Timo and I met over green tea last weekend for long overdue updates. "Timo, do you know where I can get an ethically made leather backpack?" The previous night I had been prowling Etsy, combing shops and diving into double-digit pages looking for The Perfect Backpack, and I had run into a dilemma as a committed vegan who loves a buttery calfskin as much as the next girl.
I have always considered sustainable fashion something to "practice." That is, rather than taking a static vow that dictates my consumption choices, the practice of sustainability is shaped by how much I know, how I weigh this knowledge against my values and commitments, and the parameters that emerge as a result of the previous two factors.
What is important to note about this formulation of "practice" is that it is always evolving as I grow my knowledge and evolve my commitments. This alchemy produces different parameters for my consumption choices at different points in time. For instance, I remember three years ago when I had just started CATiD and was discovering the system of fast fashion, the moment when it occurred to me that it no longer had integrity for me to shop at H&M. Here, what I knew collided with my commitments and resulted in a choice as a consumer, to refrain from purchasing fast fashion.
In becoming vegan this year, my relationship to my clothes has gotten more complex, specifically when it comes to leather. On Etsy I found several beautiful, hand-crafted, and locally sourced backpacks, which met some key criteria for my practice of sustainability, but I was stuck on the fact that the leather was new. Before becoming vegan, a locally sourced backpack very well might have satisfied my criteria for "sustainability," but my expanded knowledge and new commitment was now bumping up against my outstanding parameters. How should I be thinking about a new leather backpack?
I brought this dilemma to Timo. After sharing a few designers who are making vegan leather goods, we both arrived at the reality that there is nothing like real leather - the way it holds, the way it takes on character, the way it molds and shapes to you over time, the way it lasts. "I want to have this backpack for twenty years," I said, thinking of my mum's favorite leather tote that she got in Italy in 1981. "That's important," Timo said, and from there he helped me rediscover how important our practices of use are.
Materials are certainly a critical part of our clothes and of a practice of sustainability, but they are not the only input. On the production side, there are important questions about how the item was made, under what conditions, and by whom. However there are also questions on the consumption side - how will I use this garment? How will I treat it? Am I imagining this backpack as a piece that I'll like and use until it is relegated to the bag labeled "Things For Buffalo Exchange" or will I reach for it years from now?
Imagine if every time we purchased a garment, we did so intending to have it for ten years, twenty years. Imagine how thoughtfully we would choose our items, and imagine how much less we would consume. Adopting this practice of use changes how we think about "disposability" - of garments, people, and materials. All the inputs to the item become less disposable, more valued.
We would buy only what we love, and we would think carefully about the item before buying it. We would choose with utmost care and intentionality. There is an attitude of appreciation that we would bring to our wardrobes by treating every item as "The Item." If we got tired of it, we would rework it. We would have to unlock our creativity. We would have to generate satisfaction with what we have rather than fixate on what we want. Bringing these values to our consumption choices starts to change how we think and how we see the world beyond the sartorial. We would start to become more thoughtful, more intentional, more mindful of our impact on the planet and on others, and we would start to condition ourselves to be creative and resilient in our problem solving. It is in this way that shifting our relationship to our clothes is a starting point for a boarder shift in social values.