Is Mending The New Shopping?

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Nudie Jeans photo: Emily Andrews

Mending used to be a normal part of the life of an item of clothing. When the cost of clothing was high, not only did we have smaller wardrobes, but when there was a rip or tear, there was no question of going out and buying something new. It was repaired and brought back to life, ready to continue to its sartorial purpose.

Today however, the life cycle of a garment can be as little as a couple of weeks. As prices have fallen, our closets have grown, and so has our habit of tossing out the old and buying new. In 1930, the average American woman owned an average of nine outfits, today, on average, we buy 60 new garments a year. Since the majority of us don’t have access to limitless closet space, that over-consumption has to end up somewhere and that place is to landfills where we send 10.5 million tons of clothing yearly.

As awareness of our clothing consumption habits has grown, there is a growing group of people looking to the past for inspiration. Instead of heading to the store when the pair of jeans rips, they head to the sewing kit. The interest in mending has sparked the publication of a variety of books on the subject, from more zine-like publications like Fix Your Clothes to the sassier Mend & Make Fabulous. And it’s not just individuals. Brands like Nudie Jeans and Patagonia have built businesses where mending and repair is a part of the overall model, encouraging customers to come to them with their worn clothing first, knowing that usually all it takes to bring it back to life are a few stitches.

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Patagonia photo: Patagonia / Donnie Hedden

In the face of today’s fast fashion culture, these types of business models, as well as the individual intention to opt for repair first, and replacement second, is far from the norm.

“The mere notion of repairing something you own, rather than simply replacing it, is a radical act these days,” Adam Fetcher, Director of Global PR & Communications for Patagonia.

“So that means we have a pretty big task ahead of us to engage our large customer base around the serious environmental benefit they can create by keeping their gear in use longer,” adds Fetcher.
Pushing their Worn Wear initiative, Patagonia has turned their repair center in Reno into the largest garment repair facility in North America, completing about 40,000 repairs a year.

That’s similar to Nudie Jeans, the Swedish denim brand that produces jeans using organic cotton and belongs to the Fair Wear Foundation. The brand offers free repair at its repair locations and reports that in 2014, 30,000 pairs of jeans were repaired across 18 repair shops internationally. If you can’t make it into one of the Nudie Jeans repair shops, they will happily send you a repair kit, with a needle, thread and a few pieces of denim for patching. Offering repair services not only ensures longer use of their products, but has also provided Nudie Jeans with an additional positive business outcome.

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Nudie Jeans photo: Emily Andrews

“Our repair service is not only a tangible promotion for sustainable consumption pattern, but also provides an added value to our customers,” says Ruari Mahon, Global Head Of Public Relations & Communications for Nudie Jeans. “What we have seen is a longer lasting loyalty built with our customer base and an ongoing conversation with our local audience.”

The idea of loyalty is a central component to these types of initiatives. In the UK, in 2015 designer Tom Cridland launched a Kickstarter to fund his 30 Year Sweatshirt, part of a collection of sweatshirts and t-shirts that are not only designed to last, but also come with three decades of free mending.

It’s inspiring to see all these individual and business initiatives, but if we take a step back and look at the consumption habits of society as a whole, it’s hard not to wonder: do we really want clothes that last forever? The fashion world has for decades instructed us that style is seasonal, and what’s in now might not be in a few months, and certainly not, in a few years. This means that beyond committing to repairing products here and there, individuals and brands alike need to rethink the production and consumption process.

“Rose, our CEO, says she wants people to become owners, not consumers, and I think that’s a really important point,” says Fetcher. “It will take a big change in how individuals think about their purchases and it will take a big change in how businesses think about how they make stuff. Let’s make it really well and create tools to keep it in use longer. Currently, our entire economy is built on doing the very opposite – making crappy stuff that can’t be fixed and must be replaced.”

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Tom Cridland image

As consumers, we need to rethink our relationship to what we wear, and our consumption habits. The question shouldn’t just be how can we shop sustainably, but how can we have a sustainable relationship to what we already own. In other words, how do we make the 1930s wardrobe of nine outfits work and not be regularly acquiring new items? We may not get down to nine outfits, but the point is to rethink what we have, what we need, and what items can serve the purpose of clothing us for a longer period of time.

A large part of that answer is extending the lifecycle of our clothes. “The encouragement to repair clothing is not an idea to ‘replace’ clothing, but more a consideration to be more conscious to extend the life cycle of the garments and work away from a throwaway, disposable lifestyle,” says Nudie’s Mahon. “People will always want to buy new clothing. Clothing makes people feel good – the aim for repairing is to encourage taking care of their owned garments.”

When we shop, we buy new stuff, but when we repair, we make new stuff. In today’s maker culture, which has put a stronger and stronger value on creation, that can often have more value (or “street cred” amongst the right group), as proved by things like The Visible Mending Programme, which promotes embracing the uniqueness of products that have been mended. In a more sustainable world, style would be defined by who found the most unique way to patch up the elbow area of their sleeve and not who got the best deal on a $5 t-shirt.

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Patagonia photo: Patagonia / Donnie Hedden

“More than an interest in craftsmanship, I think we’re seeing the environmental crisis really start to take hold with our customers. It’s really dire,” says Patagonia’s Fetcher.

“Which means that the more people become aware of what’s happening in the world around them, and the impact that their consumption has on that world, they are most sensitive to brands that have a different message. While that message tends to resonate well with the younger consumer group, there’s no demographic that isn’t already being seriously affected by climate change,” says Fetcher.

When you put it like that, mending a pair of socks or a pair of jeans isn’t just the cool new thing to do, it’s the imperative thing to do. Is mending the new shopping? Not quite yet, but if we work hard enough, maybe it can be.