‘Slowing down consumerism for clothing is extremely difficult’

For decades, Professor of Visual Culture Anneke Smelik has been studying the world of fashion. In her farewell address, she takes stock, also concerning the promises of sustainable fashion. ‘These are still just little tugs on the wheel of a supertanker. The only way out is if we radically change our thinking.’

Leafing through a press kit of Anneke Smelik's work, it’s easy to become despondent about our clothing behaviour. For years, the Professor has highlighted the negative effects of ‘fast fashion’, the ever accelerating pace of now two new collections a month intended to rush shoppers to the shops. Who can escape it? Not even Smelik herself. “I used to have one wardrobe; now I have three or four. Stop buying! That is the message we need to curb consumerism, but it’s very hard to achieve.”

With the disappearance of social anchors like religion or ethnic origin – which also include clothing choices – clothing has increasingly become an act of individual expression. “Clothing is one of the most important expressions of our identity. That makes it so difficult to curb our buying behaviour.” There are some attempts to do so; Smelik points to initiatives aimed at local production, DIY clothing, clothing swaps, and second-hand shops. “But all of that remains on the margins. Little tugs on the wheel of a supertanker. Clothing is completely intertwined with capitalism, encapsulated in a global and opaque production chain, much more so even than food.”

Fashion and technology

Another pillar of Smelik’s research is the entangling of fashion and technology. Again, there are numerous initiatives to make clothing more sustainable – think of solar cells in clothing or the use of compostable fabrics. People are trying all sorts of things, from nettles to hemp and from bacteria to fungi. But these are once again tiny steps. “It does not change the system, among other things because the industry in this sector has very little attention for innovation.” This means that production remains too small, difficult to scale up, and therefore too expensive. “Besides, they haven't yet come up with solar cells that can go in the washing machine.”

“Everyone wears clothes every day,” Smelik sighs. Everyone contributes to the problem without being really aware of it, but in our everyday, individual buying and dressing behaviour, she says, there is a way out to a truly sustainable fashion world. “I'm thinking of mindfulness, a way of becoming more mindful and caring about the objects that surround us.”

New patterns of thinking and behaviour can produce a true symbiosis between us, nature, and clothing, says Smelik. “Anyone who sees a two-euro T-shirt will start linking it to the exploitation of workers on the other side of the world or to the Aral Sea, which has run almost dry because of the huge impact of cotton cultivation on water consumption.”

Student shops vintage clothes at the Thrift Shop

Thrift Shop 2023: Swap 'till you drop

Scoring new outfits in a sustainable and cheap way? At the joint Thrift Shop of the HAN, the roc and Radboud University it's easy! You can come and shop for charity on 21 and 22 November, or exchange your own nice clothes for shopping credit.

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Sustainability, Behaviour, Art & Culture