The Fourth “R” – is Reduce, Reuse, Recycle enough? 

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. We have heard these 3 ‘R’s a thousand times, quoted them in environmental studies at school, and do our best to put them into practice in our homes. But have they become restrictive? Do we need to think beyond the third R? Is it time to add a fourth?

Our generation is the first to grow up in an age where clothing can be cheaper than a meal. You can buy a T-shirt in H&M for the same price as a Big Mac. Clothes have become a replaceable commodity; when we get bored we throw them away or, at best, give them to charity. As it stands an estimated £100-million worth – 350,000 tonnes – of used clothing goes to landfill in the UK every year.

Much of the clothing we send to charity shops ends up being sold to rag traders who sell to market stall vendors in the global south. These second-hand clothes stalls outcompete local clothing businesses and ultimately help to perpetuate cycles of poverty. Neither landfill or charity shops are sustainable solutions.But this level of consumerism hasn’t always been the norm, our parents and grandparents have had a completely different relationship with their clothes.

Clothes were expensive, saved up for, brought to last, handed down to younger siblings, shared with friends, treasured, repaired. What about that 4th ‘R’ then? What about Repair? What would it look like to buy less, buy more sustainably, wear our clothes until they are worn out rather than when the next trend took off, then repair them and wear them again.

Celebrate the stories you wear

I started repairing my clothes when I was 16 years old after visiting a jeans repair shop in Soho. At the time, I started repairing my jeans because I liked the look that it gave and I wanted to channel that aesthetic, but over the years I have developed a deeper understanding of repair and now see repairing my clothes as a form of environmental activism, as well as a way of engaging in personal narrative and storytelling. I still own and wear the jeans that I bought that day.

When I first bought them, they were still crisp and a bit tight on the waist – a thick, sturdy fabric that over the years has lost both its colour and its discomfort and has become like a second skin. I don’t remember the first rip happening, but I do remember a few of the others. Knees splitting as I knelt to do some gardening, upper thighs wearing through over time in the place where my phone always sits in my pocket, the inner crotch being worn threadbare through years of cycling, the backs of the thighs tearing as I squatted on a park bench.

‘Fashion is happening only now, and art is timeless.’

There are 19 little rips or tears in total and each one has been meticulously repaired. The repairs were pretty basic and crude at first – simply putting a patch of denim behind the hole and stitching over it on the right side of the fabric with my sewing machine, but over time I have got better and have come to see my jeans as more of a piece of art than an item of clothing.

I like Yvon Chouinard’s view that ‘Fashion is happening only now, and art is timeless.’ When we start to view our clothes as works of art instead of transient products to be consumed, we begin to see them as carriers of meaning and methods of storytelling, attaching greater value and purpose to them, and making them life-long partners instead of short-term colleagues.

It’s easier than you think

But how do you begin repairing? How about that old pair of jeans with the torn knees? A holey pair of socks in desperate need of a darn? The ripped pockets in your favourite coat that always let loose change drop through? I have found the Patagonia Worn Wear website really helpful. They provide step-by-step instructions (with pictures!) for all the most common types of repair and are super accessible so worth checking out even if you have never picked up a needle and thread before! Youtube is also a good place to start, or why not go to your granny! Let’s start having more cross-generational conversations so that we don’t lose skills that were once commonplace.

Repairing your clothes can be a fun and easy way to reduce your level of consumption and the negative impact this can have on God’s earth and people. As we tend to the rips and holes, patching up and stitching back together lets pray for that same restoration on a global scale.

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