Can You Dress Well and Save the Planet?

Fashion
Alec Leach’s new book, The World Is On Fire But We’re Still Buying Shoes, tries to square the circle of conscious shopping. 

An open book with a flow chart of specific fashion brands and culture brands on a black background

“A Snapshot of Fashion’s Collab Frenzy,” from The World Is On Fire But We’re Still Buying Shoes.Courtesy of Alec Leach

The title of Alec Leach’s debut book doesn’t mince words: The World Is On Fire But We’re Still Buying Shoes. The question at the core of the book is equally as direct. We know fashion is bad for the planet, so why are we still shopping? Leach, a former fashion editor turned sustainability consultant, set out to see if he could find some answers. The result is a deeply curious and of-the-moment meditation on contemporary consumerism, hype culture, and how the fashion industry’s obsession with streetwear has created one frenzied drop after another with no signs of slowing down.

But Leach, who spent nearly five years at the streetwear publication Highsnobiety, isn’t here to point fingers at anyone for liking clothes. “We all deserve nice things to wear,” he tells me from his office in Berlin. Navigating shopping and sustainability isn’t so black and white, and Leach is the first to admit there isn’t a silver bullet solution. “I didn’t want to be preaching some commandments of shopping as if I have all the answers,” he says. It’s refreshing to read someone write about fashion’s global environmental crisis in a tone that, while still urgent, has a deeper understanding of the emotional side of clothing.

Leach approaches everything from the place of someone who understands all the good that fashion offers—the power of self-expression it can give. The book oscillates between a personal anecdote about his love for Our Legacy, and then launches into a thorough breakdown of how the “Made In” label is usually a total lie. (Leach always manages to give you some sugar with your medicine, though.) He keeps coming back to the idea that the solution isn’t shopping secondhand or needing yet another “sustainable” collection but that we as consumers need to change our relationship with the act of shopping.

Leach spoke to GQ about changing his own relationship with fashion, the power of questioning each purchase, and how we should take a slower, more intentional approach to the clothes we put in our closets.

When did you start to rethink and question your own relationship with fashion and clothing?

The biggest thing for me was just going to Paris Fashion Week every season and seeing maybe 10 collections a day with my own eyes. And then, in my inbox, there are another 10 or 20 collections a day. You just get the feeling that fashion truly doesn’t ever end. That was something that really started to wear me down after a while. Every season, you see hundreds and hundreds of new collections, and I just ended up thinking, well, what’s the point in all of this, and where is this all going?

It’s really, really exhausting just trying to keep up with everything. Trying to keep up with how you’re supposed to be shopping. I just got to a point where I started questioning what I was getting out of it. After I left my old job [at Highsnobiety] was when I really questioned my habits. I realized that my life was just really clogged with stuff, and none of it really meant anything to me, even though it all seemed really important at the time. I just remember thinking that after chasing all the trends that I was supposed to be chasing, getting all the designers that I was supposed to be getting, I just had a bunch of stuff in my closet that didn’t mean anything to me. I didn’t think it suited me, and I didn’t really enjoy wearing any of it.

How did you reshape how you shopped?

It’s important to remember that you do have specific needs when it comes to your clothing. If you live in Los Angeles, you probably don’t need that down jacket. If you live in London, you definitely need a rain jacket. I think it’s crucial to just remember some of those quite tedious things about our clothes. People often find that they end up wearing the same things over and over again, and most of what’s in their wardrobe doesn’t get worn that often. That’s definitely something that I found. So, what I was really thinking about when I was writing the book was: Well, what do I need to wear? And, what do I really love wearing?

You also need to think about what things work for you and what things you want to work for you. What do you want to see when you look in the mirror? I think we often let ourselves get told what to buy and get told what we should be wearing. You can really easily get trapped in a cycle of constantly being dissatisfied with what you buy because you are just listening to what other people think you should be wearing. It’s good to take a step back and ask yourself some deeper questions about what you really want and what you really need from your clothing.

You compared the current popularity of the Nike Dunk to the “cerulean sweater” scene from The Devil Wears Prada, where Meryl Streep’s character delivers a monologue about the heavy hand that fashion executives have in driving trends.

The reason I went into the Nike Dunk anecdote was people need to understand just how influential marketing teams are over our shopping habits. If you’re constantly looking to influencers, magazines, or brands to tell you what to buy, then those tastes are always going to be decided for you by marketing teams or merchandising teams. The point I make in the book is that it always leads you into a dissatisfying cycle because you’re never really buying things that you want. You’re buying things that marketing executives want you to want. And, that is always going to be a dead end, in my opinion.

For me, one big takeaway from the book was having a much clearer understanding of how clothes are actually made—from the raw materials to the end result. I think many consumers are similarly disconnected from the manufacturing process. Why do you think that is?

It’s partly because it’s really, really complicated—and it’s really, really globalized. We have the idea that because something says “Made in USA” or “Made in China,” it means it’s made in one country. The reality is that there are likely dozens of different facilities all over the world that helped make that single garment. And because we don’t see any of that, it’s easy to think that making clothes is somehow a simple process when in fact, it isn’t. That’s just another reason we end up buying so much because we think that it’s so simple when it’s this giant machine that spits out pollution, waste, and toxic chemicals all over the world. We just don’t see it. That’s just another way to end up buying more things than we really need.

You included a story about doing online shopping to “take the edge off” when you got stuck away from your home during a surge in the pandemic that closed the borders. What made you want to include a personal moment like that in the book?

Shopping can be a really emotional experience, and it can be something that we really turn to when we feel like we need a distraction or we feel like we need to pick me up. That’s where the whole phrase “retail therapy” comes from. And again, it’s just another way that we sleepwalk into buying things that we don’t really need because we’re anxious, stressed, sad, or whatever reason. You end up turning to shopping as a way of alleviating whatever difficult feelings you have right now. For me, it was just sharing that. Yeah, I have bought stuff in the past just to feel better. It came back to me not wanting to preach these commandments of shopping as if I have all the answers.

The biggest influence on me when writing the book was I spent time doing a lot of therapy. I would do it every week for about two years. And that was the biggest inspiration and the biggest motivation for me to look at all of the different, more philosophical, and I guess, psychological issues that I talk about in the book.

What message do you hope that readers take away from this book?

It’s more about framing shopping as a journey. I think the book’s key message is that you only need to dress for yourself. You only need to be into the things you are into, and when you look at it that way, it can be this really empowering thing because you’re really, really building your own self-confidence. It always just comes back to getting something nice to wear. That’s all it is. We all deserve nice things to wear, and we all should wear nice things.

The best purchase I’ve made in the past few years has been this pair of harness boots, which I can wear with basically anything. They are as comfortable as any other pair of shoes in my wardrobe. They go with anything, and even now, a year or two after I’ve bought them, I still love wearing them. It’s really possible to make these sort of really informed purchases based on your needs. You just have to really, really think about what your needs are.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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