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Could Rationing be the Answer?

Could Rationing be the Answer?

Recently, at a promotional event for the fashion trade show Bread and Butter, veteran designer Vivienne Westwood told the audience that to help the environment “This season, don’t buy anything.” Her statement was treated with a flutter of shock. Why would a clothing designer at an event designed to get people to buy clothes in large numbers tell people not to do that very thing? Of course, we are used to outspoken statements from the progenitor of punk, and rather hypocritical ones at that: Westwood often campaigns for environmental causes but her own clothing brand is less than unimpeachable on the sustainability front. Similar, even greatershockwaves were caused when outdoor wear brand Patagonia created an advert that urged consumers “Don’t Buy This Jacket.” The advert then went on to list the high amount of resources used in creating the garment, which, being made of 60% recycled polyester fleece, is actually more environmentally friendly than others out there.

The clothing industry creates a huge amount of waste. A conventionally manufactured cotton t-shirt can use 2,700 liters of water to produce. Compounding this waste is the fact that only 60% of the processed fabric ends up being used for the t-shirt while the scraps are usually thrown away. A shirt made from petrochemicals like polyester takes around one-hundred years to break down completely and until then there’s nowhere for it to go but a dump or the ocean where it piles up with all the other plastic products. And we’ve all heard about the human cost of fashion. The town in China where the rivers run blue; not a pleasant, day-dream turquoise but denim blue from the run off of the jeans manufacturing process which means no fish can live there and the drinking water is poisoned. The children in India embroidering blouses instead of going to school. The garment workers in Cambodia who are fainting in droves from excessive heat in the factories and fatigue from long hours. The Chinese workers who slip desperate notes into the pockets of the clothes destined for our shops, pleading for us to notice them.

Even “environmentally friendly” and responsibly produced fabrics have a cost, as pointed out by the Patagonia advertisement. Recycling a fiber uses chemicals and power to break down and reconstitute the raw material, even if that “raw material” is an existing garment, not crude oil directly from the earth. Organic cotton still uses “earth friendlier” types of pesticides, and a huge amount of water to grow. Viscose made from bamboo, which is naturally resistant to damage from insects and therefore doesn’t need pesticides, instead needs a lot of chemicals to make that block of wood into a soft and fluffy fiber. Natural silk, leather, and wool may biodegrade but require large amounts of animal feed, land and medicines such as antibiotics to say nothing of the ethical problems of animal husbandry to which animal rights activists object.

Clothes are to us what ice cream is to others: a treat, a reward, a consolation, a necessity.

I myself care deeply about the animals, about the world, about the children who work in factories, and the adults, too. So, let’s not buy that jacket – let’s not buy anything this season. But it’s a bit like that thing where you say to someone, “Don’t think of elephants.” What else do you think of but a great grey mammal with a long trunk? “Yes!” I think. “I won’t buy anything this year. Except, speaking of new clothes, now the weather has gotten hot, perhaps I should get some new t-shirts; the ones from last year are looking a bit sad. So just some t-shirts, but I’ll look for some organic cotton ones. Then I won’t buy anything else. Oh look, now I’m browsing for organic cotton t-shirts, there’s a sale on, and what a cute blouse! It’s such a bargain. It’s just what I’ve been looking for to go with that skirt. I don’t want to miss the chance…” and so on, and so on.

For many people, especially those involved in the fashion industry, it’s hard to just stop buying clothes altogether. After all, clothes are to us what ice cream is to others: a treat, a reward, a consolation, a necessity—a chance to express our creativity and character through our appearance, whether we are dedicated followers of current trends or have our own ideas about what is perfect for us right now. And almost everybody needs for different occasions. The businessperson in us loves a tailored suit, but we’d feel out of place in it for a relaxed supper with friends, and for a cocktail party jeans and a t-shirt aren’t going to cut it. Within these confines, some people have a signature look, having worked out early on what suits them and what they like. A capsule wardrobe, returned to year after year, is no problem to them. Others don’t, but have space for a wardrobe so large that they can keep everything they ever bought, diving in and coming out with some cool trousers bought in 1987 that still fit and look just perfect. They just need a new vest to go with them, and perhaps a belt?

But, according to the “buy nothing” credo, that’s two items too many.

Perhaps “buy nothing” is therefore little bit too difficult – a little bit too impossible. After all, even those of us who aren’t fashion crazy need a new pair of knickers from time to time. We should just buy fewer clothes, but simply saying “buy less” is a bit vague, too. After all, one person’s “less” is another person’s five-year supply. We might need some guidance.

In 1941, the UK was three years into the second world war, and, because it was not a self-sufficient nation, its supplies of clothing and food were running low. This was hastened by the requirement of uniforms and parachutes for the soldiers, requiring raw materials and assembly in factories. Most of the excess that was available was earmarked for export, as the UK government needed war funds. Rationing in the UK was not optional, but the populace was nevertheless encouraged to embrace the practice with good grace to help “their boys” (the soldiers) win the war.

Rationing touched almost every aspect of daily life, including the practice of shopping for clothing. In 1941, the UK government decided that each adult in the UK would have 60 clothing coupons for the year. Each item of clothing was worth a certain number of coupons, and you therefore had a certain amount of leeway in being able to choose upon what you might “spend” your coupons. For instance, sixty coupons in 1941 would get you a coat, a dress, two pairs of stockings, a suit, a pair of cami knickers, a bra, and one blouse. If you didn't need a coat, which cost eighteen coupons, you could get some shoes instead.

The war ended in 1945 but clothes rationing stayed in place until 1949, and each year the coupons got fewer, the quality of clothes generally went down, and prices went up. The government created the “Utility Scheme,” commissioning top designers to create clothes that used less fabric and still looked chic, to try to make the situation easier to swallow.

The wool of your would-be skirt could be warming your brother’s back as he crouches in a trench.

For the most part, it worked. Women were proud of their ability to “make do and mend” as encouraged, and if someone complimented your skirt it was much better to be able to say that you had dragged it out of the back of the wardrobe and added some clever touches to freshen it up a bit than saying you had just bought it new this morning. Brand new clothing was a bit embarrassing.

Of course, not everybody stuck to the rules. As some rationed with a smile, there also existed a robust black market for “lost” coupon books, while girls hung around American soldiers to get a pair of much coveted silk stockings in exchange, perhaps, for a kiss. Coupons could also be given away to those more in need of them or more likely sold. This was known as “a fiddle” and most people didn’t feel guilty about it, as after all the same number of coupons remained in circulation.

On the whole, however, it is believed that rules were bent but generally not broken, and that people moaned about rationing but complied, glad to do their bit. Given that such a high proportion of British men (and some women) were in the forces almost everyone knew of someone personally who was out there fighting for their country or worse, had been killed doing so. What, then, was the lack of a new summer skirt or having to put up with darned or patched clothes compared to that? The wool of your would-be skirt could be warming your brother’s back as he crouches in a trench, preparing to kill Hitler himself if necessary.

Different from wartime, it is highly unlikely that we personally know those Cambodian garment workers, fainting in their factories. They are not our literal brothers and sisters. And though our world is changing, polar icecaps are disappearing, and coral reefs dying, they are doing so thousands of miles away and not shattering to pieces right in front of our eyes like British homes bombed in the Blitz.

Can the battle to save our ecosystem ever be as important as the Battle of Britain? I really want us all to say yes. Sure, the effects of our actions seem far away, but these days we have the internet, we have global communication, HD photography, and digitally streamed documentaries. The world is small and its triumphs and disasters are right in front of us in living color.

And it’s not just fashion, I know. How, you might be asking yourself, can just buying less clothes make a difference? In 1941 clothes and food needed to be rationed. Today however, it’s travel, plastic disposables, meat consumption, the heating of our homes and use of electricity. The list goes on. If you want to you can measure your carbon footprint via carbon calculators. They tell you how much carbon you’ve used and suggest ways you can offset your carbon consumption, by paying to have someone plant trees, for example. But that strikes me as a very imperfect solution.

Couldn’t we just buy less? Create less problems in the first place that need cleaning up? There seem to be an overwhelming number of things that need addressing but my suggestion is, let’s start with fashion. It’s a good first step. Love your clothes to death, repair them, steal your sister’s blouse that she never wears anyway. Second hand things are “coupon free” so you can splurge on them with impunity.

In the second world war, our grandparents tried to save the world for future generations. Now, we must do the same. Let’s ration ourselves willingly. It doesn’t have to be world war two levels of sacrifice, but if we can channel just a little bit of that Blitz spirit we can stop splashing on fashion and start glorifying green.

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