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Pearl Phelan

'I needed to end my fast-fashion fix and get a grip. Here's how I did it'

Actress Aoibhéann McCann writes about her passion to avoid ‘fast fashion’ at all costs – and how it’s affecting our environment catastrophically as one of the biggest global polluters.

WHEN I WAS 16 I wrote a short article about how much waste there was each Christmas, specifically wrapping paper. It was a seminal moment because it was my first statement about ‘recycling’ and ‘the environment’ and it also awarded me a week of work experience at The Irish Times.

I remember feeling confused about how much paper we used and why and where it was going to end up; I was aware of the excess of humankind and it grew from there.

Over the next decade my consciousness grew at snail’s pace; I would accept a single-use coffee cup without a second thought and I’d congratulate myself for choosing a bottle of water over a ‘mineral’.

In recent years things have changed and the knowledge of the damage we are doing has grown steadily. With reusable coffee cup and water bottle in tow I continued on my journey, gently reminding loved ones to do the same, eating less meat and generally trying to be a low-key environmentalist.

pearl-phelan-photographer-aoibheann-mccann-actor-dublin-12-edit-bw Pearl Phelan Pearl Phelan

Then one Saturday afternoon my sister pointed out that my online shopping was probably using more energy than it does to just ‘pop to the shop’. This sparked guilt and a curiosity and so I researched how fashion is made and consumed.

I learned many things but, above all, that toxic chemicals are used to make most clothing we wear, gravely polluting the earth and, when we wash some of the materials (namely polyester) in our clothes, micro plastics are released into our oceans and ingested by plankton, eventually making its way up the food chain to us.

The fashion industry is the second largest contributor to environmental damage in the world and there was therefore only one conclusion: I needed to cease my ‘fast fashion’ fix and get a grip.

Since January 2018 I have completely ended my online and high street shopping and have discovered a whole new and ever-evolving relationship to what I wear. When I feel I need something I look to what I have already, borrow and, on a rare occasion, I investigate vintage or charity shops.

Like most people, my clothes are an expression of me and, in my work as an actor, costumes are a huge part of my life. It is fun to get dressed up and to feel attractive and empowered but now the question ‘at what cost?’ prevails.

Second-hand and borrowed

This year I planned my first sun holiday in many years and instead of buying an array of brand new swimwear on the high street, I resisted the very real temptation and borrowed my sister’s collection.

With the money saved I bought a gorgeous nautical-themed jumper from the sustainable company Grown. It was satisfying to give my euro to an Irish brand who plant a tree for every product they sell, instead of accumulating a bag of bikinis I will hardly wear beyond a week in Italy.


Similarly, in my work, most designers will look to hard-wearing, quality material when constructing or planning costumes.

Katie Davenport is the costume designer for our current show, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, produced by Rough Magic for Kilkenny Arts Festival – a play which itself portrays the crazy recklessness of mankind in the face of our ecosystem in this new production.

She has found some items in charity shops and existing costume departments; this can take huge amounts of imagination and creativity but there is a satisfaction in reusing, repairing and reshaping.

I experience this increasingly in my own life: for example, last week I had a hankering for a black halter-neck so I cut the straps off a top and fashioned them back to it as a halter. Finding a new way to use a rarely-used item is hugely rewarding and there is a comfort that I didn’t support ‘fast fashion’ with my euro. Similarly, I have enjoyed paying professionals to adjust some of my current items of clothing or just doing it myself.

There is fun to be had in looking at what you have, reinvigorating it and celebrating it. There is also a community (friends, family, colleagues) we can share with, lend to and borrow from. More and more sustainable brands are emerging, with a genuine environmental ethos.

It is hard to be a good citizen, to avoid taking flights, to cut out animal products or even just recycle but genuinely moving towards better choices offers huge comfort to the individual.

I am learning that we can be ourselves, we can be more imaginative and we can find solace in how we buy and wear our clothes.

Actress Aoibheann McCann co-stars with Rough Magic’s new ensemble cast in two of the company’s premieres: Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Kilkenny Arts Festival (Aug 10 – 18) and Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man at Pavilion Theatre (Sep 26 – Oct 7) (also tours nationwide until Nov) –

Aoibhéann McCann
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