IN THIS ISSUE of Resurgence Charty Durrant writes about The Tyranny of Trends. In her view, fashion is the antithesis of sustainability. Many of our economic and environmental problems are the consequence of our desire to show off, to impress. We are obsessed by our egos, and the desire for glamour is a world problem. As Oscar Wilde said, “Fashion is a form of ugliness, so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months”!

When I was at the Economic Forum in Davos, the then President of South Africa, Thabo Mbeki, spoke about his dreams for the new South Africa where everyone was able to own cars, computers and TV sets. From the floor I asked Mr Mbeki, “If people in South Africa, Brazil, China, India and the rest of the world attempt to own personal computers, cars, TV sets and the latest fashion in clothes, like the Europeans and Americans do, then we will need the resources of three or four planets. Mr President, we haven’t got three or four planets; we have only one. Isn’t it time for Europeans and Americans to free themselves from their obsession with fashion and consumer goods rather than Indians, Africans and Chinese aspiring to the wasteful Western lifestyle? Can we not design a lifestyle of elegant simplicity which is just, fair and sustainable?”

My question was heard in stunned silence. Mr Mbeki appeared to be taken aback for a moment. Perhaps he was not expecting anyone in that gathering to question the quest for higher living standards. After a few seconds of reflection Mr Mbeki replied, “We cannot turn the clock back to an egalitarian, pastoral past; we are in the age of technology, progress and development. We cannot allow our people not to enjoy the same comforts and conveniences which European and Americans take for granted. I want to bring high living standards to our people in South Africa and I am sure governments in India and South America want to do the same. There are plenty of resources to go around!”

Of course there was no opportunity to take the debate further, but the two contrasting worldviews were there for everybody to see.

SIMPLICITY IS PART of the ‘perennial wisdom’promoted by many great thinkers and visionaries. Although sometimes people think simplicity means a kind of ‘hair-shirt’ lifestyle, that is not my view. Simplicity is a positive quality; when things are simple they are well-made, they last indefinitely, they are made with pleasure and they give pleasure when used. It was E. F. Schumacher who said, “Any fool can make things complicated, but it requires a genius to make things simple.”

Simplicity requires less ego and more imagination, less complication and more creativity, less glamour and more gratitude, less attention to appearance and more attention to essence.

Trendy, fashionable consumer-oriented lifestyles are the cause of a threefold crisis. The first is the environmental crisis, where over-exploitation of resources causes climate change. The second is the social crisis, where resources are appropriated by the few, and large numbers of people are deprived of their essential rights: consumerism causes poverty and social injustice. The third is the spiritual crisis: the crisis of disconnection and loneliness. Consumerism and addiction to ‘fast-fashion’undermine the values of friendship, family, neighbourliness and humility.

The economic downturn and financial crisis offer us an opportunity to re-examine the culture of consumerism and the fashion industry. It is an opportunity to explore ways of living which offer elegance, contentment and creativity. The article by Charty Durrant is timely. I hope the fashion industry will pay attention.