Why we do not act sustainably (even though we want to) – clues from consumption diaries

(This is a modified version of the conference paper ”The paradox of sustainable fashion: handling change with consumption diaries”, presented at Global Fashion 2016 in Stockholm).

Sustainable fashion is a challenge. Fashion is mostly defined in terms of change and novelty, while sustainability involves re-use and continuation. This paper builds on consumption diaries by contemporary Swedish consumers in order to examine how they handle the paradox of sustainable fashion and how and if they deal with a desire to change.

Many initiatives for making fashion sustainable focus on finding ways of keeping the logic of change, while avoiding to burden the environment with unsustainable production methods. Consumers are often encouraged to consume more sustainably and consumers are believed to be able to make a difference by changing their consumption behavior (Johansson & Nilsson 2016). Fashion is a sphere that is generally considered to contain large amounts of “unnecessary” consumption; new clothes are bought for reasons of identity, social pressure or simply a craving for novelty. The textile industry is among the dirtiest and conditions for workers among the worst. Clothes are manufactured and sold for their fashion value rather than for their use value and are sometimes only worn a few times.

We argue that to change consumption patterns, it is also necessary to understand why consumers buy so many clothes, what meanings it has for them and to investigate aspects, such as emotions, gender and body ideals. We try to understand this by analyzing consumption diaries – collected as part of a project initiated by the County Museum of Sörmland in which contemporary Swedish consumers described and reflected upon their own practices regarding consumption and use of fashion.

The consumption of clothes in Sweden has increased with 50 percent over the last 15 years. Consumers do not only buy a lot of clothes, they also throw away a lot. What had happened in this short time? Why do Swedish consumers buy all these clothes? In order to get a picture of the people behind the statistics, the County Museum of Sörmland turned to the public for help and asked for participants to keep a consumption diary over a period of three months during 2014.

In the consumption diaries participants filled in information about their purchases. Apart from facts about price, material and retailer they explained why they made their purchase. They were also asked to reflect upon their own consumption behaviour.

106 people handed in their diaries to the museum. Of the 106 participants 34 signed up as individuals and the remaining part were students at the age of 14-18 who were signed up by their teachers. 43 men and 63 women of various background, age, interests and occupation participated.

To achieve more sustainable consumption practices we need to understand why and how people shop for clothes.

We have analyzed the consumption diaries in search for answers as to why consumers buy so many clothes, and what the deeper meanings of clothing and fashion are in their lives. How do these consumers handle the paradox of sustainable fashion and how do they think about questions of over consumption? Were there ways of dealing with the desire to change that did not involve purchasing new things and what were they?

All in all we argue that to achieve more sustainable consumption practices we need to understand why and how people shop for clothes.

Society vs. the individual

The technologies for sustainable production are already developed. The real challenge is how to convince consumers to make sustainable choices. Scholars of consumption have however also criticized such standpoints where the responsibilities of making sustainable choices are placed upon consumers, when really; the lack of sustainability is a problem on a societal level (Röpke 2009). Projects that encourage consumers to buy “green” is, from this perspective, not sufficient because these proposals reinforces status quo – they encourage us to continue to consume, and to think of ourselves as consumers, thus maintaining existing models. Instead, we need to reflect more deeply on what consumption means.

Into the wardrobe diaries

Several of the diary writers wrote that they were interested in sustainable consumption, but found it “tricky”. Many wrote that they wanted to consume more sustainable but still did not. They often said that they did not know why they did not consume sustainably, and could not explain the processes behind their consumption patterns. Not only dressing the body, but shopping and decisions around shopping were explained as routines and not fully conscious.

Many wrote that they wanted to consume more sustainably but still did not. Words such as “dirty” or “disgusting” were used to describe their own consumption of clothing.

Most explained that they thought sustainability was important, and that they tried to think about it, but it still did not change their consumption habits. They often had a bad conscience and wrestled with dual emotions. They could not really explain their own behavior on the basis of how they really wanted to behave. These dual emotions show that consumption is a contradictory field that can be difficult to handle. It may also suggest that many consumers see it as a problem that lies within themselves, in their choices and attitudes, just as in the models promoted by many authorities (Shove 2010). The authors’ reflections also suggest, in line with Shove’s analysis, that changing attitudes is complicated. The authors felt frustration because they could not understand why they do not consume more sustainably. The will to consume sustainably and still not doing it suggests that individual consumers find it difficult to relate critically to the fashion system. The fashion system encourages and rewards consumption, encourages and enables associated lifestyles, choices and opportunities. The fashion system in turn is a product of the global economic system based on constant growth and where consumption is the basis. To ask for systemic change becomes too abstract and alienated from everyday life; rather they put the blame on themselves in explanation models that fail to grasp the reasons behind consumption patterns.

There was also both a rejection and an embracing of abundance in the diaries. Words such as “dirty” or “disgusting” were used to describe their own consumption of clothing. “Filthy expensive” also occurred as a comment on purchases. These comments can be interpreted as reflecting double feelings, but also express an idea that the self in some sense deserves excess. Many found various reasons to reward themselves, even though it felt wrong.

Remembering with clothing

Memories were a prominent theme, where emotions such as nostalgia were anchored in garments, such as children’s outgrown garments as well as garments from specific eras such as the 1950s (Woodward 2007, Brembeck 2015). Several of the writers liked to shop second-hand pieces. Particular decades were given meaning in terms of style and nostalgia, but they were also used as motivations, or even excuses, for shopping. Collecting sometimes transgressed guilt. To complete one’s collection was not considered to be unsustainable.

Many of the writers talked about their wardrobes in terms of storing, saving or collecting clothes. They saved clothes because special memories were attached to them. They did not want to do away with them even though they thought that they should or did not use them. One writer recounted his life with the help of various garments or with the efforts of the creation of garments by himself or other members of his family. Garments thus become the bearer of memories, nostalgia and sentimentality.

Pleasurable and demanding

The relation to the self or to expectations on dressing stylishly, or to self-realization with the aid of the exterior were common, ideas that reiterate cultural ideals that the exterior says something important about who we are (Woodward 2007). Some described dressing as fun, and as opportunities’ to stand out or show off one’s individuality. Others yet, described dressing and shopping as difficult and problematic. Shopping for clothes was pleasurable and demanding at the same time.

Many wrote that they hated shopping and fashion and just wanted a wardrobe that worked, “I would love a uniform”. Others wrote about their will to replace worn out clothes with the same. They did not like change. At the same time others yet explained their shopping by saying “I had to buy it because I had been looking for such a piece, forever”, or “I totally fell in love with this sweater when I saw it”. Strong, or positive feelings in relation to garments were often mentioned. To “love” a particular piece of clothing, or a favorite item was frequent, or to “fall for” a certain garment in a store. The relationship between consumers and clothes contains many more complex aspects than a use value, as fashion theories have shown for a long time (Wilson 1985).

Why is it even important or interesting to have a certain print on the pajama? The fact that it matters reveals something fundamental about clothing practices.

Recurrent in the diaries were also statements such as “fun designs cheer up”. Or, as one wrote “I needed to cheer myself up and it was on sale”. The same person also wrote “I love hearts and always wanted to have a pajama with heart print”. Such remarks raise questions about what it means to love hearts, and why it is even important or interesting to have a certain print on the pajama? The fact that it matters reveals something fundamental about clothing practices. It is not about showing off, or show status. No one else sees, it is the self that is the viewer; consumption for oneself. Many wrote similar things about loving panties or stockings with a certain print, often cute (feminine) patterns. Such remarks express meanings of fashion for working on one’s individuality (Lipovetsky 1994).

Another theme was the requirements many wrote they felt upon themselves from employers, people around them, or perhaps themselves. Finding something that fits was often described as “a relief”, particularly regarding work clothes. Anxiety was often mentioned in relation to shopping and many wished to just find clothes that function in all situations. Some felt social pressure to look fashionable even though they did not really want to. Those who described fashion as work, as pressure, were often women, and indicates that questions of sustainability also need to be related to gender issues.

Many diary writers have dual and complex feelings about clothing that involve the body and the body’s ability to meet expectations. Some writers did not like shopping, did not find it pleasurable, neither men nor women, and just wanted a working wardrobe. To “not know what you like” was a very common utterance in combination with perceived expectations on actually knowing such things. Choice was considered difficult by many.

An additional theme was comfort. To be comfortable was a common motif behind purchase. Increased comfort and convenience are among the most significant changes that the clothing practitioners undergone during the 1900 and 2000s.

The wardrobe as project

Recurring were also descriptions of the wardrobe as a project, a place where the clothing collection was kept. As described in an article by Cwerner (2001) the research on clothing and fashion has been stuck to a vision of clothes as something that is necessarily meant to be worn, but many people have clothes in their closets that they never plan to wear. Many wrote that they save a lot of clothes, even from when they were children or from their mother and grandmother. At the same time many wrote that they buy a lot which is then left hanging in the closet. They might be attracted by certain garments, often dresses and these will then be hanging in the closet because they do not really fit into the everyday demands. To think about the wardrobe as a whole, about what was missing in the closet and would make the wardrobe “perfect” were formulations that re-occurred.


Gender is a theme that studies of fashion mostly relate to in one way or another. The gendered aspects of fashion are many. Clothes sit on the body and gender the wearer immediately. Few consumers choose goods from departments other than the gender segments the fashion industry offers. Gender is the perhaps most prominent marker of clothing, both regarding production and consumption. Clothes and fashion retail is a feminine sphere in the sense that most who work there are women and fashion have generally been interpreted as feminine skills (Pettinger 2005). While fashion has been given feminine encodings, style has often been understood as more masculine. Research has however presented convincing evidence that men of all times have been deeply involved as fashion practioners (Breward 1999, 2016, Kuchta 2002, Hedtjärn Wester 2010). Of the participating men many reported that they had a great and personal interest in clothes and fashion, a kind of connoisseur-ship.

The everyday care for children’s clothing or buying gifts for relatives was something that women were more involved in. The men shopped for themselves, because they were “interested” in fashion. These patterns are interesting to contrast to common ideas that men’s shopping is need-based, while women’s shopping builds on desire (Petersson McIntyre 2013). Studies have shown that men spend larger amounts of money on shopping, while men generally also have more money to spend. Women spend a larger amount of their salary on the family, while men spend on themselves.

In many ways the diaries did not confirm conventions regarding gendered shopping. Several of the female diary writers described shopping as an expression of a pleasurable consumer experience that was about rewarding oneself. Women’s high consumption of clothing can from such a perspective also be interpreted as a questioning of the traditional roles of women, that is, the self-sacrificing mother. Thus, from that perspective, women’s indulgence in overconsumption can be seen as reflecting changes in traditional gender patterns. There were more aspects of the diaries where traditional gender patterns were challenged. Many of the men had, as mentioned, fashion as an interest, while many women were uninterested and just wanted the closet to take care of itself.

Regarding gender patterns, women’s desire to have a functioning wardrobe can also be understood as expressing that fashion and clothes were perceived to be a problem area by them, that women feel more pressure to dress according to normative ideals. Women have in relation to consumption often been understood as irrational and that they cannot control themselves (Abelson 1989), but on the contrary, the diaries indicate that women’s relationship with clothing disclose a careful calculation of what is needed to pass as a woman.

Conclusion: Increased awareness of oneself as a consumer can lead to change

Clothing has many different meanings in our lives, it is not possible to simply say what we need and what is unnecessary. In order to change toward more sustainable practices of dressing and shopping we need to understand why people shop, what dressing means to them and what functions it fills in their lives. Different motivations were used by the writers to explain why they did or did not shop and what garments they kept, and why, in their wardrobes. These motivations ranged from sustainability, to storing memories, to gender, to body ideals, and to interests.

A central aspect of fashion is change. Several of the diary writers described how they bought clothes with the idea of changing their way of dressing, but often it did not happen and the garment was just left hanging in the wardrobe. There was often a relationship between changing one’s wardrobe and changing one’s life, whether to more sustainable consumption, or to looking better and more stylish or getting a better job or a more interesting life in general. And very often the diary writers expressed dual emotions, or even guilt regarding all these aspects of change, aspects that says something significant about how important clothes are for perceptions of the self, of feelings of being in control of one’s life or of making a good life, or perhaps of the dream of deserving the good life.

The fashion industry tells us that desire for change has to do with purchase of novelty, which for many people clashes with the concept of sustainable consumption. In the context of the diaries, change is also a prominent metaphor, however particularly so regarding change towards a more sustainable lifestyle, or a more sustainable way of life, or even a better life. This is a kind of change that involves other strategies than merely buying new garments, strategies that instead promotes a better composed wardrobe and better use and reuse of clothing.

We believe that an increased awareness of oneself as a consumer in a society based on consumption has good potential to lead to change.

The relation to the self, or a logic to dress stylishly and realize oneself with the aid of the exterior, were common. There is a large focus on the exterior in our time, a great expectation that the exterior says something about who we are. This relationship was described by some as fun. Others thought of the same as problematic and could not make sense of it. Often dressing did not turn out as hoped. Thus, clothing and fashion can be interpreted as ambivalent phenomena.

We believe that an increased awareness of oneself as a consumer in a society based on consumption has good potential to lead to change. As a consequence we might even reach closer to resolving the paradox of sustainable fashion. That is, if political leaders and the fashion industry show sensitivity to consumer demands and create new business models.

Anna Hedtjärn Wester, The County Museum of Sörmland
Magdalena Petersson Mcintyre, Associate Professor, Centre for Consumer Research

Further reading:

Brembeck, Helene 2015. “Nostalgi som affektivt redskap på vintage- och retromarknaden. Kulturella perspektiv, nr 3-4, 2015

Brembeck, Helene m.fl. 2010. Barn som medforskare av matlandskap. CFK-rapport 2010:01

Fuentes, C (2011) Green Retailing. A socio-material analysis. Lund: Lund University Press

Hedtjärn Wester, Anna 2010. Män i kostym. Prinsar konstnärer och tegelbärare vid sekelskiftet 1900. Stockholm: Nordiska museets förlag.

Petersson McIntyre, Magdalena (2013). ”Perfume packaging, seduction and gender”. Culture Unbound. Journal of Current Cultural Research, vol 5, s. 291-311.


  1. Hi!
    Thanks for this awesome article! You quoted some authors in the text but did not provide the source. Where can I find these?

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