Clothing and Technology


On Life:

One Saturday each month my church gives out clothing to homeless persons. There are many bins filled with random pieces of donated clothing, which means lots of sorting before we can distribute the clothes in a practical way.

This got me thinking about clothing in general — the “life cycles” of items that end up in donation bins, and the experience of buying clothes as an urban professional. Often I find myself in front of a dressing room mirror, where the sound of trendy but irresistibly catchy music floats through the air, in the glow of that special lighting that somehow makes me look better than I look everywhere else.  

What I realized is in these moments it’s not clothing I’ve been shopping for, but life itself. When I make the decision to buy a new shirt, it’s with hope that life will bring new memories that are worthy of the pricetag. On some level I imagine myself in scenes of the future, and that underlying hope may impact my purchase decision more than things like fit or price.

As I folded dozens of old garments this weekend, I wondered about the people who donated them, and whether their “hopes” had ever been fully experienced. It also led me to think critically about my closet. How much clothing is sitting idly in my apartment, reserved for the experiences I’d once hoped for in a dressing room?

One of the great promises of society’s new “sharing economy” is better utilization of resources. The prime example is cars:

A recent study reported the average American car sits unused for more than 20 hours per day.

In a perfectly optimized sharing economy, every car would be utilized more efficiently. Perhaps one day your car will “self-drive” fellow citizens around your town while you’re at work, then return to meet you at the office for your commute home, then drive neighborhood kids to soccer practice while you eat dinner, and so on.  

As a minimalist this concept fascinates me, and I wonder if it can also be applied to clothing. Last year I bought hiking boots and had a wonderful trek through Utah, but beyond that my “utilization” was worse than the average car. For years I’ve owned multiple winter coats (people may agree one kinda “needs” multiple coats here, but I digress) — and it’s harrowing to consider there will always be people out there for whom one coat of any kind would meet a basic human need for warmth, and that they would need it every day.   

Between technology and society there have to be better solutions for sharing clothing. A primary reason I’m reluctant to donate clothing items is all the time I invested to find them. Time is the essential unit of life, and when it comes to shopping for clothing it seems the only certainty is that I end up spending more time than anticipated.

Perhaps one day a convergence of big data, artificial intelligence, same-day delivery, and in-home devices like the Amazon fashion look will embolden people to keep a much smaller amount of clothing in their closet and donate more frequently.

For example, someone who skis seldomly may be willing to donate a ski jacket they spent hours searching for years ago, if they knew they could efficiently summon an equally perfect ski jacket right before a trip. Personally I often feel there are way too many neckties collecting dust in my closet. The ties could be donated, and perhaps rotated, among less-advantaged people for job interviews, yet when wedding season rolls around I suddenly feel like I don’t have enough.

In a perfect world a digital assistant would store data on which colors I wore at recent weddings, analyze the guest list to see if anyone would notice, and gather current fashion trends to recommend (and deliver) ties for each occasion at affordable prices.

I realize this is drifting into “first-world-problem” territory, and many of these ideas are just pie in the sky, for now. But I’d be happy if someone more entrepreneurial would draw something from this to make society better. Or at least point out the holes in my thinking so I can feel better about my closet 🙂

— Jan 15, 2018 

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