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How Is The Cost Of Living Crisis Impacting Our Relationship With Fashion?

Words: Charlie Elizabeth Culverhouse

At a time when the majority of UK households are being forced to forgo heating in order to eat, or forgo eating in favour of heating, fashion rightfully is not at the forefront of the mind. More pressing issues such as access to food, fuel and work, as well as the money to pay for energy bills are obviously taking the spotlight in these times of hardship. Yet, as the crisis wavers on, a question has been bubbling deep in the barrels of the public consciousness; how will the increasing cost of living impact our relationship with fashion?

We are so used to filling the void in our lives by impulse buying random items we are told will fix all of our woes and give us a reason to soldier on until that midnight purchase arrives and with it some relief from the slog. But now, even McDonalds’ 99p hamburgers have gone up in price, so how will that capitalist ideal of material happiness hold up as inflation continues to balloon?

Fast Fashion and Landfill

The fall-out from fast fashion

Photo: Tamborasi

We may not yet have all the answers, but nearly a year into the crisis, clear changes to shopping habits have become apparent and unignorable. Big retailers are feeling the crunch and looking to them to reveal the reality of the crisis shows a worrying decline in business. It is perhaps unsurprising that frivolous, ‘luxury’ purchases do tend to be the first for the chop when times get hard, but this trend has even impacted the ultra-cheap ultra-fast fashion business model that in previous years has been thriving.

In just one example, Boohoo reported a 94% year-on-year fall in its pre-tax profits in the year ending March 2022. Despite the seemingly endless sales, student discounts and end of season reductions, the online-only retailer has seen a huge drop as customers stop and think before clicking the ‘Pay Now’ button. Of course people thought about their purchases prior to the crisis, but now using the excuse of ‘but it is so cheap,’ no longer quells the anxiety when consuming clothing in the huge quantities that people tend to do on these cheaper-than-believable-or-can-be-ethical clothing sites.

"Being more considered with what they are buying means purchasing less, saving money and reducing their impact on the fragile planet..."

Instead, buyers may fill their baskets with the low prices items, see the total totting up and go back through to remove the pieces they do not desperately need, or they may close the tab completely and make do with the clothing they already have. This change in habit, the conscious decision to buy less, messes up the ultra-fast fashion model which relies on that impulse buy - what do you do when that impulse has been dulled and replaced with rationalised decision making? You report a 94% year-on-year fall in profits.

In the same vein, TrueFit data has shown that shoppers are being far more considered with their fashion purchases and behaving with, what they call, higher intent - something the superfluous Shein hauls on TikTok demonstrate has not been the case before.

Repairing clothes

Repairing clothes is on the rise


While it all sounds incredibly negative, this drop in shopping may actually have benefits. With the climate crisis worsening and fast fashion being a primary contributor to our environmental decline, could the cost of living crisis inadvertently give some relief to the issues caused by our shopping habits? It is possible.

The latest EY Future Consumer Index found that two thirds of those who responded to their survey no longer feel the need to keep up with trends, with the company concluding that, as well as rethinking their shopping habits, people globe-wide have been fundamentally rethinking their relationship with consumerism and its values.

"The constant growth cannot go on and this massive bust shows that the system does not work..."

Because purchasing clothes has started to feel like a luxury rather than a way to pass the time or fulfil the burning desire for a new outfit, we are treating clothes as luxuries. When we purchase, we want something beautiful, something high quality or that we really love as opposed to just like. Once we have purchased clothes, we are looking after them better, really thinking about what we want from our clothes and getting rid of them in more environmentally sound, or financially beneficial, ways.

The EY research backs this up, reporting that 69% of people are now attempting to repair rather than replace their belongings, bad news for business but great news for the environment. Repairing or altering an item of clothing could not only save money in the long run but, according to Traid’s Measuring The Impact Of Repair report, could extend the lifespan of a garment by an extra nine months and reduce its environmental impact by up to 30%.

The endless clothing landfill

Photo: The Guardian

Also saving clothes from landfill, Barclaycard reports that 31% of people are now using second hand clothing websites to buy or sell items, with some 37% of shoppers now buying from charity shops. While this trend may be spurred on by the lower cost of second hand items, as 60% of those surveyed for eBay’s Shop for Change report revealed that cost is the factor they care about most when shopping, it has the inadvertent, and much needed, effect of reducing fashion’s impact on the environment.

So, how is the cost of living crisis impacting our relationship with fashion? Hopefully it is making us more aware of what we are buying as well as how much we are buying. Shoppers are realising that the capitalist ideology that has encouraged them to buy whatever they want, because that is supposedly the easiest route to happiness, is incorrect. When they do purchase, they are thinking about their true need for that item or at least their love that leads to the need of that item. Being more considered with what they are buying means purchasing less, saving money and reducing their impact on the fragile planet.

"While it is an unintentional benefit of an otherwise completely unbeneficial crisis, you have got to look for silver linings somewhere."

We are starting to see a resurgence of the age where clothes are coveted items, taking a step away from buying 100 things that each last for 10 days and buying 10 things that last beyond 100 days. This time it could bring around that long-awaited and much needed chance to look at the economics of fashion in its entirety and fix the broken system. The constant growth cannot go on and this massive bust shows that the system does not work.

This crisis could prompt more engagement with the emerging circular economy of repair and upcycling, clothing rentals may see a boom as people look for more cost-sustainable ways of consuming fashion, and the buying and selling through second hand clothing sites could massively reduce the amount of textile waste ending up in landfill. While it is an unintentional benefit of an otherwise completely unbeneficial crisis, you have got to look for silver linings somewhere.


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