In the low-tech future, looking sharp, or not

manakins in window

As today’s economy winds down, will the fashion industry be one of the first to go? Photo: tauben.

With a sufficient supply of water and food secured, the next item on the list of basic material needs is clothing. The primary function of clothing is to keep us warm, and its secondary function, at least in our state of society, is to cover nakedness.

However, those functions are all but forgotten in consumer societies today, where clothing’s purpose has evolved to become primarily about expressing one’s identity or social status. In a sufficiency economy, the fashion industry would be considered a superfluous luxury, one costing more than it was worth, and accordingly it would be among the first industries to disappear.

At the same time, it must be acknowledged that human beings always have, and probably always will, want to express themselves through what they wear, so style would not disappear so much as evolve in a sufficiency economy. A new aesthetic of sufficiency would develop, and soon enough the social expectation to look fashionably “brand new” would become a quirk of history that would seem incomprehensible to the new generation.

In the short-to-medium term – say, over the next couple of decades – a sufficiency economy of clothing could arise in the developed world simply by people refusing to buy any new clothing. There are mountain ranges of discarded or unused, second-hand clothing already in existence, and these resources can easily provide for basic clothing needs for many years to come. Indeed, most adults could probably survive a decade or even a lifetime without adding to their existing wardrobes, for it is arguably the case that most people in the developed world have superfluous clothing.

In a sufficiency economy, we would salvage, swap, and reuse clothing diligently, as well as get very good a sewing and mending. In terms of keeping us warm and covering nakedness, our clothing requirements would be easily and sufficiently met.

The attitude to clothing I envisage in a sufficiency economy is nicely summed up in a passage from Thoreau: “A [person] who has at length found something to do will not need a new suit to do it in,” adding that “if my jacket and trousers, my hat and shoes, are fit to worship God in, they will do; will they not?” Thoreau’s point here (which is not a religious one) is that a full, dignified and passionate life does not depend on having ‘nice’ clothes.

Over the longer term, of course, it would not be enough simply to reuse and mend existing clothing. New clothing would need to be produced, and in a sufficiency economy the primary aims of production would be functionality and sustainability, not profit-maximization or the pernicious desire for ever-changing styles.

Fabrics like nylon and polyester would be minimized as they are made from petrochemicals and are non-biodegradable; and cotton requires extensive use of pesticides. Functional, low-impact fabrics would be used instead, such as agricultural hemp and organic wool. Although this form of sustainable clothing production would certainly end up looking quite different from today’s styles, it must be remembered that the consumption of clothing, like all consumption, is a culturally relative social practice, so as more people came to wear second-hand or sustainably designed clothing, new social standards would be quickly established.

A time will come, no doubt, when those who continue wearing “high fashion” will be the ones perceived as lacking style and taste, at which time we will realize that a new era has dawned.

This article was excerpted, with permission, from The Sufficiency Economy, a report of the Simplicity Institute.

 – Samuel Alexander, Transition Voice

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