Meet Maxine Bédat! She is a superstar in the sustainability scene as the founder and director of The New Standard Institute, an organization poised to transform the global apparel industry by enacting critical and science-based environmental objectives.
Even cooler, Garance will be working with The New Standard Institute in upcoming months in an advisory capacity.
Since it is “freedom” month at DORÉ, we asked Maxine to expand upon the ways she’s been able to free herself from the often detrimental system of consumption as it relates to fashion. In doing so, she’s been able to create lasting and more meaningful relationships with the clothing she chooses to adorn herself with.
And stay tuned for more pieces highlighting the sustainability space from Maxine as a new Contributing Editor for DORÉ. In the upcoming months she will share more on the specific ways she’s been able to create a more sustainable lifestyle.
It used to take me ages to get dressed. With a closet overflowing with clothes, I struggled to put pieces together in a way that made any sense. It was a frustrating daily struggle. As women, we tend to laugh about our seemingly collective problem of never – despite stark evidence to the contrary – having anything to wear.
But behind our “superficial”, silly problem, which shopping is supposed to fix, is a system that was created precisely to make us feel this way — a system that ignores the planet, leaves us unhappy, and makes it all seem like it’s our fault.
Ready to peel back those layers?
You know how we’re told that fashion (and all of our other consumable goods) is all about filling consumer demand? Well, let’s take a look back and see if that’s true.
For that I need to introduce you to Edward Bernays, nephew of Sigmund Freud, and the creator of the field of PR. Back in the 1920’s, Bernays received a copy of his uncle’s book on the unconscious, “General Introduction to Psychoanalysis” and decided that he could use people’s unconscious desires to make money. (How very American of him). One of his early experiments? Working for his client George Hill, the president of the American Tobacco Corporation to convince women to take up smoking. At the time, it was considered socially unacceptable for ladies to smoke. Good for our lungs and life, but, you know, a lost market opportunity for the cigarette industry.
Bernays worked with a psychoanalyst in America who told him that cigarettes were a symbol of the penis and of male sexual power. He told Bernays that if he could find a way to connect cigarettes with the idea of challenging male power, that women would smoke because then they could have their own penises.
With that insight in hand, Bernays developed an early PR stunt. At New York’s Easter Day Parade, he persuaded a group of rich debutants to hide cigarettes under their clothes. At his signal, they were to join the parade and light up the cigarettes dramatically. Bernays then informed the press that he’d heard that a group of suffragettes were preparing to protest by lighting up what they called Torches of Freedom. (Totally true story).
The next day this was not just in all the New York papers, it was across the United States and around the world. And from that point forward, the sale of cigarettes to woman began to rise.
What Bernays had created was the idea that if a women smoked, it made her more powerful and independent. An idea that still persists today. Somehow, sucking down a cancer stick was our emancipation. It made him realize that it was possible to persuade people to behave irrationally if you link products to emotional desires and feelings. The idea that smoking actually made women more free, was completely irrational. But it made them feel more independent. It meant that irrelevant objects could become powerful emotional symbols of how you want to be seen by others.
Bernays was extraordinarily successful and began to work with leading banks and government officials to use the “unconscious” not just to sell cigarettes, but to change society in its entirety. One Wall Street banker from this time put it bluntly, he said: “We must shift America from a ‘needs’ to a ‘desires’ culture. People must be trained to desire, to want new things even before the old had been entirely consumed. We must shape a new mentality in America. Man’s desires must overshadow his needs.”
This is the project marketers have been on ever since. Convincing us to desire things we do not inherently want. We, the consumer, do not “demand” more, we are aggressively marketed to in order to get us to desire more.
Even the basic idea that we are “consumers” first and foremost is something that was manufactured, as one journalist during this time stated: “A change has come over our democracy, it is called consumptionism. The American citizen’s first importance to his country is now no longer that of citizen, but that of consumer.”
And that notion that clothing is self-expression? Bernay’s also had a hand in that one. He organized fashion shows in department stores and paid celebrities to repeat the new and essential message, you bought things not just for need, but to express your inner sense of yourself to others.
Now, I don’t like being duped, once I understood things with that context, my relationship with my closet began to change. I would no longer relinquish my hard earned dollars to the marketers. I began an exploration–not starting with magazines or Instagram, but with myself (you know, me time). Having removed the app from my phone, I spent time looking at other women on the street and trying on the clothes in my closet. I did have to learn what I actually really liked.
From that exploration I have come to understand that the most important thing for me is how a garment fits and how it feels on my skin — no shirts too tight or heels too high. A perfectly fitting pair of pants paired with a light-weight shirt tucked just so, helps me feel confident and comfortable. It’s finally the me I care to project. I still love beautiful clothes, in fact, I think I have gone from clothing being a stress to something in which I take real pleasure.
My clothing is no longer disposable. I invest and relish in beautiful pieces that don’t just collect dust in my closet, but are worn and enjoyed for years.
The fashion marketing machine has gone on overdrive. Look today at the Forbes billionaire list, it is replete with the mostly men that own the big fashion companies. Playing with our insecurities, baiting us to become consumers and buy clothing mindlessly and endlessly–this has made a few people a lot of money and has had an enormous environmental footprint (not to mention the impact of the women tethered to a sewing machine making all of those clothes). The fashion industry today has a larger carbon footprint than all international travel, it contributes to forest degradation, soil degradation, water pollution, plastic pollution (did you know most of our cheap clothes are made from plastic?), and our used stuff ends up getting dumped in the developing world, inhibiting growth in those economies.
As a result of my time in my closet, I have broken free from the marketers, gained confidence in my own style, and, in so doing, have dramatically reduced my own environmental footprint. Let true freedom ring.