July 16, 2021 • Sustainability

Investment Shopping is Good For the Environment

Liz Taylor wearing a floral caftan
Elizabeth Taylor and her signature caftan

Two concerns have been dominating my thinking in the past few weeks. The first is shopping. I, and many of the people I’ve come into even casual conversation with, are doing entirely too much of it. This perhaps is not a surprise. We’ve come out of a year of being inside, likely in our sweats, at least from the waist down, and now we’re out in the world, figuring out who we are again and relishing being seen. That we’d all be shopping like maniacs was predicted. Still, there’s a frenzy about my own shopping that has crossed over from enjoyment to something approaching manic. How many caftans does one person really need…is a question I continually ask myself as I purchase yet another caftan.

The second concern is the environment. Not that this is a new concern. However, the heat waves that have been paralyzing Western Canada and the United States, combined with the bizarrely sub-tropical like weather we’ve been having in New York, combined with this photo of a sea star that was baked to death, and has continued to haunt me, has given a viscerality to the coming climate change. Along with a real sense that it is approaching so much faster than even the most expert scientists have predicted.

I’m not interested in doom and gloom and panic. There is little purchase in despair. I am, however, interested in figuring out ways individuals — particularly individuals such as myself who have a very small carbon imprint — can be useful. I don’t know the answer to this, though the recent issue of HEATED (a great newsletter) did attempt to explain.

Where do these concerns overlap? It turns out if my brain was a Venn diagram, the two circles connect at a place known as investment pieces.

Earlier this week a flurry of stories reported on a new study which says renting clothes is actually worse for the environment than buying them and giving them away. Clothing rental companies like Rent the Runway have been popular in the last decade, and one of the reasons was the belief they were sustainable. One dress for many, instead of many dresses for many. (They also allow women to wear extravagant outfits they may not have otherwise shelled out for simply because of their long-term impracticality). The findings of the study are slightly more complicated than the headlines suggest; the real issue is all the shipping required to get the clothes there and back again, as well as the dry cleaning.

The mentality around renting clothes, not to mention the quick delivery and returns, also speak to the larger issues of fast fashion, as well as the surge of people using Amazon this past year to have items delivered (not just bad for the environment, bad for all the low wage employees who had to put their own health and their family’s at risk to get you all the things you felt you needed while locked down). We want what we want when we want it, and we now live in a world that can satisfy our needs all day, every day. How do we learn to take the longer view?

I’ve been a vintage shopper since high school (shout out to Kensington Market’s Courage My Love, for both my eighth-grade prom AND confirmation dress). As I’ve gotten older, I’ve moved from thrifting to true vintage, and so the mentality around investing in a one-of-a-kind piece that I will wear and care for is not a new concept. Indeed, some of the pieces I forked out for twenty years ago — shout out to Alfred Sung’s late nineties Club Monaco winter coats — are now probably considered vintage. However, as I moved into the second half of my forties, I’ve noticed that when I consider an investment piece purchase I’ve stopped thinking of it as something I could wear for the next five years, and started considering whether it will still look good on me in twenty years. Thirty years even. Would I wear this as an eighty-year-old, I have wondered once or twice recently. The real advantage of being a longtime caftan advocate is that the answer is almost always yes…but this has also worked for tailored shirts and trousers.

Imagining yourself at eighty, or even at sixty, is no small feat for women. There are very few stylish role models for women after the age of 40. And yes, I know we can all click on the Daily Mail (which I am doing less and less these days, hallelujah) and see stories about how JLo looks amazing at 50, but I’m not talking about wealthy celebrities who are devoting enormous sums of money to appearing younger. I mean actual women over a certain age, who look a certain age, living and dressing well. It can be hard to shop for the life you hope to be living in twenty-five years when there is little evidence of what that life might look like.

To be sure, Instagram has changed this. Social media makes me feel bad approximately ninety percent of the time, but these days that other ten percent is filled up with women I can’t get enough of. Top of this list is Tulsi Shop, run by a woman who moved to the South of Italy and makes caftans. I kid you not. (She makes other beautiful things, too). Another is the French influencer Sophie Fontanel, who was an early adopter of going grey (she wrote an entire book about it, alas only available in French). Both these women have made it easier for me to see the future me (I hope future me is in a caftan somewhere near an ocean, and not in a caftan underwater in my apartment). But even more importantly, they are shifting how I approach consuming in strange and small ways.

Shopping for the long term, for investment items that will work now and three decades from now, connects me to that future version of myself and forces me to think of how and where that woman in that caftan is planning to live. And how if she wants to live well, or at least not in a state of emergency, what are the things that need to happen beyond less shopping, less dependency on places like Amazon, less addiction to the thrill of immediate satisfaction. All of these things are connected. Thinking long term about myself and the things that bring me joy, is also in its own way, learning to consider everything else in similar terms.