Quick Q&A

Alison is a senior at a high school in New York, and she got in touch with me with a few questions for a research project for her Environmental Science class. Whenever I encounter high school students asking questions about fashion and sustainability I smile with optimism; I trust the next generation will take on the formidable challenges ahead. We, the generation before, still have work to do, make no mistake about that. Here are her questions and my brief responses.

When and how did you first become aware of the deplorable standard of ethics and sustainability that occurs in some sectors of the fashion industry?

In 1996, in my first year of study at the University of Technology Sydney for a bachelor’s degree in fashion and textile design. I had a textile design teacher, Julia Raath, who would talk about the impacts of some of the chemicals used in textile dyeing and printing.

What, in your opinion, is the biggest challenge, or the largest area for improvement, that the fashion industry faces if a change is to be made towards more sustainable production of clothes?

Consumption and growth. It’s not a challenge for fashion alone but rather for society as a whole. We need an economic system and a society that does not rely on an ever-increasing volume of consumption of goods. Unchecked economic growth would eventually result in planetary and societal collapse. This is not news – among others the book ‘The Limits to Growth‘ was published in 1972 – but it’s a conversation that many parts of society find too confronting to have, and yet it is a conversation and a task we must tackle.

What resources and technologies are available to the fashion and textile industries that will help them transition to more sustainable production methods with a limited environmental impact?

Too many to mention; different solutions are needed for different problems and contexts. For example, zero waste fashion design and whole-garment knitting are two strategies to eliminate fabric waste from garment manufacturing. Lots of work is being done to eliminate toxic chemicals from textile manufacture, for example by Clean by Design by the NRDC. The New Economics Foundation is one of many organizations looking for new economic models. Sustainable Cotton Project and organic cotton are two approaches to eliminating toxic pesticides from cotton farming. The list is almost endless. I would argue that just about every solution we need is already in existence.

Are there any unsustainable practices in the fashion industry that continue to persist due to a lack of viable alternatives?

Consumption, or the industry’s (and our society’s) reliance on it. The lack of alternatives, in my view, is primarily to do with a fear of the unknown and a lack of leadership in this area, particularly from policy makers and business leaders.

What, as consumers, are the most important decisions we can make to ensure that we are contributing to a more sustainable fashion industry?

Focus less on the clothes you want or need or think you should buy because they are ‘sustainable’, and more on who you want to be in this life and in this world. What kind of a difference do you want to make in this world? Human being is virtually unlimited in possibility. Fashion can be a vital aspect of self expression and the source of immense joy (it should be!) but that doesn’t need to mean owning a ton of stuff. Find the joy in cherishing clothes, in customizing them, in repairing them, in sharing them. Build a deep connection with the natural world and know your place in it, as an integral part of it. Grow your own herbs, compost your food scrap (I do through Grow NYC). Have an amazing life, guided by George Bernard Shaw if needed.

I do recommend reading the stories at the Local Wisdom link above, under the tab ‘Use Practices’. I also recommend books by Kate Fletcher and John Ehrenfeld.

(The orchid above was thrown out by a colleague because she thought it was dead. It nearly was. I’ve nursed it back to life and will give it back to her once it has started blooming again, probably within two weeks.)

4 responses to Quick Q&A

  1. Diane A says:

    Great post. New movie just came out called The True Cost. I’m sure you are aware. I love fashion and fabric – make my own clothes. Why do we need so much? Upcycling is fun and a great way to express yourself

  2. Mirjam says:

    Thank you for posting this, its a powerful message! Change starts with one, do what you can with what you have and be conscience in your decision making.

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