Accidentally Sustainable?

Ethnographic approaches to clothing practices

Authored by: Sophie Woodward

Routledge Handbook of Sustainability and Fashion

Print publication date:  August  2014
Online publication date:  August  2014

Print ISBN: 9780415828598
eBook ISBN: 9780203519943
Adobe ISBN: 9781134082957


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I would like to start this chapter in a slightly unconventional manner, with a confession: I don’t usually write about, nor carry out research ‘into’, sustainable fashion. My research predominantly centres upon clothing as a form of material culture that is embedded within, and emerges from, everyday life, relationships and wider consumption patterns. The approach I adopt is that of an in-depth, and long-term, ethnographic approach to fashion, wherein clothing is contextualised within people’s lives and relationships more broadly. It would not be categorised by others as research into sustainability. However, I was asked in 2012 to write an article for The Ecologist about jeans and sustainable consumption, as I had recently carried out an ethnography into why ordinary people wear jeans in north London (along with Daniel Miller; see Miller and Woodward, 2012, for more details). As I reflected on the data through the lens of the article I was writing, I started to realise that this ethnographic approach to understanding clothing practices in a holistic and contextualised manner actually offered important insights into sustainable consumption practices. Specifically in relationship to jeans, people were found to have highly personalised and long-term relationships with particular pairs, therefore not always falling in synch with the rhythms of rapidly changing fashions. Similarly, people tended not to wash their jeans as often as other garments, through perceptions of how jeans look and feel best on the wearer. When clothing is investigated as a set of ordinary consumption practices, through the long-term approach of ethnography, it is possible to challenge assumptions of consumers as fickle or that fashion is always ‘fast’.

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