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Nathalie Atkinson: Books about fast fashion’s issues abound, but what are we really doing to change things?

Fast fashion continues to annex retail and manufacturing space even as it still makes headlines for its untenable working conditions and related tragedies. And slowly but steadily picking up the pace in its wake is a new category to soothe the soul: the how-to-be-better shopping book.

There's The Coat Route (which traces the origins of a bespoke garment's buttons, silk and cloth components), Sarah Lazarovic's superb A Bunch of Pretty Things I Did Not Buy and Elizabeth Cline's Overdressed. The recent Stitched Up, by Tansy Hoskins, is outright anti-consumerist, but one I'd recommend for its lack of sentimentality. Over all, it has gotten so the category requires a Dewey decimal number of its own (and those are just the good ones). Like shelves groaning with dashed-off celebrity red-carpet tips and the personal style how-tos inspired by dead cultural icons, these tomes, too, are becoming a cottage industry, which we flatter ourselves by buying (and perhaps even reading).

The latest is Andrew Brooks's Clothing Poverty: The Hidden World of Fast Fashion and Secondhand Clothes, published by ZedBooks. For Brooks, it was time spent doing development work in sub-Saharan Africa and the journey of a pair of jeans that triggered how two mammoth systems of labour and supply are related and have altered the African economy (the book opens at a stall in Maputo's Xipamanine Market).

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The book, though, is neither a panacea nor a shocking exposé – like a book-length Economist article, it's an illuminating study of a large but shadowy supply chain (the obsolete victory T-shirts of the losing Super Bowl team get shipped and sold over there by the bales, for example). Like its recent forbears, though, Clothing Poverty begs the same question: "Okay, so now what?" Curious, I reached Brooks at his office at King's College in London to ask about the ongoing problem of the final chapter and the expectation of a final shopping solution, even when meaty books like his identify and analyze problems with the cheap and second-hand garment chains and don't pretend to offer a shopping list.

"That's what I found when I was writing the book, actually," Brooks admits. "I was initially unhappy with the conclusion because I draw from a Marxian analysis to understand the market but, equally, that doesn't lead to a natural solution."

In fact, he goes on, "it leads to imaging that these differences between north and south, rich and poor and those who are structurally exploited is only likely to increase. I am actually a quite happy, optimistic guy. But that's my system of belief. It's a very dark place to go to." To give quick fixes is the easy way to finish an argument, but it reinforces consumption as a viable system of belief.

That's another of the problems Brooks has with so-called ethical consumption and sustainable fashion movements in general. "Providing a partial, fragmented and flawed solution," he says, "maybe directs attention away from more radical attempts to reimagine it."

So Brooks has another solution of sorts. "When I give talks or seminars, the question in the Q&A [sessions] is always, always, 'Where should I buy my clothes?' My response now is, 'I don't care about you!' " he says, acknowledging the harshness of his words. Of course, "I don't mean that in a callous way, but I don't think we can have our own sort of personal ethical audits – that if we each do the right thing, we're going to ethical-consumer heaven. I am much more interested in it from the point of view of the system as opposed to consumers."

"If you individualize it, with a tool kit to 'do the right thing,' " he adds, "most people aren't going to do that anyway. People do bad things all the time. Especially in the market. I don't think the individualism of a mechanism of change is what we should be doing, because that's still really celebrating the market as opposed to working against it." This philosophy extends to something as seemingly innocuous as the seasonal closet clean-out, which feeds into the supply chain of second-hand clothes Brooks writes about. "This practice of purging the wardrobe is something very prevalent in the media," he says, adding that Oxfam, the primary NGO associated with that sector in the U.K., even picks up on it in their marketing slogans, extolling the concept of "decluttering your life to help other people."

"We might want to have a small change of direction that helps people. But we don't want to reimagine the world," Brooks concludes. In other words, our bookshelves shelf only stokes an appetite for disruption, when we could be out there doing something other than shopping and reading.

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