Every year, the fashion industry uses over 79 billion cubic metres of water – about as much as gushes over the top of Niagara Falls annually – and pumps out 1.5 billion tonnes of CO2, not far short of the transport emissions of the US.
For many, though, fashion is pure pleasure. We love shopping for it, wearing it, and posting pictures of it on Instagram. So what would we save and what would we lose if we defied the fashion gods and thought only about function? What would change in a fashion-free world?
The planet would look fabulous, dah-ling!
Ditching fashion would lift a huge burden off our planet. We’d save water (used in crop-growing and dyeing processes) and carbon dioxide emissions (from the industry’s energy use). And we’d also prevent pollution from the fertilisers and pesticides used in cotton farming, and hazardous chemicals used in dyes.
The sheer scale of our ‘fast fashion’ habit is mind-boggling. In Europe, we hang 6.4 million tonnes of new clothes in our wardrobes each year; US consumers now stuff in a new item every week.
“Wearing clothes is one of those fundamental needs that we all have as humans,” says Dr Mark Sumner, a fashion and sustainability researcher at the University of Leeds. “So from a population point of view, the fashion industry is huge.”
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Industry is only half the problem, though. Consumer behaviour, driven by advertising and social media, is also to blame. We can reduce our fashion footprints by donating old clothes and buying secondhand, but Sumner says that not enough of us do this – we’re too obsessed with ‘newness’.
Another fashion foible is washing clothes when they’re not dirty, which shortens their lifespan and releases more microfibres into waterways (as many as 700,000 fibres per wash), where they can harm marine life.
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There’s no question that a planet without fashion would be a healthier planet – if we all went starkers, we’d be over a billion tonnes better off in terms of CO2 emissions alone. But, thinking practically, we’d probably still need to protect our modesty…
We’d all wear onesies… or eco-sweatpants
In the 1999 film The Matrix, the humans of circa 2199 wear scruffy, undyed, woolly jumpers – the fashion fallout of a war. Banning fashion today could result in a similar look. Government-issue coveralls might be a choice for today’s onesie-wearers, although if you can’t bear all the unzipping for toilet breaks, how about a pair of eco-sweatpants?
Organic cotton could be an environmentally-friendly fabric for our eco-pants. However, Sumner says we might need to rethink our definition of ‘organic’. While synthetic fertilisers and pesticides are banned by organic certifications, which emphasise alternatives like compost and natural pesticides, there are no limits for water consumption.
Meanwhile, growers in the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) – the world’s biggest cotton sustainability scheme – focus on key principles such as soil health, biodiversity and sustainable water use, but don’t ban the chemicals that some find unacceptable.
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“It’s swings and roundabouts with these different models in terms of what we think is right,” says Sumner. “But a huge amount of work has been done [on] trying to find ways to reduce some of the environmental harm of growing cotton.”
Sourcing sustainable cotton would provide employment for some of the hundreds of millions of people who currently work in the textile and garment-making industries. There’d also be jobs in the synthetic fibre sector: our eco-sweatpants would need polyester for sweat-resistance, and we could harvest this from old plastic bottles. Leave it undyed, with matching sweatshirt, and you have casualwear fit for dystopia.
We’d have an identity crisis... or toe the line
What we wear says a great deal about us – our social standing, our music preferences, even our personality. But there’s a tension between individuality and wanting to belong, according to Dr Maria Mackinney-Valentin at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, and author of Fashioning Identity. “Even though we are telling our own story, we are always doing it within socially acceptable contexts,” she says.
On the one hand, we want to stand out – difficult in a world with no fashion. But the devil can be in the detail. Prisoners and soldiers change the lacing on their shoes or turn up their collars as tiny expressions of individuality. Schoolkids flout uniform rules.
Particularly interesting is the case of North Korea, where jeans, miniskirts and colourful fabrics are restricted by the authoritarian government. Many people have just a couple of sets of clothes, and most avoid looking different.
According to a 2018 study, this is mainly to dodge the disapproval of their compatriots, with people imposing pressure on each other to dress the same. But the study also describes the experiences of 11 female defectors to South Korea. The women experienced a profound ‘culture shock’ around fashion and identity, especially about the amount of skin on show. They tried to ‘learn’ South Korean fashion so they wouldn’t stick out.
So do we really just want to fit in? Perhaps in a fashionless future, eco-uniforms would provide a sense of cohesion and wellbeing? Not for Sumner, who likens the scenario to an Orwellian-style “horror story”, where, as in the novel 1984, everyone walks around in overalls. “The main character talks about this idea that he doesn’t have any self-identity; doesn’t have any self-esteem,” says Sumner. “That’s where we’d end up if fashion didn’t exist.”
There’d still be class differences
Historically, fashion has never been a great class leveller. So if Meghan Markle, you and I were all slouching around in the same unbranded sweatpants, wouldn’t society be more equal?
In Elizabethan times, there were rules about what colours and fabrics you could wear, and how big your ruff could be, depending on your societal status. Earls, knights, barons and their eldest sons enjoyed velvets and gold fabrics, whereas the less wealthy were forbidden by law from ‘excesses of apparel’.
Today, like the Elizabethans, we covet luxury items as a display of our wealth and status over others. A 2017 study by researchers in Australia concluded that the brand-conscious fashion buys of women aged 19 to 34 are driven by a desire for status and uniqueness.
Meanwhile, a 2018 study identified an ‘Abercrombie & Fitch effect’, whereby men who were greeted by an athletic-looking male shop assistant bought items that were on average twice as expensive as those bought by women in the assistant’s presence, supposedly to gain dominance.
So what would happen if luxury brands didn’t exist, and our wardrobe was standard-issue? While it’s nice to think that we’d live in a more equal world, it’s likely that the upper echelons would still find a way to assert their status.
“I think it would be difficult to remove [fashion] completely, even if it was strictly regulated,” says Mackinney-Valentin. So maybe a post-fashion world would go eco-Elizabethan, with the rich and powerful reviving the ruff.
We’d unleash our digital selves
Could we perhaps forego the logos and luxury brands in real life, and get our fashion fix online instead? After all, digital fashion already exists: in the video game Fortnite, for example, users buy ‘skins’ which they pay for with real money. “You’re showing your individuality through these skins, which are outfits,” explains Mackinney-Valentin.
According to a 2016 study at the University of the Aegean in Greece, fashion in virtual worlds like World Of Warcraft and The Sims often performs the same function that it does in the physical one: it expresses an identity but also, potentially, helps communicate to other users what sort of group you might belong to.
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Some people make their avatar’s appearance similar to their real-life one, while others use customisation to achieve “a better version of themselves”. Freed from restrictions of flesh and fabric, characters can be as extravagant as the imagination allows, with clothing that pulsates with colour or animations.
Perhaps if we had nothing but beige sweatpants to share on Instagram, we’d all start using such avatars on our social media profiles, or even take them to virtual offices. You could log into a conference call from your sofa, wearing your eco-sweats, but show up onscreen in a gold power suit. “That makes sense,” says Mackinney-Valentin. “What a relief! You wouldn’t have to think of what to wear every morning.”
Never mind the apocalypse, let’s do it anyway.