Thursday, 3 May 2012

Swish, shwop, swap or drop, or make do and mend?

With a solid infrastructure of car boot sales, clothing agencies, charity shops, recycling points, give & take days, passing onto friends or a night out swishing, there are many solutions to getting rid of unwanted clothes today.  You'd think our society would have this thing sorted wouldn't you?


According to TRAID (Textile Recycling for Aid & International Development), over 1.4 million tonnes of clothing still end up landfill each year, much of which could be worn again.

Now this makes me bloody angry!

When you consider all of the labour, the resources, the energy and the effort that's gone into making a product, which is simply discarded as rubbish when there is so much more that can be done with it, it highlights a major problem with our society.  A society that is either unaware or one that doesn't care.

So it was with interest, that I've been following the huge campaign that has been launched recently by M&S and Oxfam, promoting Shwopping.  Unless you're a hermit in a loincloth, tucked away in the farthest corner of a deep cavern, it's been hard to miss it, especially as it's been fronted by one of the UK's most wonderful actresses, Joanna Lumley and has hit print, broadcasting and social-media alike. The message is simple. Stop chucking so much into landfill because that's bad. M&S will make it easy for you to recycle instead, passing it onto Oxfam for reuse, resale or recycling. The idea is that next time you're shopping in-store, take in something old and drop it in the Shwop Drop box before you buy something new. 

Claiming this is the start of a fashion revolution, it is unsurprising that the campaign has been met with a whole whirlwhind of controversy, with some great commentary from columnists such as the Guardian's Deborah Orr, TriplePundit's Raz Godelnik and blogger Keith Parkins, all delving a little deeper beyond the campaign gloss.  M&S is really putting itself on a pedestal for what could be deemed as profiting from simply selling emperor's clothes, when the more environmental alternative is to buy less.

We will never win the battle of waste and resource issues with constant consumerism, but despite this, I think that M&S really does have a huge role to play with its current campaign and in terms of how it can be developed further.

From an educational perspective, the retail giant is able to reach an audience that may never be turned on by less sexy council leaflets, or that feels too proud to enter a charity shop, even to drop something off, or can't be arsed to take something to a recycling centre because they're simply too busy getting the buzz from the next purchase.

If you're looking for any anecdotal evidence on this, people like that really do exist.  I've been there, and am just glad to have snapped myself out of it shortly after the turn of the century.

In my bubble of optimism I hope that the Shwop idea will be the start of something greater, not least because I hope it will reach out to an untapped opportunity for clothes recycling and that other stores will follow the lead in raising awareness in their own socio-demographic corner of the retail sector.

But I also hope that M&S will develop this further and use it as a platform to educate customers and kickstart discussion - and action -  and look at ways in which it can work closer with the community.

I have already witnessed the perfect model for this at the campaign's Shwop Lab in Spitalfields this week, where I had the chance to chat to eco designer Gary Harvey, whilst he was busy designing a dress made from donated denim that would have otherwise been landfilled.

Passionate about good design and quality materials, his position is clear, in that fast fashion has transformed the clothing industry with merchandise that is so cheap you can pick up a pair of jeans for just four quid.  He worries that as a society we have lost respect for clothing. 

He is also concerned about the social injustice of a trade, which in many areas has taken people away from their communities into enforced labour with poor conditions of pay as well as health and safety.  He's not on his own in this worry. Lucy Siegle, author of the book To die for, has conducted a tremendous amount of research in this area, which has highlighted some stark realities of the fashion industry.  I'd recommend you watch her very short video, which provides a brief insight.

My discussion with Gary Harvey highlighted another issue, in that we have lost our creative and practical skills for making and customising our own clothing. Even altering an item of clothing can be beyond our capabilities.  As a society he wants us to get up off our backsides, have a go at making something and stop making excuses.  I could only nod and blush, having rejected many a blue skirt in my local charity shops this week because the hem was far too long.  I was beginning to wish that I'd already had this conversation last week.

"It's not difficult," he told me. "If you make a mistake, you just fix it."

My visit to the Shwop Lab gave me access to an informed perspective, which despite being open to all of M&S customers, the majority won't see it. Yet, with a full agenda of debate and insights in conjunction with Oxfam and the Sustainable Centre of Fashion, it is a fundamental part of the campaign launch

If M&S really wants to influence its customers and start creating a deeper fashion revolution, every store in this country should host a version of the Shwop Lab,  raising awareness of the issues that exist in the fashion industry and illustrating what the company is doing to address them.

It may be a little leftfield, but I would also love to see an instore Oxfam pop-up shop with good quality pieces, which can be bought there and then, to introduce shoppers into the idea of reuse. 

I really hope the Shwop campaign will create a much wider debate about our relationship with clothing than has ever been tackled before.  It's certainly made me look again at my own buying habits, which have had the odd moment of weakness lately.  Inspired by Gary Harvey, I am also going to attempt to overcome my fears and laziness and try and work some magic with my sewing machine, which I will need to drag down from the loft.

Meanwhile, I've got one last plea to M&S.  Please, I beg you to stop including those damn belts with your jeans.  If I want a belt I'll buy a good quality one, and probably so will the thousands of people who also probably take them off after the first wash and never wear them again.  I know I could 'shwop' it, but I don't want it in the first place.

It may be a very niche idea, but just imagine the impact it could make.  To bastardise one of the most famous sayings, "That's one small belt for a woman, but one giant leap for mankind".


Karin said...

You can dream, Karen, and keep dreaming and sharing your dream. If enough people dream with you, maybe one day it can become a reality. In the meantime, this is probably a big step for a profit-driven clothes retailer to take. Maybe they are only doing it to get our attention, but it may start a few people thinking along the right lines.

What happened to the scheme whereby you could get a £5 M&S voucher for taking your unwanted M&S clothes to Oxfam? I wonder if that is a victim of the recession.

Dahlia ChanTang said...

I, like you Karen, want to be a dreamer. I like that Joanna Lumley is so down to Earth in the Shwop campaign -so unlike her AbFab character- and I do hope that M&S's media blitz will get the attention of everyone else.

M&S might have gotten the ire of the converted, but hopefully they will convert others to the idea that clothes do not belong in a landfill.

I often wonder if my used clothes actually get reused or recycled, but I can only hope, as I can't turn all of my unwanted clothing into patches for mending the clothes I do keep or rags for cleaning up.

Almost Mrs Average said...

Thanks Karin. Hopefully it will help towards reducing the amount of textiles in landfill. Re the Oxfam vouchers, they're still available if your take the clothes directly to the Oxfam store. :)

Hi Dahlia, lovely to hear from you too. One thing that I love about this campaign is that it is intended to be permanent so hopefully it will help embed the habit of recycling into many more people over the months and years to come. Love the idea of keeping clothing for patches. :)

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