Navigating the brackish waters of being a conscious consumer in today’s society

Words by Lottie Van Wijck


Glancing through my wardrobe, the desire to be trendy, buy local, be cost-effective and convenient, and the unquenchable thirst to go to every garage sale and Fitzroy market, all seem to call out to me. From the garments that hang from coat hangers to those folded, unworn at the bottom of my drawers, I start to see my  interaction with the mammoth forces of globalisation as they twist and constrict around me as a consumer, but also, me as a person. 

Conscious consumption can feel tricky and murky. Just when you think you’re on the right track… boom your favourite brand gets exposed for greenwashing! It seems that we are always getting baited by PR stunts, ‘green sheen’ or eco-advertising, hence being a critical consumer is more important than ever. Just because that soap says ‘natural’ on the package, or has images of eucalypt leaves, doesn’t guarantee it’s sustainable, traceable, or ethical.

Compared to oil, mining or plastic manufacturing, the clothing and garment industries seem to have a relatively clean image. However, this scot-free branding isn’t necessarily deserved. Scratch the surface and it’s frightening to see how garment production is fraught with darker realities. There are insidious truths beneath the seasonal catalogues or the sparkly Shien-hauls on our TikTok feeds. In fact, between worker abuse, collapsing Bangladeshi buildings, a lack of OH&S and environmental safeguards, buying some winter staples feels like an ethical minefield. But dismay, ignorance and passivity won’t do us any good either. Now’s not the time to throw the baby out with the bathwater; it’s time to get critical, conscious, and curious. It’s time to put our money where our mouth is and vote with our dollar.

For example, let’s trace back that seventh pair of jeans in your closet. Denim comes from cotton and cotton as a crop is the largest in the clothing industry. Not only is cotton extremely water-intensive to grow, but it also relies heavily on pesticides, insecticides, and herbicides. These leave cariogenic and toxic residues across the landscapes, dripping into water tables and through the skin of those along the production chain. The average pair of blue jeans requires 7800 litres, equivalent to 70 showers …. that’s one drip check all right! 

Now I’m not saying we should stop wearing jeans, or showering, however, it’s not hard to see how the contemporary production and consumption model just isn’t adding up. So, what now? For something as complex, multinational, and populous as the garment industry, there’s not one quick fix. With such things, it’s crucial to focus on progress rather than perfection. We have the ability and responsibility to leverage our micro daily consumer decisions, and when multiplied by millions we will have a phenomenal impact. We don’t need thousands doing slow fashion or zero waste perfectly, but millions doing it imperfectly. Let’s acknowledge the continuum of accessibility and do what we can, how and where we can. In this way, we can utilise the economic underpinnings of supply and demand, and motivate innovation to follow a public interest, be it sustainable fashion, faux meat, or green energy. 

In the past few years, I have made an effort to become a more conscious consumer, supporting brands whose products and ethos align with my values. For example, the Indigenous brand Clothing the Gaps (@Clothingthegaps), the vegan/organic Veja sneakers (@veja), or the Sundara Punjammies (@Sudaragoods), which give sex-trafficked women in Punjab the chance to escape through the autonomy and dignity of new skills. Embracing ethical brands, and buying locally and second-hand allows me to move away from callous consumption. 

Considering that historically, clothing has been key to both the oppression of social groups and their struggles for human dignity and justice, by embracing these products and the people that produce them, and demanding equity we can effect real change. Such an embrace of consumer agency acknowledges that we are both embedded within and at the same time transforming global capitalism.

The fact that women comprise 70% of the labour force, and the world’s richest 20% consume85% of global output, illustrate how consumption is stratified along economic and gendered fault lines with embedded conceptions of power, gender, and race relations. Conceptions and underpinnings of globalisation are rife with dichotomies. We see the global as masculine and the local as feminine. We see the northern/rational/male/productive stands in opposition to the southern/emotive/feminine/consumption. However, we must deconstruct the implicit masculinization of these macrostructural models and allow space for nuance, for those who are both/either or neither. 

Analysing my wardrobe has shown me how the threads in my closet are symbolic of the intricate strands which weave my choices of our modern world, especially given that small scale actors might be seen as the very fabric of globalisation. It has piqued my interest and motivation, highlighting how we must galvanise momentum, using social media, youth activism and student publications (lol) to create a new fashion ethic, a paradigm shift to centre and affirm our social and human values. This can help us move away from impulsive, trend-based purchases and towards quality timeless design, embracing longevity through principles of ecology and frugality. We have the power to let our consumption choices, whether in the wardrobe, pantry, or browser build a world that is equitable, environmental, and empowering. Now there’s something I’d like to check out and add to my cart.

Lottie Van Wijck

The author Lottie Van Wijck

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