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Let's talk Goth, Consumerism and #zerowaste

Disclaimer: I do not claim to be an expert on low waste (or "zero waste") living—far from it. The purpose of this piece is to explore what it means to belong to the Goth subculture in the context of consumerism and making sustainable choices. There are many ways to live sustainably, but this piece will focus on reducing waste. This piece does not seek to shame or blame anyone but rather to challenge throw-away attitudes that dominate our world—and the modern Goth subculture—by offering another perspective. Respectful discussion in the comment section is welcomed. 

When I hear the words "zero waste," I often think of people making videos to show off three months of trash fitting inside a little mason jar, their magical Whole Foods shopping trip, or even a tour of their impossibly-tiny capsule wardrobe. Search #zerowaste on Pinterest and you'll come up with pictures of tidy little beige pantries with uniform mason jars filled with chia seeds, nutritional yeast and other dry goods. I'll be honest #zerowaste as a subculture is not me.

Image by RitaE from Pixabay
However, over the past few months, I've felt a sense of urgency over lowering my environmental impact further through my most visible impactthe trash I send to the landfill. I'm not going to sugar-coat it: It's been pretty tough at times.

Now everywhere I look, I see single-use items. When I go to the grocery store, produce is wrapped in plastic. For goodness sake, limes do not need plastic and Styrofoam! If I'm out seeing a band play (most recently Cold Cave), all the drinks come in plastic cups with cocktail straws.

Seriously though, there is an important lesson in it all: this global economy is designed to sell more goods by giving the consumer a false need. Sustainable alternativesglass water bottles, mesh produce bags, menstrual cups, etc.are products that only sell once and have a higher up-front cost. Therefore, living "zero waste" was designed to be hard and less accessible.

So often in this modern culture, our identities are defined by what we consume. Back in the days of hunters and gatherers, the amount of stuff you accumulated helped your chances of survival. Nowadays, people don't necessarily gather for survival. Some gather stuff for comfort, entertainment, or even social capital.
So often in this modern culture, our identities are defined by what we consume. 
In 50 years, what happens to all that stuff? It'll still be in the landfill (or the waterways) not decomposing, while we might very well be dead, our bodies decomposing. That thought shakes my soul.

What does this have to do with Goth though? Goth has been incorporated into the larger consumerist culture. When I search the Goth YouTube community, I find so many vloggers doing unboxings, showing off their shoe collections or trying to promote the newest eyeshadow palette. The fixation on material goods is a point of contention within the subculture right now.

Four and a half years ago, I was contacted by an alternative clothing brand wanting to send me their productfree of chargein exchange for regular reviews. I admit I was shocked initially because I don't have a large readership. After considering the company's offer, I decided to decline. The clothes weren't really my taste (too commercial-looking for me), and I wasn't prepared for the commitment. 

Nowadays, I find consumerism and the over-commercialization of the Goth subculture problematic for a variety of reasons:
  1. Quite simply, everything we consume either comes with waste (packaging) or will eventually become waste. It's the plastic packaging covering a band t-shirt. It's even those platform boots we loved but only wore a couple of times before the platform separated from the boot or the vinyl started peeling off.
  2. Fast fashion uses poor labor practices. Many of the clothes on the market were made by underpaid workers in sweatshops. Poor labor practices exist in both developing and developed nations, even if the tag says "Made in the USA." As a subculture, I don't think we should support fast fashion if we have the option (such as buying local, small business, small online shops, thrifted, swapped, homemade, etc.).
  3. Consumerism is drowning out the local and DIY spirit of the Goth subculture. Plenty of Goths are going to keep DIY'ing and supporting local makers in their scene. But, the mass-produced brand name products are taking up the digital airwaves, leading to less money going to support and sustain local scenes and more people wearing the exact same clothes.  
  4. Consumerism is reducing Goth to what and how much we can purchase. I understand people can feel pride after working hard to save up for nice brand name pieces to add to their collections. However, some can't or may not want to do that. And that's totally okay. Fashion is an important part of self-expression, but Goth is about more than just fashion.   
  5. There is a toxic perception, especially among younger or fledgling goths, that one must have the perfect, Instagrammable outfit, make-up and hair to have their "Goth Card" stamped. That means people who dress in more subtle ways feel less comfortable having an online presence and even venturing out into Goth spaces offline (concerts, festivals, meetups, club nights, alt shops). 
What's next? The #zerowaste lifestyle takes planning and effort. Not everyone has the time or ability to go cold-turkey with trash. Maybe you're loyal to Aqua Net and aren't prepared to start making your own hairspray (It is possible, but I have not tried it yet and cannot vouch for it). But, baby steps are do-able for anyone. This includes simple things such as using your own cloth shopping bags or carrying utensils and cups from home.

If you are seriously interested in altogether quitting single-use items and items that come with waste, then you might get flustered. If you aren't already ripping your hair out thinking about all the things you can't purchase while #zerowaste, then you will. My husband (sorry, Husband) almost had an existential crisis when he realized Cheez-its aren't zero waste. I still keep thinking about all the make-up I ownall of it is in plastic, and none of the containers even have the tiny recycle symbol. 

Although the popular term is "zero waste," there is no way to be absolutely zero waste without seriously sacrificing your quality of life. The term "low waste" is probably a better descriptor. It's much more do-able to start by reducing waste, step-by-step, to keep trash from going to the landfill and even recycling facilities.

Everyone, myself included, can start with thinking in terms of waste before we buy something. As someone who participates in their local Goth scene, this means opting out of plastic drink cups at shows or club nights. And, more importantly for me, this means learning to love what I already own. It was eye-opening to learn even a lot of things we donate still end up in a landfill whether we want them to or not.

Consumerism Commercial from carlen altman on Vimeo.
I think learning to be content with what I have has been the toughest mental shift for me. I enjoy fashion. Clothes and make-up are a wonderful creative outlet, especially for Goths, since it is a visible marker of subculture affiliation. However, contentment and gratitude for what we already own doesn't mean we can't or shouldn't treat ourselves (especially as long as we know we'll wear/use the item for the long-term, or at least find the item a good home with someone else). But naturally, that shift in attitude and world-view will influence purchase patterns.

For the average Goth or alt person, making more intentional purchasing choices may mean only owning one tube of black lipstick at a time (or opting for an eyeliner pencil instead). Or better yet, supporting local makers or ethically and sustainably-made goods when you're able. You might consider purchasing a corset made by someone in your local scene rather than buying one that ships from the other side of the world and breaks after two wears. Before making the decision to get something new, look in your closet and see if you already have something similar, or how you can re-purpose or modify old items first. And, if you can afford, opt for something ethically and sustainably made that will last a long time.
If major clothing brands that cater to the Goth subculture can thrive, those same brands can also do their part for their workers and the planet. 
I realize there are many challenges to living sustainably (i.e. up-front cost, time, planning, habits and mental hurdles). But, our voices and our dollars have power. If major clothing brands that cater to the Goth subculture can thrive, those same brands can also do their part for their workers and the planet. If you find your favorite brand supports poor labor practices and/or unsustainable production, leave your concerns in a review, send an email or tag the brand in a tweet. I believe if more Goths are willing to take baby steps and vote with their money, the better off our subculture and our world will be.

After writing this piece, I found this lovely video below that fleshes out the topic of Goth fast fashion and captures a lot of my thoughts on the subject:

What are ways you try to lower your environmental impact? Have you ever tried making your own hairspray, hair-dye, make-up, etc? Do you know of any great "zero waste" or sustainable make-up or clothing brands that cater to alt folks? What is your favorite Etsy shop? Feel free to share your thoughts, links, resources, struggles or differing opinions in the comment section! 


  1. I've been on the sustainability wagon for quite a few years now, starting off with sustainable brands and now just shopping second hand. With sites like Poshmark and Depop it's easy to shop at regular alternative stores and find the exact same pieces entirely unworn and at a fraction of the price.

    1. Yes, I enjoyed your sustainable Goth fashion haul video! I've never used Poshmark or Depop before, so thank you for sharing that. I'm constantly amazed though at how many pieces I've seen at consignment shops that still have the tags.


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