Coronavirus could spell the end for fashion’s toxic hype obsession

With global consumerism thrown into crisis for the foreseeable future, will we rethink our troubled relationship to trend-chasing and fast fashion in the post-coronavirus rebuild?

by Alec Leach
17 April 2020, 5:00pm

still from Arthur

History has shown us that crisis often makes way for renewal. In Italy, the aftermath of the bubonic plague produced conditions that contributed to the Renaissance. In Britain, the NHS and Welfare State were built in the ashes of the Second World War. As we speak, the coronavirus is turning society upside down, simultaneously seeding fear and the possibility of a fresh start. Many in fashion are quietly hoping that pressing stop on consumerism may finally lead to the much-needed reforms that activists and scientists have been calling for.

To date, fashion’s meagre sustainability efforts have been all about reducing impact. But recycled polyester and organic cotton will only go so far when our shopping habits are out of control. Fashion tells us that shopping is an essential part of modern life, that it’s the answer to anything and everything. In an industry that is supposed to be about craftsmanship, the clothes themselves have become disposable, sold with a built-in expiry date no matter how much they cost. If we want to change this wasteful, destructive industry for the better, we need to address consumerism itself, rather than waste our time pondering more “conscious” collections.

To do this we need to dismantle fashion’s addiction to hype. It’s easy to point the finger at Instagram or the kids queuing up outside Supreme, but the truth is that it’s an inescapable problem that’s infected the entire industry. Hype is the relentless cycle of drops, collabs, pop-ups, cruise shows and designer appointments. It’s the idea that everything needs to be viral, shareable, a “moment”. It’s newness for the sake of newness, buying for the sake of buying. It never stops: even now, in the midst of a global pandemic, we’re told that this is the time to upgrade our loungewear and perfect our working from home looks.

The problem with the hype carousel is that the more people ride it, the faster it spins, and now fashion moves so fast that even professionals are struggling to keep up. There's four, eight, 52 seasons a year. We buy more clothes than ever, and discard them in a heartbeat. And while we treat the products themselves as transient -- here in an instant, then forgotten -- garment production leaves a permanent impact on the planet. A sneaker collab makes quick headlines, but parts of it could last up to 1000 years in a landfill. The cotton feeding our never-ending appetite for merch exhausts water supplies in countries that already suffer from droughts, and the pesticides used to grow it obliterate biodiversity. And that’s saying nothing of the exploitation and human rights abuses that we’ve known about for years.

Until coronavirus brought it all crashing down, the global fashion industry was producing somewhere between 80 billion and 150 billion garments a year, for a planet with 7.8 billion inhabitants. How are we supposed to even wear all of that? It turns out, we don’t. Charity shops, textile warehouses and third-world marketplaces are overflowing with cheap, low-quality castoffs. The sad irony to this mess is that we’re not trashing the planet for beautiful pieces that make a meaningful contribution to our lives, we’re doing it for disposable crap that shouldn’t have been made in the first place.

The pandemic has put a stop to all of that, at least for the time being. Hopefully, in the coming weeks and months we’ll take more notice of the new ideas that have been blossoming underground, perspectives that could help us to finally address fashion’s sustainability problem. Curated vintage shops that make old pieces feel new again; natural dyers drawing on ancient knowledge to create truly organic clothing; upcyclers turning castoffs into unique curiosities; resell apps connecting unwanted pieces with new buyers; and the rental services doing away with ownership altogether. These new perspectives challenge the idea that newer is always better. They’re about making more from less. That’s a message that burned-out creatives and exhausted shoppers need to hear.

As the lockdown hits our pockets and forces us to examine our priorities, the downtime will hopefully spark changes in the way we think as consumers, too. We need to understand that whether we like it or not, everything we buy has an impact on our lives. From picking up packages to dry cleaning to uploading photos to resell apps, clothes don’t just cost us money, they cost us time and energy as well.

When you put it like that, the importance of only buying what you love becomes much clearer. We need to reconnect with the reason we fell in love with fashion in the first place, to rediscover the tangible, everyday joys that come from owning and wearing our clothes. We should remember that clothes have the power to make us feel like our best selves, to help us discover hidden parts of our identities.

Twelve months ago I took Extinction Rebellion’s pledge to only shop second-hand for a year. I had no idea that fashion could feel so slow, even intimate. The trends and runway shows passed me by and I barely noticed. Instead, I chatted to dads on eBay about their old suits, and met up with bikers who were selling their leather jackets. Stepping away from all the noise freed up so much space to really think about what I really need from fashion. Turns out it’s got nothing to do with collabs or drops or limited-edition whatever.

We are only just starting to reckon with the turmoil and chaos that the coronavirus pandemic is wreaking on the world. Whether for good or bad, the crisis has brought consumerism to a standstill. And despite all the suffering and chaos unfolding around us, we have the opportunity to walk away from fashion’s exhausting culture of overconsumption. Let’s not waste it.

Alec Leach is a writer and consultant, and the founder of @future__dust, an Instagram platform for responsible fashion.