Lessons learnt from the Fashion Revolution MOOC

Lesson 1: If you are interested in this course, you probably already know all the content.

If you want to learn the nuts and bolts of industry and materials, this will not happen. You will have to go into technical reports and academic literature to do so. Befriend a librarian at your closest polytechnic library and prepare stimulating snacks, because nobody makes entertaining videos out of those books! This MOOC is an inverse classroom of “learn through your own research” and the few materials provided are really low brow. Every piece of journalism about fast fashion industry will provide as much.

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Lesson 2: This is not a course, it’s an activist training.

The course enlisted gazillions of people and directed their actions to press fast fashion makers. Smart! At the center of that training is that individual behaviour change without awareness raising is less valuable than the other way around. But you cannot advocate against what you yourself are doing, that makes 0 sense! Imagine how seriously you would take somebody lecturing you on factory farming while munching on industrial chicken nuggets…

In general these people are worry much more about labor conditions than about the environmental impact (you could have guessed it by now, as the call to arms is #whomademyclothes and not #whatstheecologicalfootprintofmyclothes), even to the point of questioning boycotting out of fear that this may cause job loss and factory closure. And calling that a long term strategy! If we are to shift the whole industry towards better practices, most of those jobs will have to change so radically that we might as well consider them whole new jobs (hence the old ones will have to disappear). In an actual long term perspective, “keep the jobs” leads us towards stagnation. Think of the coal industry as an example: for much empathy you might feel for the individual workers whose already hard lives would be shook up by job losses, a sober assessment of the industry will show that disappearance of those jobs would be better in long term for both workers and consumers. The same goes for children in Bangladesh sewing sequins to fast fashion garments.

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My Pledge = Keep calm and carry on!

I’ve already outlined my wardrobe strategy as a ladder of steps – (1) use up what you have, (2) replace with pre-loved and second-hand, (3) buy new only categories you don’t find second-hand (in my case, underwear, hosiery and footwear), then do your research and buy well made and ethical garments – and my awareness efforts include this blog and regular community clothes’ swaps. You can read more about our communist fashion events here, here and here.

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How are your wardrobes doing? Do you feel like in need of an polytechnic library or are you informed enough? And on what side of the “boycott fast fashion vs. engage and try to change it” debate are you?

Garment makers and fixers, I salute you

I could’ve done my “creative and empathetic storytelling through our clothes” in the most normative way: “Oh, look at the exploited garment workers of China-India-Bangladesh-Cambodia”. And that would have been very legitimate. I know enough about their average working conditions as to orient my consumption towards patterns that could either improve their working conditions or put them out of work (in its current fast fashion modality). But these are not the garment workers I think about often. There have been so many media exposés that only cognitive dissonance stands between this point of information saturation and a real fashion revolution. I’ve made my boycotting decisions and moved on.

The garment workers I do think about often are the in-between ones. I think about the EU periphery seamstresses in Lithuania and Romania stitching the “made in EU” labels on garments that have been externalized inside the unified market. I think about those that fall between the abysmal wage/hours/rights ratios of overseas fast fashion workers and the top-of-the-game haute couture artisans (and starry-eyed ecofashion employees (1, 2)). I think about the anonymous seamstresses that the up-and-coming designers and “makers” externalize the sewing to. I think about the grandmas who make everyday miracles at mend-and-repair chain stores (especially the part or running around the city and looking for the most similar zipper or buttons to replace). I think about the fact that your fingers and eyes still suffer, even if you are gold embroidering a one-of-a-kind Valentino gown.

The 1960s cellulose disposable clothing didn’t really revolutionize the industry towards relatively simple and fully mechanized. We have an even more complex garment industry where robots haven’t been able to replace people at most tasks (just think about the fact that sequins and beads is usually an indicator of child labor!).

People doing basic maintenance that the rest of us never learned to do and would chose not to anyways… Going away from the basic “but-I-don’t-have-a-sewing-machine” argument, raise your hand if you think of mending when finding a hole in your sock! Raise the other hand if you know how to darn a sock! It’s not a whole forest of raised hands, unless you ask that to a bunch of quite older ladies. Full disclosure here: my grandma darns my socks, but only the woolen (artisanal) and expensive (Bonne Maison) ones. The cheap little ones just disintegrate on their own…

What I’m saying is:
1. Mass sewing/fixing of garments is not a fun activity neither for your neck, eyes, or mind. (In general there are very few things that work well and maintain maker satisfaction and product quality at mass scale. Marxist alienation, anyone?)
2. Even if we manage to radically improve the worst labor conditions in the garment industry (and we should, obviously!), the new improved low won’t be pleasant either.

So instead of the anonymous empathy exercise, I’m covering the closest social circles first. There is a long line of women that have directly and indirectly influenced my relationships with garments. Of course, this is only the tip of the iceberg, only the visible part, but these very-close-to-home circles remind me of how personalized garment production and repair can be. Even in industrial societies and big cities. And how much dexterity, imagination and pure magic goes into garments. Each garment. At every stage of production and repair.

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First, some context. Scarcity (or uniformity, or sheer ugliness) of ready-to-wear garments incentivizes creativity and problem solving. Up until the mid-1990s in Latvia obtaining clothing for the whole family and taking care of it was a demanding duty squarely placed on the shoulders of women. While not as essential as obtaining food and cooking it, a varied set of skills was required to keep everybody warm and presentable enough. So women made their own curtains, crocheted baby booties, bartered for a piece of nice fabric, and knew that fashion as form of self expression was hard work. And if your arms grew from an entirely wrong place for sewing, you could establish a reciprocal relationship with a friend, colleague, or neighbor who could do that for you in exchange for another favor or money. In Soviet Union favors mattered more than money. For a glimpse at Soviet aesthetics, see this Pinterest board.

Specialization is bound to happen in such contexts (hi, Adam Smith!), so everybody knew back then that, if you needed to go beyond the basic darning and fixing or got your hands on an especially nice fabric, the neighbor lady of flat Nº17 or Katya from Accountancy department was the ones to turn to.

Hence due to circumstances beyond my control I have always been surrounded by women making and fixing garments. This is my tribute to them and their superpowers (and a sketch of the networks of favors and barters that characterized the informal Soviet garment market):

Jūlija, my grand-grandmother. Garment superpower: making something out of nothing and dressing her six children with that. For example, I still have a crochet needle she made out of an aluminum spoon. It does the job perfectly and is much more ergonomic than the conventional crochet needles.

Milda, my grandmother. Garment superpower: diplomacy and making useful connections. While crafting is not among her talents (pedagogy and cooking are), she knew better than anybody how to make mutually beneficial arrangements with skilled people and obtain the necessary materials. One of her colleagues, Biruta, was known for her sewing skills, so most of my mother’s and her sister’s early wardrobes were made by her. The little blue blouse remains as evidence. Another of her colleagues, Māra, is a lace-making superwoman. She taught me how to crochet, and, when I started wearing the little blue blouse, we assumed it was her needlework at the front. One of my favorite garment-related episodes is her doubting if she had made those embroideries but then turning it inside out and instantly knowing that “no, it’s not mine, I do it differently”.

Anda, my godmother. Garment superpower: access to fabrics. For many years Anda worked at a Supply base. That meant first-hand access to goods that did not trickle down to the shops and made her a crucial point in my family’s fashion options. All the skills in the world won’t help you if don’t have the fabrics!

Erna, my grandpa’s sister. Superpower: surpassing her origins in style. With no formal training in either art or fashion, Erna was a beautiful and stylish women. She sew in her free time for herself and her friends, mostly out of smuggled Burda magazines, that could be purchased in the black market.

Ginta, my mother. Superpower: rational calculus (and being the most stylish mom, obviously!). Ginta started sewing early, learning the basics at school (gendered Home Economics ftw!) and at home. My grandma had changed the seamstress and now was frequenting Drosma (superpower: living a life of Western aesthetics and entrepreneurship behind the Iron Curtain). The most repeated anecdote about Drosma back then is how she ran a clandestine jeans (very scarce merchandise in USSR!) manufacture from her basement, so you get the idea. Drosma was the one who shared sewing tips and tricks with Ginta and sold Ginta her old overlock. Milda managed to obtain a modern sewing machine.

My mom sew not only for herself and her family (one of her pleasures when we go through late 1980s and early 1990s photos is pointing out all the garments made by her), but also for friends and friends of friends who paid for the pieces and became returning customers. Having a trusted seamstress wasn’t considered a luxury back then, it was the only escape from the uniform (and scarce!) industrially produced garments. Ginta made blouses, skirts, dresses, even wedding dresses. My barbies were the best dressed as time by time they received a little copy of whatever Ginta was sewing! I happily slept through the noise of the sewing machine and dreamed of becoming a fashion designer.

But times change and priorities do, too. Ginta developed a successful career unrelated to garments, her sewing machine got packed away and somewhere in early 2000s most of our clothing became anonymous fast fashion. We still maintain relationship with one magic worker – Elita (superpower: saving garments!). Elita does made-to-order sewing from scratch for her loyal customers and then some side gigs for “new designers” unable to make their own designs, but I wear out her patience by bringing my worn-out-but-beloved garments and hoping that she will be able to save the disintegrating fast fashion piece just one more time. An usually she can. Forget Hermione Granger, this is the real magic!

This was Ginta’s submission for a Burda sewing contest ~1991. Both of us are fully clad in garments made by her.

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The most recent additions to this data base of talent are my friend Liisa who is responsible for both accompanying me during my first steps at the sewing machine and is the author of almost half of my knickers. Another one is the Argentinian lady at my closest fix-and-mend chain shop. She is ready to tell you her whole life, appreciates extravagance, and her smallest granddaughter now wears Marina’s ear headband. I don’t know her name yet but I have a feeling that it won’t take long.

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What are the garment stories in your family? Do you know any people involved in the formal or the informal garment markets? What do they say about their work and the industry as such?

How expensive is an ethical wardrobe? 2017 first half money talk

My priciest fashion investments of last 6 months: Veja Arcade sneakers, Muroexe Materia boots and 3 pairs of Bonne Maison knee-socks.

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Ethical fashion is expensive. Boom! OK, let’s calibrate that a little bit: newly bought ethical fashion tends to be more expensive than the ridiculously underpriced fast fashion + there are distortions at both ends of the spectrum. On the low side, depending on geography, local artisans might be able to make things for you even cheaper, as you won’t pay the overheads of running a big international conglomerate. On the high end, while couture fashion is mostly Europe-centered and artisan-made stuff (you know that if you follow Emma Watson’s phenomenal success at bringing awareness to ethical fashion via red carpet) that occupies a very slight fraction of the market, the following steps down the fashion ladder (high- and very-high-end prêt-à-porter) tend to care more about brand names and “trends” (whatever that is) than supply chains and labor conditions.

Ethical fashion at the moment is a marginal market where brand-names matter less, yet certainly has its own stars and starlets. And prices. In a world where a beautiful LBD easily costs over 200$ and a discounted winter coat goes over 300$, a suggestion that everybody should pledge to ethical fashion seems very elitist. Ethical fashion activists can run their moth dry about the distorted garment market, investment pieces, buying better and cost-per-wear (me on that, Hannah Theisen from Life + Style + Justice on that), but that doesn’t change the value of a euro.

Apart from just enumerating my wardrobe strategies, I’ve decided to disclose numbers. I have spreadsheets, you know. We are 6 full months into 2017, so I have these data and all the 2016 spending on clothing myself to compare and analyze. Ta-dah! All prices are in euros, the inflation hasn’t been serious, so the values are comparable:

First of all: A lot of money thrown at garments! 2017 is being expensive. I console myself with the clear usefulness of the items and the 2015 data. I don’t have a precise list of what exactly I bought in 2015, but I have the totals: 337.03€ in January-June and 268.13€ in July-December. Apparently, I’ve been in a similar spending situation before…

I won’t do an exhaustive run through all the purchases but here are my thoughts on the overall pattern and several caveats on how my wardrobe is very privileged:

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Observation 1: I comply with my ideal consumption pattern. Going with my ladder of preference, I’m actively using up and obtaining pre-loved items for free. This implies that the purchases – when made – are well researched, ethical (there are still some material and supply chain issues there, I know!) and rather pricey.

Observation 2: Things wear out. I did a great job in spacing my purchases and spending money on apparel every second month in 2016, but that just hasn’t been possible in 2017 (nor in 2015). My explanation is the life cycles of garments: I shred my sneakers mercilessly, tights break and underwear wears out. I’ll be able to confirm this hypothesis by the end of 2018.

Observation 3: I don’t buy second-hand, it usually comes for free. I have two major sources: my mom and swaps. That’s why I’ve made only two second-hand purchases in last 18 months!

Observation 4: I need better underwear (bras! have you ever seen an ethical sturdy underwire bra instead of all those whimsical bralettes?) and, especially, hosiery sources. I’m fine with their “made in” tags, but materials and supply chains are rather dubious. Will look into it!

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Caveat 1: My repair costs are externalized. There should be around 100€ per year in repair costs that so far my mom has been covering. Our seamstress is in Riga, we usually go together, the whole money relationship is a bit weird when I’m in Riga. I’m thinking about this… + there is the occasional gift from her!

Caveat 2: My hand-me-downs are exceptional! They come from my mom and swaps, and they come in heaps! I have been very picky lately, overcoming the scarcity mindset and planning what to look for… I buy all the auxiliaries – underwear, hosiery, footwear, weather gear – but the last serious one seems to have been the ¡No pasarán! tshirt from Red Federica Montseny crowdfunding… in 2015.

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What will July-December bring? Hopefully, less expenses in this segment of my spending. But also SiiL knickers and – finally! – a pair of vegan Birkenstocks if the gods of stocks/sizes will stand by me (after 3 years of intensive wear, the Crocs sandals broke down beyond repair). I’ll tell you in December.

#30wears and 18 months of counting

Only 5 items have passed a 75 wear threshold in last 18 months: the gray cardigan (80 wears), Hummel jacket (79) and all three pairs of Veja Taua model I’ve owned (92, 154 & 101).

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I sneered at #30wears when I first read about Livia Firth’s initiative. Hah, where’s the merit in that? 30 miserable wears! I do more in few months, let alone throughout the lifetime of a garment… and then I went through my spreadsheets and summed all the wears. You win, Livia!

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#30wears is (yeah, another one!) ethical fashion initiative, in this case reminding that the simplest, cheapest and greenest way to make our wardrobes more ethical is to wear what we already own for as many times as we can. Basic, right? The number is rather arbitrary, but makes an intuitive sense of being a significant number of wears… and less scary than the magic 50 or 100.

It might be the imprint of a (post)Soviet scarcity mentality when hoarding made all the sense in the world, but I find absurd having something just for one wear. In my head that’s some kind of perverse consumption failure. And, no, I haven’t owned an evening gown or a wedding dress. No, I don’t do much red carpet, so repeating outfits is OK. Also, nobody notices what I’m wearing.

Intrigued by a new quantitative threshold (mine is 10 wears per season), the spreadsheet lover in me brought together the numbers for last 18 months. I’ve been counting them for this long, so that’s the available time horizon.

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I went through my numbers, and I am not impressed. They range from 0 (May swap finds waiting October) to 154 (Veja Taua Bahia), and have clear patterns. So these are the lessons learned if you want to wear your items more (and get better cost-per-wear, too!):

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It’s a numbers game. The least items you have, the more likely you are to wear each item. Obvious, yes, but I had an already heavily reduced wardrobe during this period, and less than a third of the garments I’ve worn have reached the magic 30.
Step 1: Reduce the total number of items in your wardrobe!

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This one follows the previous: the longer you have something, the more opportunities it has to be worn. There is a trick there, though. First, some exceptional items – special occasion garments, family vintage, sentimental stuff – work against this rule. If you are keeping something for its sentimental value, admit it and treat it differently. But only after really inquiring with your heart and all the family ghosts. The other mental hurdle is the well known “I’ll wear it someday”. Na-ah, if you are not wearing it now or waiting eagerly for seasons to change so that you could wear it, let it go.
Step 2: Keep only those items that you wear! If even a #30wears challenge can’t make you wear it, find another home for that party dress you wore once.

The same denim jacket from 2003 till 2017. 45 wears in last 18 months, but a scary unknown number since our paths crossed in 2003.

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Very few tears and unravellings are unmendable. Time is your ally in upping the number of wears, and so is mending as it will keep your favorites with you. If you have a “fix” pile that just silently dies in some bag for months, do yourself a favor and get rid of it!
Step 3: Find a seamstress you trust and can afford (or do it yourself if you have those kind of fingers!), and get your stuff fixed.

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Seasonality! Contingent on your location, but throughout-the-year versatility really pushes up the number of wears. Think jeans. Think t-shirts with and without layers. In my case, think necklaces.
Step 4: Depending on your climate, think about ways how you could carry the same garment throughout (most of) the year!

The same Dana Zēberga necklace in February, March, May and June.

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Function, function, function! If you have only one thing for one use and you need it often, you have a winner! I have one winter hat – a hand-me-down from C – and that’s easy, I have six winter scarves and struggle with indecision. And they are all heirlooms, too. Harsh weather garments – bikinis and winter coats – can fall into this category if you manage stick to having only one. ONE IS ALL YOU NEED HERE! (Underwear and hosiery are clearly exceptions to this and the next rule.)
Step 5: Question the function of each garment! Try to bring it down to one per function.

And this is only a half of the scarf-situation.

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Duplicates are bullshit. I’ve done several attempts at this in my life and it has always been a massive fail. Even when two not identical garments have exactly the same function, they are not helping anybody, unless your lifestyle requires it (think uniforms!). There is clearly one item too many between my two pairs of informal short shorts (going at 30 and 13 wears so far).
Step 6: Rethink your duplicates! Chances are that you prefer one to other, so keep your favorite.

My problem here is that the patterned ones are much more comfy but even I’m not ready for this kind of pattern clash. Ugh!

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Verdict: Wear counting is a fun thing to do! It opens your eyes to the very short life of our garments and to how rarely we actually wear stuff. A thought experiment: a garment you machine wash after every use (keep in mind that very few garments need this!) and wear seasonally could get around 25 wears per year (52/2) while a garment worn year-round on every third day = 365/3.
However, counting and the slows progress of numbers will drive you crazy if you start with a very ample wardrobe. My suggestion is a Marie Kondo purge of everything not fitting (the body or the lifestyle) or sparking joy, followed by counting. Spreadsheets don’t lie but they need room to do their magic!

Come, fund us! + #whatiwore23

We – me and Liisa – have reached the moment where our ambition of what can be done around topics of fast fashion and greener wardrobes bumps into financial obstacles. The logical next step after three successful swaps (1, 2, 3) seemed to shift the focus towards the reasons for all this. No worries, the swaps will continue! They are the hands-on education that other ways of doing wardrobes and fashion are possible. But let’s have a hot July night with an ice-cold vermouth and even more chilling documentary about the evils of fast fashion… our selected feature for that is The True Cost.

And this is where the money comes in! To make it all legal and hold an official “community screening” we need to pay 130$ to the distributor, and that’s a bit too much than the usual “I’ll make tortilla, you make hummus” cost sharing we have been doing so far.

Also, we have been talking how something small but material would be nice for our friends and un-customers to have after the events and to promote fast fashion résistance around the town (or world, wink-wink!). Business cards are dead, long live stickers! Yet we are finicky customers and instead of buying bunch of tape and drawing them (ha!), we want them nice, round and professionally printed. The smallest order is a roll of 490 stickers and that’s 180€.

So we have made a crowdfunding page to ask our friends if they can chip in. Those living in Barcelona or nearby will be showered with love, vermouth and stickers during the movie night, while those present only in spirit shall receive a love letter in their mail, filled with stickers and thank-you notes. It doesn’t matter if you have benefited from previous Un Armario Verde clothes’ exchanges or just love the idea of a greener wardrobe, every euro helps! So does sharing, following, following some more, reading, commenting and greening your wardrobes. Baby steps towards the slow fashion revolution!

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Oh, I also wore some garments this week. First in Barcelona, then on a plane where the temperature kept shifting from very hot to freezing and then in so-far-very-pleasant-and-dry Riga.

Finding a spot to do the photos in my childhood home (and using the window sill as a makeshift tripod) was a whole additional creative exercise.

May Swap recap

Last Saturday was the highlight of my spring. Our third Clothes’ Swap! It seems preposterous that those events bring me so much joy (more than travel) and meaning (more than the thesis), but that’s how it is. I was doing snack-shopping, cooking, going through check-lists not to forget garbage bags, water filter and lemon slices, packing things and carrying them back and forth… And it felt amazing! It’s a quintuple win of happy organizers, happy un-customers, happy Ateneu, increased supply to Banc Expropriat’s Tienda Gratis and decreased supply to textile charities and landfill. So this will clearly continue, and we’ll see you in September to swap again. Meanwhile, here you have suggestions of how to organize one on your own!

Some of our happy un-customers with their finds.

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On top of my previous observations about our Clothes’ Swaps, here are few additional ones:

1. On abundance. This is not new, but strikes me harder each time. We are drowning in textiles! They just keep coming, and I can’t see the end of this. Not much more to add here… These were the leftovers:

2. On the state of stuff. I did already write about this one after January’s Swap, but it just keeps surprising me. There are stains, holes, piling, shaplesness, wacky seams… Yet the Swaps might be the best option for these damaged garments. My heart breaks every time I see a pile of clothing spread on the sidewalk, usually after somebody has either broken a charity container or explored a bag of garments that somebody else had left by the garbage cans (probably feeling ambivalent about sending them right to the landfill and too ignorant or too lazy to take it to the charity containers). It is such magic (a very black one!) how things turn from “perfectly OK” to “garbage” just by changing location. It was “yours” at home, then “somebody could still wear it” when you deposited it in the orange container, then an actual somebody dived in that container, went through the content, left the unwanted pieces on the sidewalk, and now it’s “yuck, don’t touch the garbage”.

I keep fantasizing about a radical “reclaim the garments” initiative that would pick up all that “garbage” from streets and turn it into “recovered/upcycled textiles”. (For a moment ignoring the fact that, unfortunately, most of those extra thin cotton/elastane mix garments can be downcycled to rags only.) This would require some serious infrastructure for picking them up, sorting, washing and mending (or cutting) but it feels amazing in my imagination. And then accompanying it by a sewing workshop to mend and construct new garments. Oh, well, maybe someday…

3. On doubts. My feeling after three swaps is that the decisions to let go are harder than decisions to incorporate. Makes sense: “mine is mine” feels good and acquisition gives instant gratification. During the swap we actually encourage people to adopt things and bring them back next time if those garments are not working for them (and that has happened).

I have recently developed two strategies to override those mental hang-ups, one to fight the outgoing blues and one to resist the urge to adopt garments. For the bye-bye garments I push myself to admit that if I have doubts about an item that I own, I most probably need to get rid of it. Knowing my strong status-quo bias, it makes sense to assume that the little annoying “no, no, don’t give away the precious” voice in my head is just a mind trick. So I do my best to override that voice by turning it on its head: I have 0 doubts about the real heroes of my wardrobe, hence doubts mean that it’s not a top-of-the-pops garment.

It is hard, though, sometimes. Especially if it’s an old comrade in arms. I have always found it funny that KonMari strategy entails taking each thing in hands. Rather counterproductive… Touch activates the emotional attachment! I got choked when writing the post on my departures for this swap and those garments weren’t even anywhere close. But it all went well on Saturday! I saw 3 of the 6 items I brought finding new wardrobes, and others continue their journeys at Banc Expropriat.

For the incomings, I trust the classic: a shopping list! I have a latent wish list in my wardrobe spreadsheet and I revise that before each swap (and I revise it several times, as you can see at the end of the departures post). My list for this time was as follows:

Sandals
Raincoat
Dark leggings
A simple bodycon dress
Summer jersey Empire dress
A winter layer (a short sweater or caridgan)

Yes, those are very specific but I know the exact feeling and function I am looking for. So here is what I got: a ramie/cotton cardigan from Julie and a jersey mini skirt (exactly the same H&M model I used to have in black between 2011 and 2013). They are not what I was looking for – the hemline of the cardigan is too long (and shortening this design would be stupid) and the skirt is only half of a full bodycon – but they respond to the function I was looking for. So you will see those two a lot starting from October.

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As it is such long time from now till September, we might be able to squeeze another activity in-between. A movie night! How about a chilling documentary on a hot July night? That’s what we are thinking about… We’ll keep you posted!

Get to know your fibers (and stop cutting the tags)

Without any previous planning last week became the fiber week in my little queendom. I finished Sandy Black’s Eco-chic: The Fashion Paradox which is a dated and sometimes confusing book (and for unknown reasons contains too much love for M&S chain), yet it has a little chart on fiber types which sparked my interest. So I spent half-day on Saturday (while watching code run in R) exploring the internets to organize the existing types of textile fibers in my head. And then I found that also Lucy Siegle at Guardian has been thinking about fibers…

I am far from being confident enough about it to make a complete overview, but I suggest these three blog posts at Eco Fashion Sewing to start with: (1) natural fibers, (2) regenerated fibers, and (3) synthetic fibres (those are the basic categories that author uses, Wikipedia does it differently, so go figure). I will share, however, the most fun pop quiz items I learnt and then a brief “get to know your fibers” exercise I did with my spring capsule.

The Wiki classification of fibers

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My current favorite random facts about fibers are the following (it’s internet, though, so I just cross my fingers that this is truth):
Dog hair was the main fiber spun on the Northern American continent before the Spaniards introduced sheep.
– People have been making smooth, silky textiles (for kimonos, for example) from banana fibers for centuries.
– Long time ago somebody diving in Mediterranean saw the long silky filaments secreted by a gland in the foot of pen shells and decided to make textiles out of that. Apparently, with amazing result and great success.

And an extra bonus points for wry humor to Wikipedia for including asbestos cloth as “fire-resistant, light weight, carcinogenic” natural fiber.

My first way of expressing rage to fast fashion while I was still buying it (yeah, cognitive dissonance for the win!) was to cut off all the tags, hence symbolically making the garment anonymous. And size-less which helped with my mild case of body dysmorphia. I know that many other people cut the tags, be it for reasons similar to mine or comfort due to the fact that sometimes tags seem to be strategically made and placed to cause the most discomfort to the wearer. And Black suggests that many producers remove their tags when passing the garments to outlets. So many items that you can obtain pre-loved (or deadstocked) won’t have the tag information.

Or you just wear your things for so long that they lose all the info.

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As I develop more curiosity about the production (and recycling) side of the garments, tags gain importance. I already talked about care information that tags contain, and this week I’m on to fibers. So I gathered my spring capsule and took a look at fibres I’m wearing this season. That was a disheartening (so much synthetics and weird mixes!) but also surprising process. This is what I found:

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Pure synthetics:

No surprises and petroleum-based, but at least these things *could* be fully (and ad infinitum) recycled into similar garments when their life is over.

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Obvious synthetic mixes:

OK, so my stretchy leggings have elastane added to make them stretchy, but still mostly a nicer-feeling material than all-out plastic. 0 surprises. Unrecyclable.

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Unexpected synthetic mixes:

These ones do not have enough elastane to really stretch, so it’s still a mystery to me. My guess is that this additional micro-stretch might help people to get in the garments, yet it is not the case for all of this things. The 1% dress and 3% skirt certainly have no give to them. So I have no idea… Also, unrecyclable.

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A fiber mix I now understand:

So they wanted to make a linen-feeling dress that would crumple less. Viscose to rescue! Both materials are biodegradable on their own, though I’m not sure about the mix… Should be, in principle.

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Random mixes I don’t yet understand:

I really don’t know what’s going on here and why would somebody do this. I’ll let you know if that day comes. Also, “keep away from fire” warnings do not help to inspire confidence in the material

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Pure regenerated/semi-synthetic:

I’m still trying to grasp the eco potential of the regenerated fibers. They seem a bit like Batman Two-Face: the primary source is plant based but then it goes through a whole lot of processing. However, that processing could be less damaging than the conventional cotton industry, so… I’m still reading up on them. What I know for sure is that the touch is very nice, and certainly wins in summer.

The funny part of this exercise came with the little H&M shorts, part of their Conscious Denim line (it’s a hand-me-down, don’t worry!). The *conscious* trick is that it is not denim, at least not in the common “a firm durable twilled usually cotton fabric” way. Hi there, lyocell!

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Pure naturals:

Despite the supposed ubiquity of cotton, there was only one 100% conventional cotton item in my lot. And manufacturers have thought it appropriate to point it out that trimmings are not necessarily cotton. Just to be on the safe side.

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Pure organic naturals:

Yes, from all the heap – and I think that from all the outerwear in general (only my knickers is an exception) – this is the only organic garment. My commitment to adopting pre-loved garments basically precludes buying, and I’m not in social circles where people give away organic cotton items, not yet.

However, the organic credentials of this tshirt on top of the feminist message are due to the creators of the crowdfunding who did the extra research when sourcing their basic tshirts for silkscreening. Thank you so much for that, Red Federica Montseny!

We shall swap again

Get out your agendas and mark in fluorescent May 27! Here in Gràcia we shall spend that Saturday swapping clothing, having drinks, snacks and overall good time. Check in as “going” in the Facebook event, so we can count with your presence, and here you can read all about how we swap and why.

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To give you an idea of what kind of things will leave my wardrobe (and invite you to prune yours before that Saturday), here is a preliminary list of garments that I’ll say bye-bye to during this swap:

1. My red denim jacket. This is one of the oldest garments in my wardrobe, but now, after 15 years or so, it’s time to let it go. There’s nothing wrong with it, apart from some wear and serious fade, but it just does not feel right anymore. I see it as the perfect base for becoming an embroidered statement jacket, so much better than anything hanging on the racks of fast fashion places this spring. Wait, let me think about it…

2. Zara blazer. A hand-me-down from my mom and made in Spain, hence from the days when Amancio hadn’t shipped abroad all their production. It’s summery and nicely shaped (it had shoulder pads originally, but I paid people to get those out), but throughout the last few years I’ve had to *make* myself wear it. When I wear it, I like it… but only when there are no other options around. I guess the problem is that I like the idea of blazers but not the actual garments. Also, I have wide enough shoulders that need little emphasizing, they are prominent enough, thank you very much.

3. Natura linen dress. A hand-me-down from Julie that I had the lining taken out (somebody in fast fashion industry though that it was a good idea to put synthetic lining to a linen dress, the seamstress I brought it to was gobsmacked). It’s the anti-bodycon and I’ve worn it a lot in the eight months I’ve had it for, but feels rather worn-out lately. Plus it’s a bit too short for riding a bicycle and shows sweat.

4. Black blouse. A very versatile garment (on the formal side, though) I’ve worn a little over many years I’ve had it (more than 10), however it somehow never sat very well. My latest adjustment is to wear it with high-waist skirts, but it still lags behind other items in my capsule. So I hope somebody will adopt it and give this little blouse all the love it deserves!

5. Wrap skirt. Another very old item. My mom wore it for years and I’ve had it for even more afterwards. Nowadays it feels too long. So long that it has been bitten by bicycle breaks several times, so not fit for my lifestyle.

6. & 7. My two metallic headbands. Both are gifts, one from Marina and other from C’s mom, and I like them aesthetically. Yet they hurt my head more than I can endure. Well, it’s a big head I’ve got. Hope they find new owners with better-sized heads.

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I have to admit that listing them like this make me sentimental and creates an urge to hold onto them. Yet I know better. If they’ve been marked as “outgoing” in my spreadsheets (all of them form part of my spring capsule), that means that there is some aspect that is not working. And I shall let them go, let them go.

Instead of focusing on the outgoing, I have my little wishlist for the swap. While swapping is like thrift shopping in the sense that you never know what you will end up with, it helps to know which broad categories you are really interested in (try these wardrobe vision-building strategies for that!). So I will keep my eyes peeled for: (a) sandals (unlikely, but hey! a girl can hope), (b) breezy and nice-to-touch shirt with prolonged hemline (similar to this or this), (c) nice wool sweater, Seven Sisters style.

See you on May 27 and happy wardrobe editing until then!

Breathe deeply, it’s clean enough

I keep observing – and dealing with – several mental hang-ups that hamper access to a more sustainable living. The great taboo of cleanliness is at work! It’s very natural as notions of purity and cleanliness lie at the very core of cultures, separating good and bad, beneficial and pernicious. Even more – and this coming from a sociologist – there is a clear evolutionary need to distinguish rotten and smelly as bad (i.e. inedible; cheese came into being long time after) for our survival.

However, industrial societies have brought the hygiene revolution a tad too far. With the advances of chemical industry, household appliances and the new abundance of garments, it’s all too easy to become overzealous with cleanliness.

Apart from health and overall environmental implications (look those up anyway, please!), I want to bring your attention to two areas where twisted notions of hygiene affect the sustainability of our wardrobes: care of garments and ways to obtain them.

So, first of all, when it comes to basic care issues, reconsider your laundry habits:

When I’m taking off a garment after wear, I check it for smell and stains. If the item can do with just airing, back to the wardrobe it goes. I know this is a hard one to overcome, especially if you come from a “you’ve worn it, put it in the laundry basket” household. For inspiration (and courage!) I suggest you read up care advice from top denim brands. Despite the fact that those are intensely worn and constantly crotch rubbing garments, Nudie Jeans’ advice is “six or more months of daily wear before washing“. Boom!

If you have items that need washing machine to get back into shape after one wear, I suggest you get rid of them. One wear per wash is a very bad deal for anything except underwear and socks.

Work around the care labels. Read them but see if you can hack them. For example, “dry cleaning only” is usually a hoax. The only thing they’ll do is break your buttons, take your money and, depending on method used, might flush down the drain all kinds of nasties meanwhile. If the item is especially delicate (or you need it for tomorrow), wash it by hand, either in the sink or bring it with you in the shower.

Wash with cold water! Unless you have exceptionally dirty clothes (hardcore food stains, mechanical oils, etc.), cold water will do. Upgrade to 30ºC if very dirty and save 40ºC for special occasions. In our household 60ºC is for our grimy tea towels and 90ºC only for very persistent stain treatment (which happens maybe once a year and involves bleach, yuck!).

Working with these low temperatures I’ve realized that separating colors is a laundry superstition. In my washing machine everybody goes in together and only very occasionally the whites come out baby blue or light pink. Learn to recognize possible dye leakers and separate them. Letting go of this separation makes sure you always have full loads.

Upgrade your detergent to a better alternative (inquire with knowledgeable people, like these) and consider getting rid of the fabric softener, it’s offensively smelling black magic anyways.

Line dry if possible. Depends on your dwelling and on your household composition, of course. We are very lucky to be able to line dry on the roof of our apartment building. I feel that only extra laundry needs, like having small children, justify investing in a dryer. I’m biased,  because that’s not a typical household appliance neither in Latvia nor in Spain. The only ones I’ve ever used have been in laundromats when I lived in Brussels. And I don’t miss them.

Rethink if ironing is an activity you want to invest in. I iron only my handkerchiefs. And only in winter, the handkerchief season.

OK, so you’ve let go of many things your mom taught you about laundry. Now we can tackle an even trickier one: the great secondhand prejudice. Making your own stuff last for years and obtaining clothing second hand can be linked with the purity taboo, specially if you find yourself among people that sneer at pre-worn garments.

My sensation is that fear of poverty tends to be at the bottom of the second-hand aversion, much more prevalent among people that have experienced scarcity (hello, Eastern Europe of 1990s!). Seems that the key for embracing second hand is not having fear of being perceived as poor and abandoning the idea of new as intrinsically better.

(A toxicity side note about newness: when dealing with fast fashion, you are much better off with pre-used and pre-washed items that have lost some of possible toxicity of pesticides and dyes that garment might have had when fresh off the shelf, provided that the re-seller hasn’t sprayed it with any new crap. Community swapping is a way to avoid this hazard.)

If the ones mocking your pre-loved outfits are other people, f*ck them. Try, at least. Ignoring what (significant) others say is very hard, I know. However, in this case you have your Values by your side. The next time your grandma asks if you are really so poor as to wear other people’s stuff, let that comment fly over your head knowing that goddesses of sustainability are by your side. I’m sure you are already ignoring other similarly well intentioned but off mark advice. So let go of this one as well.

If the cockroaches are in your own head (we all have those, relax), it might help to think about all the other things in life you share with people. This exercise might be triggering for some, but most (more or less) neurotypicals should have no problem admitting that we share tableware with strangers at restaurants we frequent. We go to hotels and sleep in bed linen many other people have slept before. We share soap and hand towels (and other personal care items depending on household) with partners and family. The logic we routinely apply is that things become as new after a good wash. If you have a hygiene-based aversion to second hand garments, I suggest two things:

First, calm down. As with all subtractions, this is a friendly invitation to review and question certain aspects of your everyday life. However, sometimes it makes sense to keep things the same after that critical examination. And that’s fine. You’ll just know that your wardrobe detox strategy shall be one of replacing with sustainably made new things. It takes google time and money, but it surely doable. As I’ve explained before, for me it makes more sense to buy my underwear, hosiery and footwear new. But here you have an example of how underwear does not have to be bought new.

Second, consider the gradient formed by different strategies of obtaining pre-worn garments. The true thrift shop with certain levels of mess, tackiness and that particular smell is the most hardcore way of incorporating second hand items in your wardrobe. Depending on your personality and mood, it can be an exciting treasure hunt or an exhausting nightmare, especially if you are looking for something very specific. A very basic notion for for thrifting is looking for broad categories (“a full skirt”, “a dress for my cousin’s wedding”) instead of a something exactly as you have imagined. And always keeping your eyes open for unexpected gems. I did a lot of thrifting in my adolescence, but that was stopped first by my incursion into fast fashion browsing habit and then by change in acquisition dynamics via hand-me-downs and swaps. But that’s still the kind of fashion browsing I could get behind.

A more pleasant second hand experience can be consignment stores and curated vintage places, but you’ll pay for the selection work done for you. Usually these places are much smaller and tailored according to curator’s taste. So you might find a shop that’s a match made in heaven for your style, but don’t hold your breath for that!

If your aversion comes from the fact that second hand garments have spent unknown time in containers, trucks and warehouses, and you have no idea where they are coming from… clothes’ swaps could be your thing! Depending on how they are done, those could be events with things from relative strangers, but you’ll be sure that the garment came directly from their homes. So no mystery locations and smells to get rid of. I don’t even wash the things I adopt at swaps, I just wear them and they become mine. Without infrastructure, transportation or money. Pure magic!

If strangers make you squeamish, organize an intimate swap with people you know. Make a party out of that or just casually ask if your friends have stuff they are not wearing (or volunteer to assist them with a wardrobe revision).

The lowest stress option on the pre-worn gradient is shopping your own wardrobe and wearing your stuff. Many times. As long as it makes sense for you. This is why I do the strictly controlled spreadsheet thing: it shows me what’s working for my current lifestyle and what has to go. Those “not for me, not now” pieces then return to the circular fashion economy via my friends and community, and keep wearing and re-wearing my wardrobe heroes.

The #30wears hashtag is going around promoting this exact idea. Thirty seems a rather low threshold for me. Just during the 3.5 months of last winter my trench got 50 wears… I wish there was some mechanism in our apparel counting wears. I’m sure that some of my garments have seen several hundred wears.

Persuasion or #fuckfastfashion, but gently

Liisa threw a post idea at me the other day: “How can we – gently and lovingly – convince our friends and family that fast fashion is an aberration? How can we respond to some of the most common arguments people use to shield themselves from thinking about the conditions their garments are made in?”

The idea is an excellent one, especially as adoption of more sustainable fashion practices (very similarly than becoming a vegan) leads you to exclude certain groups of products from your consciousness. Your wardrobe is build as if the big cheap retailers would not exist, and you get shocked every time you hear that somebody still goes there. This trick our minds play with us leads to less capacity for empathy for those who still continue with *the habit*.

Empathy is key in messaging, because the substance of all our “fuck fast fashion” speeches is no other than dividing garments in “good” and “bad”, and telling people that by purchasing “bad” garments they are directly responsible for oppressing people and destroying ecosystems. Nobody wants to be part of that club, so denial, defensiveness and anger are only natural reactions.

So both with veganism and sustainable fashion, unless people are really trying to provoke me (I wish I’d received a euro every time I’ve heard a variation of “what about the pain that carrots feel?”), I adopt the “every step counts” approach and never tire of celebrating the smallest changes that people are willing to make.

However, there are some common illusions that people use to shield themselves from the inconvenient truth of fast fashion. Be gentle and firm when addressing these, imagine you are unraveling a knit: you have to be careful during the process, but this stuff’s gotta go.

A: Fast fashion as employer. Sounds like something along the lines of “but these people are happy when the bad garment industry jobs come, they would be even more miserable without them”.

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The fallacy is assuming that if it could be worse, it cannot be better. Also, unfortunately the fact that people making fast fashion garments in most cases are far away from the consumers reduces our empathy. In many cases labor, social justice and feminist activists would fight for similar issues at home but do not see the links with struggles thousands of kilometers away. There are exceptions, of course, but the geographical divide is clear. In Spain – the birthplace of the Amancio’s empire – Zara started by relying on Galician seamstresses, but then the price squeeze came, and now time by time we get TV segments lamenting death of the industry as all production jobs have been moved overseas. However, rarely it gets connected with “be ready to pay more if you want the industry back”.
My argument in favor of smaller but local garment industries has to do with less carbon footprint, but it is easy to imagine a better garment industry both in Cambodia and back in Galicia. But not at the actual rock bottom price point. And that leads us to the second fast fashion illusion…

B: Fast fashion as a cheap option. “But I’m poor/looking for the best deal, the price is very important to me, that’s why I go to fast fashion places”.

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Two issues are at the root of this reasoning. First, we have learned that cheap garments are possible, and the assumption that follows is that they *should* be cheap. That is not true. For most of clothing’s history garments were scarce and very expensive. Everybody had very few items, and those were mended, upcycled and worn to threads. The abundance we live in is very recent and has clearly diminished the value of each garment. And the same logic has worked the other way around: pressure for cheap garments have propelled use of worse materials and worse stitching. So, on one hand, people want cheap stuff. On the other, they know that the cheap stuff won’t last, and are ready to buy another one very soon.
Second issue are hidden (i.e. unpaid) costs. As with other industries that rely heavily on a global production chain, many negative environmental and social impacts of garment industry go uncounted and unpunished. Due to strategic placement of operations, they are likely to pollute in places with lax environmental regulation and bully labor union activists in places where governments prefer foreign investment to organized labor force. This is a major trick for making the final garment cheaper: you just move your production to more savage capitalism and avoid Western regulations.

C: Fast fashion as as easy and ubiquitous. “I’m busy and need a pair of flats now!”.

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Garments are not drinking water (or potatoes, if you are Eastern European). There are very few real clothing emergencies, i.e. you have only one bra and the fastening broke. Or it’s -30ºC and you have no garment that would cover your legs. I doubt that any of you, my friends, have been in a real emergency of that kind.
Our fake emergencies tend to be more along the lines of “I cannot wear this dress to this wedding, I already wore it last year to common friends’ wedding” or “this purse is several tones off from the shoe color”. Meh. Nobody cares, believe me. Not even if you’re the bride.
These fake emergencies stem either from the ubiquity of fashion and meaning we assign to garments (“I need new stuff for this event”) or bad past decisions (“these shoes are killing me, let’s pop in H&M for a 5€ pair of whatever”). The alternative is pruning, planning and knowing your stuff intimately. And letting go of many preconceived reasons for shopping.

D: Fast fashion as the amplest choice. “I like to see the biggest possible number of things in one place, and then chose from them”.

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It’s like if you’d enter a bar, choose the least unattractive person there, and decide they are your crush now. While all you actually wanted was a glass of water.
In a nutshell, fast fashion moguls decide for you and then you browse their badly made stuff that won’t last for even one season knowing it’s either this or nothing until the next “update” (that happen at least weekly in most of those places). And even if the garment would last, you don’t even like it enough to wear for one full season and make it your signature item.
I admit that hunting down something specific in the ethical or second-hand market is hard. But internet exists. Seamstresses exist. Learning to sew is a possibility. And letting go of twisted fantasies about the perfect dress too.

E: Fast fashion as a pastime. “But it’s fun to go an browse, and then be able to buy at least some of it (or make a *haul* of it)!”.

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Get yourself another hobby! If it has to be fashion-related, do the more exciting (and funny too!) thrift-store browsing. Or try to swap with your friends. If you want it fashion-related and being even more selective (and without spending any money), I suggest turning to Pinterest. Curate your own collections, capsules, editorials… Make collages and share them on the internets! (Like this person.) The gratification should be at least on par with spending hours indoors listening to chunda-chunda music and going through racks of poorly made polyester garments.

F: Fast fashion as “fast”. “Fast fashion is like fast food: After the sugar rush it just leaves a bad taste in your mouth”.

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This is a bonus one, coming from this post that undoubtedly had best intentions. It’s only partly correct, though. It’s spot on about instant gratification and lack of long term benefits. However, despite the fact that industrial food production has a lot of issues going on in oh! so many fronts, fast fashion is worse because it has a bigger impact while being made and that stuff lingers…
While with food we have to worry (and rightly so!) about recycling the wrappers, it’s harder with garments. You have the bags and boxes, and the thing itself. Yet most cities don’t run a textile waste program. And charities that accept donations are overwhelmed by the quantity of badly made and worn out fast fashion garments nobody wants. So they ship containers of unwanted textiles to (mostly) African countries where they dynamite the traditional textile markets. And even if your 3€ novelty t-shirt end up becoming a cleaning rug in Ghana, there is still uncompostable waste at the end of all the moving and shipping that piece of mixed fibers has experienced.

OK, so I’m not sure how gentle this turned out to be. Not much, I suspect. However, here you have at least threads of conversation to use – more gently and lovingly, preferably – to advance the conversation in your community. Remember that you never know when just a one phrase you utter might make that *click!* in somebody’s head. I cannot promise converts, but at least you are prepared for the conversation now.