C&A and me: The synthetic years

As we move further away from our younger selves, the memories of how we felt at particular times fade more easily, and it’s harder to recall moments of change. But I will never forget the couple of hours that marked my passage from child to teenager.

It was a Saturday morning in November, 1985, among the racks of clothing in Birmingham’s then branch of the retailer C&A. My mother had taken a 12 year-old me to buy a Christmas party outfit, and rather than go to the children’s section, we were stood in the Clockhouse department.

Before the concept of fast fashion, and the retail revolution it inspired, there were few affordable choices for teenage/young adult clothing if you lived outside of London. Clockhouse was a mid-market priced range that offered up shiny puff ball dresses, printed jumpsuits, and some truly flammable separates, as they were known then.

I recall how excited I was that finally, I was going to sift through all that synthetic and polyester to pull out an item of clothing for myself. So what caught my eye? A black, satin tuxedo style suit paired with a white satin shirt.

It was more maître d than YSL, but I was thrilled as it felt so sophisticated compared to the ruffles and bows of my previous party dresses. Potentially another mother would have vetoed the choice, but then not everyone had a cabaret singer for a mater.

My mother was no stranger to satin, she had theatrical tastes, and one memorable outfit was a white linen suit, worn to my school’s parents’ evening with an electric blue shirt and teemed with red wedge heels. It answered a lot of questions my teachers may have had about how my personality was formed.

Clothes were worshiped in my household. Due to my mother’s depression, my childhood was not one filled with nurturing, but as she would often tell people, we were always presentable. So even though we were emotionally neglected, we looked good.

This obsession with appearance and fashion informed a lot of my adult years, to the point where I owned so many clothes and accessories that my one-bed flat was referred to as ‘the wardrobe’. Even with half the contents coming from vintage stores, there was enough left over that when I returned from a 10 month backpacking trip, I felt physically ill at the sight of it all.


Vintage Lanvin

So I understand the emotional pull of clothes shopping, when you find a dress that you hope will be the one to catch the attention of a new love to the bag that promises to help realise your Sex & the City lifestyle fantasy. And how satisfying when you’ve paid less than £20 for any of the items.

But, just as I discovered in 1985 as I stood shivering and sneezing in the snow that my satin suit was not practical attire for a winter party, at some point we all need to face up to the reality that our shopping habits are not the most appropriate for our planet’s health.

In December last year I had an article published in The Environmentalist that reported on various initiatives within the fashion industry to clean up the bad practices that have led to it being the second biggest polluter of natural resources after fossil fuels.

Enviro pic copy

Mine has been a slow education in how damaging the garment industry is both ecologically and socially, but it was accelerated after watching the documentary The True Cost. Once viewed, you will never feel the same way about shopping again.

In some ways, it can be compared to the movie The Matrix, in which the protagonist Neo takes the red pill that opens his eyes to the truth behind the world created by the machines rather than the blue, which would have let him slip back into ignorance.

The fashion industry excels in the game of smoke and mirrors, and consumers like my mother and me would lap it up, hoping that a little trace of the glamour presented by the model wearing the shoes or coat we’d purchased would follow us out of the store.

Today, with social media, there is even more pressure to consume, to look good for selfies, vlogs, and those Instagram moments. I can see why so many people choose to keep swallowing the blue pills.

Therefore, it’s been somewhat heartening to find examples where the industry is actively changing its practices to become more sustainable, so that even if their customers couldn’t give two figs for the planet, they’re still buying eco-friendly clothing.

Which brings me back to C&A. Although it has long left UK shores, it’s operating in several countries including the Netherlands, and it has committed to sustainable and ethical sourcing including procuring bio-cotton for its clothes. Bio-cotton has been grown in a sustainable way, with less fertilisers and better water management.

I now have my own daughter, and although the majority of her clothes are second hand or vintage, I do have to buy new things occasionally. Once again I’m shopping in C&A, only my purchases are more thought out. And when she’s older, I’ll make sure that she understands you can look good and care for others at the same time.


A quick guide to conscious consumerism:

Cotton – if organic is not available or not affordable, then look for bio-cotton products as it means the fibre has been grown sustainably to strict standards. To find out more about bio-cotton go to the Better Cotton Initiative website.

Jeans – in theory one need never buy a new pair of jeans again given the amount available second hand in charity/thrift shops and through online auction sites such as Ebay. Denim is incredibly resource intensive, from the energy put into producing them to the materials and dyes used in the process. If you are buying new, then look for a retailer that is committed to reducing the impact of production such as Levis or an organic brand such as Nudie Jeans or Patagonia.

Shoes – there are several retailers that offer ethical and ecologically friendly footwear. French brand Good Guys are fabulous for fashion forward styles, while Will’s Vegan Shoes are great for the everyday wear. For trainers, the online boutique The Acey has a great selection. The prices are comparable to a lot of high street retailers, although you’re not going to get a Primark bargain, you are getting the satisfaction of knowing they have been made by someone earning a living wage.

General fashion – from t-shirts to suits there are two websites that offer a good mix of key items. For sleek design that would not look amiss on the rails at COS or Whistles, there’s The Acey. The concept is to offer a selection of clothing and accessories from ethical designers that puts paid to the idea that eco-clothing is all about hemp trousers and tie-dye waistcoats. Then there’s the well established People Tree, which I have to admit I avoided for a long time thinking it was all a bit too Boden yummy mummy, but then had to eat my prejudices when I did have a browse and found myself wanting to order at least ten items.

Sustainability organisation WRAP has more ideas on how to shop better, recycle unwanted clothes, and keeping clothing looking good for longer.






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