Joanie Willett and Clare Saunders


In recent years, environmental campaigning groups like Extinction Rebellion and Greenpeace, have brought the climate emergency and plastic pollution crisis to the forefront of political debate. This recognition has brought to light the urgent need for pro-environmental behaviour change.  Behaviours that used to be normal – like flying and buying single-use plastic packaging– are now being shunned as people think through ways to travel and consume that are more environmentally sensitive. Our consumptive practices are deeply challenged by these campaigns.


Whilst reducing flights and cutting plastic pollution are very important, the current imaginary overlooks many other every-day practices that also require critical interrogation. One of these is fashion, which according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation  produces more greenhouse gases than aviation and shipping combined.


In January 2019 Parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee released Fixing Fashion, which documented multiple problems associated with the fashion industry and considered potential policy proposals to solve them. None of the suggestions were adopted by Theresa May’s Government).  But the report and the inquiry on which it was based did start to bring the importance of engaging with clothing to popular attention.  Indeed, it highlights how clothing has come to be seen as a disposable item, kept for a few wears or a season before it is discarded for newer items.  Even the well-developed British market for donating and purchasing second-hand clothing cannot mitigate the problems associated with the garment industry. Many charity shop items are unsold and then either discarded or sent to lesser developed countries – destroying local clothing industries.  


For us, this public conversation about garments started to happen just as we came to the final stages of our AHRC funded project ‘Developing a Sensibility for Sustainable Clothing’ (S4S).  In it, we sought to understand what people think about clothing, what happens when people learn more about the processes involved in making (and maintaining) clothing, and what that can teach us about creating more sustainable behaviours.


Over the course of 9 months we ran a series of workshops in Cornwall and the West Midlands to take participants through the clothing cycle.  In Cornwall, we began with a series called ‘from fluff to fibre’, which introduced our group to the lengthy and time-consuming process of making fibre from the raw material, dyeing and weaving yarn.  Next we explored making our own fabrics through knitting and crochet, before moving on to learn how to make and mend our own clothes.  Finally, we were introduced to the idea of modifying clothing – literally buying (second hand) garments for the fabric which we made into other garments.


What did we learn from this process? The immediate thing we learned was how complex it is to make a garment!  Contemporary disposability is a far cry from previous generations for whom this time-consuming task meant that garments were precious, and expensive.  As a group, we began to reflect on the items in our own wardrobes, the amount that we buy, and the number of pieces that have sat unworn for years.  The new skills that we learned then enabled us to work on how we could start to wear these garments once more.  For those of us that were bored of our clothes, we learned how we could modify them to make them more interesting, fresh, and exciting (did you know that you can make a cardigan from a jumper? We didn’t either, but you can).


There was no silver bullet which radically altered people’s behaviour, but the workshops did lead most participants to make profound changes in how they approached and purchased clothing.  Often this meant a reduction in the amount of items purchased, either because participants started to think more deeply about the quality of the things they bought, or because they were more stringent about whether they needed that new piece of clothes.


We purposefully created a non-judgemental space by allowing participants to explore the issues and reach their own conclusions. They made up their own minds and actions based on what they heard and saw. This is much more conducive to behaviour change than telling people they are doing something wrong, or trying to shame or scare people into amending their choices.


An additional benefit, was that the making groups became a mutually supportive and enjoyable way for people to share skills, acquire new skills, and enjoy companionship.  Further, being a part of a like-minded group helped to develop new pro-environmental norms, and to provide a supportive network to help to uphold these new practices.  This is really important because it is very difficult to maintain a more reflective attitude towards clothing if, for example, an individual is part of a social group which places value on a less reflective relationship with the material objects that we use.


What do we think can be done now?  It seems to us that spaces which enable people to come together to make, mend and modify clothing are extremely important for generating conversations about clothing, and for sharing knowledges.  Clearly there is a role for policy here, but this might even be a something where our pressured high street retailers might be able to take a lead.  Imagine if your favourite high-street retailer hosted space and regular, supported workshops where people can modify and mend garments that they had purchased previously?


Joanie Willett is a Senior Lecturer in Politics with the University of Exeter and is based in the Environment & Sustainability Institute at the Penryn Campus. As Co-investigator for the S4S project Joanie used the New Materialisms to explore the emotions and feelings that clothing can evoke and how our relationships with clothes can affect what we choose to buy.  Joanie has a long-standing interest in questions around materiality, identity, and the circular economy, and is fascinated by how practices which we were starting to forget, have now become quite cool. Twitter: @JoanieWillett


Clare Saunders is Professor in Politics based in the Environment & Sustainability Institute on the University of Exeter’s Penryn Campus in Cornwall. She is Principal Investigator for the S4S project. Clare has extensive research expertise in environmental politics and activism, and has published numerous journal articles and books on this topic.  She has been interested for a long time in how one might encourage people to care for (and about) their clothes, and in the social and environmental implications of complex global supply chains within the clothing industry. Twitter: @S4sSensibility


Image credit: CC by Wikipedia Commons.