Coco Chanel's anti-consumerist message is more relevant than ever

by The Listener / 08 November, 2018
RelatedArticlesModule - Coco chanel consumerism

Coco Chanel. Photo/Getty Images

The frenetic buying habits that Coco Chanel rejected with her "less is more" ethos are not just a crime against taste but against the environment.

Before she parlayed her empire into mega-buck haute couture, Coco Chanel did much to democratise high fashion by making it affordable, accessible and practical.

However, she would abhor today’s mass consumption of clothing as the antithesis of her motto, “Elegance is refusal” – meaning a few well-chosen and durable garments formed an infinitely more stylish wardrobe than one stuffed full of pieces of variable quality.

Our frenetic buying habits can now be seen as more than a crime against taste. Study after study shows it’s a crime against the environment, and incentivises inhumane working conditions for those in the developing countries that produce the bulk of our cheap clothing imports.

Textile production emits 1.2 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases annually, more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined, according to a report by green-research funder the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. It’s believed less than 1% of global output is recycled.

In Britain, the House of Commons environmental audit committee has just blasted the fashion industry for fostering the frenzy of consumerism that’s made Britain the biggest buyer – and thrower-away – of clothing in the European Union. Consumption there has doubled in a decade, and will soon account for a quarter of Britain’s climate-change aggravation. MPs found three in five new garments Britons buy end up in landfills or incinerators within a year.

Charity shops are groaning with barely worn tat, so recycling seems futile. And researchers estimate that synthetics can release up to 700,000 microfibres to wastewater with every wash.

Where New Zealanders sit in this fashion frenzy is hard to gauge. Given our distance and population, it’s likely we pay more for fewer items. Women’s Wear Daily has in recent years ranked Australia as the world’s top spender on apparel, at NZ$1575 a year per head. New Zealand’s spending on clothing and footwear was $1250 per person in 2017, Stats NZ data shows. Our nearly $6 billion annual household spend has trebled since the end of import licensing, boosted by budget outlets like The Warehouse and the explosion of internet shopping.

British MPs are pressing their retailers to encourage recycling and dial back the hard sell of new colours and styles every season. They’re urging a new societal obligation to make clothes much more durable – and by extension, more expensive. The conundrum, they admit, is that the British fashion industry is worth £28 billion to the economy. They’re asking valuable businesses to cut their own throats.

The Chanel “less is more” ethos is even more complex when you factor in global politics and economics. The cotton industry, for example, is a huge contributor to many developing countries’ increasing prosperity. A recent World Bank report said cotton production supported millions of households in West and Central Africa, and was a significant sector for Benin, Burkina Faso, Chad and Mali.

However, some countries’ textile manufacturers indenture millions of workers, including children, into inhumane working conditions. It’s no simple matter to find alternative income for such countries and/or lift workers’ conditions, let alone in the putative climate of a global consumption downturn.

And though logic dictates a drastic reduction in reliance on synthetic fibres, there’s also a greenhouse-gas effect from natural textile production. For every new champion of returning to good old wool, there’s an activist with data on the methane and pollution sheep produce. Still, natural fibre biodegrades.

We’re also up against the allure and sheer fun that fashion represents. The human love of adornment and embellishment cannot be extinguished by state fiat.

It’s an issue that demands social change and judicious leadership. Curiously, a “fashion-forward” exemplar here is the Duchess of Cambridge. It may seem a footling matter to serious conservationists, but the future queen’s habit of wearing the same outfit more than once in public – as, incidentally, does her husband – is exactly the sort of leadership we need. The royals and other celebrities can cause entire lines of garments to sell out overnight. They could equally trigger a trend towards wardrobe limitation.

Actors wearing already-seen gowns to the Oscars could be another social nudge. The first fashion house to parade an upcycled or remodelled version of its last-season’s line would get boundless kudos.

Though fictional, Scarlett O’Hara’s gown made of curtains shows there’s even a certain romance in “make do and mend”.

This article was first published in the November 17, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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