ve cottoned onto a solution, or mastered a particular “ethical” behaviour, I discover that around the corner is another challenge. While this can be disheartening at times, the fact that there is so much left to discover is exciting. I’ve found that surrounding myself by a community of supportive and passionate people makes it a much less overwhelming experience. While I was struggling to write this article I was reminded by a dear friend that, “Every person can only do their best, and this best is always changing”. Meg’s wise words are easy to forget, but so important to remember. I hope they give you as much relief as they gave me.