Thursday, 4 September 2008

It Isn't Easy Being Green, Especially When We're So Vain

Good books on style are one of my genre-specific literary addictions. I have a little collection of such books I've read and reread to the point of memorization. So, when I decided to treat myself to a couple of new books on the subject last week, it seemed like a good idea to select Green is the New Black: How to change the world with style, by Tamsin Blanchard.

Flipping through this book in Indigo revealed a number of ideas new to me, and I thought I could use some educating on this aspect of shopping. I'm not a particularly green-minded dresser, though thanks to the force of other motivating factors (i.e., my modest budget, a hatred of waste, and being very picky) I suppose I'm not the worst offender in this respect. Most of my clothes either come from thrift shops or are made by me, I own fewer clothes than many of the women I know, I don't buy many trendy items or poor quality clothing that won't be wearable for long, I mend and alter things whenever possible, and I give my cast-offs to family and friends and thrift shops. But upon beginning to read this book, I soon had my eyes opened to how much I have still to learn and how much I can improve my habits.

I definitely liked the tone of this book. Blanchard and all of her contributors freely admit that they have a good deal of ground to cover themselves in terms of becoming environmentally conscious and responsible. Blanchard confesses that she owns 41 dresses and that she has to force herself to hang her laundry outside on the clothesline on cold days. Model Lily Cole wrote a thoughtful foreword in which she admits the schism between her urging readers to buy less while she makes her living encouraging them to buy more. Cole also acknowledges that she doesn't do much to save the planet, but hopes that besides being more personally responsible by shopping less and recycling more, she can make a difference in her industry by asking questions and fostering discussion and awareness.

There's also free and full acknowledgment in Green is the New Black that truly ethical clothing production is a difficult and complex issue. There's no real way to be absolutely sure an item was made by workers receiving a living wage and that its materials were produced organically, and even if a garment meets those standards it was likely transported halfway around the world. And in this book there's recognition that necessary changes can stymied for lack of better alternatives. Stores are still using plastic bags because although plastic bags take 500 years to decompose in a landfill, paper bags take more than four times as much energy to produce. However, Blanchard isn't handing anyone a free pass to not try at all. Going shopping armed with bags made of jute, hemp or unbleached cotton will enable us to refuse plastic bags at the cash register. Buying less and more thoughtfully and making our concerns known to the fashion industry will cumulatively effect big changes.

Blanchard has wisely included different tips and ideas for mending and reincarnating clothes that will cater and appeal to all skill levels. She provides instructions for how to sew on a button. As a reasonably competent sewer I had to repress a knee-jerk snobbish reaction to this one — there really are people who think they can't do basic repair work to their clothes, and they need to be walked through it and shown that they can. Then, moving along the DIY scale of difficulty, there are instructions for how to cut your t-shirt down into a halter top, how to make a wrap skirt and a kitchen apron (preferably out of an old curtain or tablecloth, of course), how to make a shift dress from several old t-shirts, and how to make your own natural dyes from onion skins and tea bags.

I was surprised and humbled by how many new ideas I came across given that I already do a lot of secondhand shopping and needlework and dip my dingy whites in tea. Blanchard even mentions that it's possible to make new underwear out of one's old t-shirts (the pattern can be found here). Those undies look pretty damn cute, but when even Blanchard admits she's not going to try out the pattern, her idea of making dusters and cleaning cloths out of discarded t-shirts seem more practical for most people. However, when I checked out the underwear making instructions, I went on to do some more internet research about uses for old t-shirts, and got inspired to create a Metafilter post on the subject. There were so many, many uses for the t-shirt fabric that I couldn't even list them all in the post. I'd definitely like to try at least some of those t-shirt recycling ideas, but I will be passing on using Blanchard's instructions for making a pom-pom ankle bracelet, not being 12. And even though I am a fiendish knitter, I doubt I'll be acquiring a pet angora rabbit in order to use its wool.

At some moments during my reading Green is the New Black really did jab me in the conscience. I did some eye rolling when I read a suggestion pertaining to “purse libraries” — it seems it's possible to rent trendy, name brand purses and handbags, use them for a month, and then send them back in exchange for the next trendy bag. “[Y]ou can indulge your desire to have a bag like Gwen Stefani's one month and Liz Hurley's the next“, enthuses Blanchard. Are people really so unwilling to practice a little self-denial for the sake of the environment as that? But I can't claim that I never buy anything I don't really need. And I was not willing to accept Lily Cole's argument that holes and frayed edges are beautiful. I dismissed the idea promptly and scornfully, thinking that it's all very well to go about unkempt and Boho when one is young and beautiful, but the older and plainer one is, the worse it looks. At 35, and with my average looks, I will mend my clothes, but only if it can be done so that the mending is invisible. I'm not willing to wear clothing past the point of their becoming ratty, even around home. And that's not any less wasteful than renting handbags because Gwen Stefani is carrying them. In fact, it's probably more so.

With all that Green is the New Black had going for it, it isn't the book it could have been. Its prose is slipshod. It employs a lot of slang and many sentences are ungrammatical and poorly punctuated. The book is not very well organized. Blanchard covers clothes, then celebrity efforts to save the world, options for travelling, hobbies, and then bags, shoes and jewelery, which seems as though they should have followed the clothes. A chapter on “occasion wear” covers how to buy jeans and sunglasses. An idea for an organic polish for one's brown leather (use the inside of a banana skin, allow the leather to dry, then polish with a cloth) appears in the DIY style chapter rather than in the chapter about shoes. The result is something of a hodgepodge. Some cutting and pasting would have made this book a more coherent and more useful read. An index would also have been a good idea in a source book of practical ideas and information.

Then there is the too-frequent and too-careless celebrity name dropping. The chapter on “Can Celebrities Save the World?” might just as well been left out of the book entirely, and its useful bits of information reassigned to the appropriate chapters. This chapter's list of A-list celebs who care about the environment is more or less a joke. Yes, Leonardo DiCaprio has made a documentary on the environment and set up a foundation, so he's definitely earned a place on such a list. Darryl Hannah and Julia Roberts both live in eco-friendly homes and have involved themselves personally in environmental causes, so yes, I can agree with their inclusion. However, Blanchard includes Maggie Gyllenhaal: “[an] anti-war protester, and all around cool gal, Maggie's quirky style has that thrown together look that might have come from thrift stores, just as easily as from Prada. She wears both with the same laid-back style.” Mischa Barton is also lauded for donating clothes to a temporary Traid fashion swap shop. Er, to be included on this list, oughtn't a celebrity have done something more for the environment than to wear clothes that look as though they MIGHT have come from thrift shops or to have made a one-time donation of cast-off clothing? A little more research might have resulted in some better candidates for the list. Blanchard also mentions that “Cameron Diaz is finishing off writing her how-to eco manual, The Green Book. The idea of Cameron Diaz writing a book gave me pause, so I did a quick internet search and discovered Diaz only wrote the foreword.

Not only are some of Blanchard's attempts to name specific celebrity role-models a stretch, I find it inherently problematic that we should be asked to admire and emulate Hollywood celebrities when many, if not most of them, with their regular air travel, extensive wardrobes and plural homes and cars, not only leave a much larger carbon footprint than the average person in Western society but do a lot to foster extravagance and conspicuous consumption by appearing in magazines such as In Style and playing movie characters with lavish lifestyles. And don't even get me started on those celebrities who launch their own product lines when they already make a multi-million dollar annual income.

I'm not so out of touch with reality in regards to the power of celebrity example nor so unfair to those A-listers who are sincere and informed about environmental issues as to suggest that Blanchard should have foregone positive mentions of celebrities in her book, but she should have set the bar for environmentally conscious behaviour higher. She does urge her readers not to try to emulate a celebrity's personal style and reminds them that even though Kylie Minogue's beachwear collection for H&M donates 10% towards WaterAid, buying a Kylie bikini will not give one a Kylie Minogue bottom, and she also criticizes celebrities for endorsing cheap lines of clothing that are made by sweated labour, but she should have taken this kind of critical deconstruction steps further.

The fact that the chapter ends with a list of tips of “How to Shine Like a Star” (meaning, how to dress like one, rather than how to further the good work by supporting the foundations some of them have set up) renders this chapter on celebrities even more absurd. The list underlines the fact that however much we may pretend to admire celebrities for their consciences, in the end we really just want to be as beautiful and well-dressed as they are. This list really should have been placed in another chapter so as not to undercut the celebrity chapter's intended message.

Green is the New Black is very much geared to the English consumer. The ethical issues discussed are generally universal to at least Western society, and the ideas and websites listed in the book are useful for people living elsewhere, but I will urge anyone who lives in other places not to order things from the U.K.-based companies listed in the book, but to find alternative suppliers nearby.

If you wish to learn about how to shop and dress more responsibly I am sure there must be more informative and better-written materials in print. But then the very fact there is so much information out there and so many options means that any book would be a starting point. Not only are we not all willing to acquire a angora rabbit for home sweater production, we're not all able to custom-build a eco-friendly home. We can't all do without a car or grow our own food. We don't all have access to the same goods and services. We have different needs. No book is going to provide anyone with a complete, foolproof formula for how to live green. Reading such books are a first step. The work of continuing to inform ourselves and adapting ourselves to a more responsible way of life will always lie before us.

1 comment:

Nathan Dannison said...

Hey I keep meaning to ask if you're reading Infinite Jest with the rest of us this summer: