Recent press

In the past few weeks I’ve been asked to comment on a number of sustainability-related issues, so I’m sharing those articles here. Ray A. Smith at the Wall Street Journal wrote about real vs. fake fur, a conversation I have witnessed for at least 25 years. A PDF is available here. After the article came out, someone from The Times in the UK contacted me for comment, and this is what I wrote:

“I’ve followed the real vs. fake conversation for some 25 years now and we really need to move beyond that binary debate and ask new questions about why we value fur or something that looks like it in the first place.

Fake fur is mostly made from acrylic or polyester, both with petrochemical origins, and I firmly believe that we need to move away from any products that create a pipeline for oil. Fossil fuels need to stay in the ground at this point. Furthermore, synthetic garments, including fake fur garments, are a source of microplastics and we need to reduce or eliminate that source from the system.

Going back to the bigger question, if indeed we value fur or something that looks like it, aesthetically and symbolically, then we ought to create new materials for fake fur that are not derived from petrochemicals and instead come from renewable sources, and that biodegrade safely in the environment.

As for real fur, I don’t see the fur industry being a part of humanity’s future. I believe in just transitions both in fossil fuels and with fur, and so we ought to find ways of supporting fur farmers transition to growing other things or to transition to other industries entirely.”

Earlier this week an article by Kali Hays at Women’s Wear Daily explored the language of sustainability in fashion. I’m posting my full email responses below to round out the article. I do so in part to try help move forward the conversation. Hays’ questions were excellent and ones I don’t often get asked, so they deserve a full display. Here they are:

Is there a core set of terms around sustainability that brands (fashion or beauty) prefer to use when they are working on marketing? On the flip side, are there terms that they prefer not to use or avoid?

Some smaller fashion brands describe themselves as ‘sustainable fashion’, which implies everything they do is ‘sustainable’. ‘Sustainability’ is usually used more in relation to company philosophy rather than individual products. ‘Clean’ seems to be a (meaningless) word often used to market beauty brands as well as food. ‘Organic’ is an example of a designation with concrete parameters regarding farming practices. Even then, it and other terms are proxies for trust. Imagine a system in which we no longer had to worry about a living wage for everyone, toxic chemicals from textiles in our waterways, or microplastics from our clothing in the oceans. That’s the world we must strive for; in this transitional phase we continue to need these proxies. Rather than language for marketing, they should be accurately descriptive of products and business practices, and that is where things often currently get muddled.
 
Is there a sense that any of the words specifically turn people on or off of products?
I remember a panel talk from 2010 where Julie Gilhart, a pioneer of sustainability in the retail space, said that ‘organic’ was a turn off for some customers at Barneys at the time. I feel that ‘sustainable’ still is to some, perhaps many, but with organic food there is more of an understanding of that term’s specificity to particular regenerative farming practices and maybe it’s less of a turn-off now. I do worry less about perceptions because all companies should be striving to do ‘the right thing’, whether their customers care or not. At the same time, those of us who care, should pressure the companies whose practices are damaging. We know enough to make the changes; these things are no longer optional. Companies who are not striving to do the right thing should not be given a seat at the table.
 
Is sustainable fashion associated with ‘luxury’? Or do luxury consumers/audiences respond any general way to eco/sustainable brands?
I’m cautious about making generalizations about a particular group or demographic. Paying a living wage across the value chain and eliminating toxic chemicals from a product will result in a more expensive end result than what most of us might be used to. We have some difficult questions to ask ourselves about access, equity and justice. I get very uncomfortable when I hear people justifying one person’s exploitation in order to make clothing accessible to another, and they are rarely talking about themselves. Conversations about sustainability can become privileged quite quickly. I’d also caution against any simplistic assumption that ‘luxury’ with its higher price points means living wage for the worker or non-toxic materials. 
 
Is there a generational divide between how people think and talk about sustainability in design? (feel free to speak to any kind of design that you’re familiar with)
My primary experience is with design students, including fashion design students, in their late teens and early twenties, and they are highly articulate about sustainability. At Parsons we teach sustainability from a systems thinking perspective, and our graduates are able to discuss sustainability in that way. When we launched the new undergraduate curriculum at Parsons in 2013, including a Systems & Society pathway in the BFA Fashion Design program, we on the curriculum team were very much inspired by the students we had then, and their deep interest in the issues and their deep desire to change the system. So, we designed a curriculum that facilitated leadership development among our students on these issues. These were students like Lucy Jones of Ffora and Carmen Gama at Eileen Fisher, who both graduated in 2015; we are grateful to them and many others for demonstrating their commitment, which in turn guided us. I see that we still have a lot of work to do, particularly around pedagogy and faculty development, but the future is bright. I’m not sure there is a generational divide but I do invite the older generations, including mine, to remain open to these new, systems-level ideas, and for us to moderate our cynicism regarding those ideas.
 
Is there a fear among anyone in the design community that branding their product as sustainable/eco/green/etc. shows that either it was not any of these things before or that it’s some admission of their role in the problems behind consumer culture?
Yes, I think so. I’ve spoken with a number of brands over the years who are doing really good work on sustainability behind the scenes but who do not talk about it publicly for the fear of being judged for the things they haven’t got to yet.
 
Is sustainability in design a fad? Is talking/caring about sustainability in design a fad? 
No. 2018 has been a watershed for how we discuss climate change. We now know that fashion is inseparable from climate change. Different estimates have put fashion as contributing 5-10% of the emissions that cause climate change. We in fashion are part of the problem and we are an essential part of the solutions. We have the capacity to imagine boldly. What we are not talking about enough yet is scale. There is a lot of rhetoric about circular economy. A true circular economy is a steady-state economy, while the rhetoric often incorrectly combines circularity and growth. Unless we begin to have real conversations about growth and greed, I’m not sure any real systemic change is possible. There are limits to growth on a finite planet. At a recent conference François-Henri Pinault was mentioned as a driver of change in fashion, and of course he is and I am very grateful for his work, but in my view we ought to also talk about his net worth of $30 billion (or whatever the amount may be). Same with the Walton family, same with Jeff Bezos, and so forth. If we don’t talk about the growing wealth inequality in connection with greed, then we are not in a real conversation about sustainability. It is not possible to talk about sustainability without talking about justice, and I mean justice for all species, and certainly justice for all humans, not just for the few. 
 
Where do you see the discussion and the actions of creators and consumers going in the next five years? (More or less concerned overall? More or less apt to take on challenges of zero waste, water preservation, supply chain responsibility?)
Collectively we need to ask deeper questions about access, deeper questions about well-being, and we mustn’t resist the really difficult economic conversations. As long as fashion is primarily discussed as something to buy, something to shop, the possibilities will remain very constrained. We’ll still only be in the realm of something less damaging, less bad, rather than creating a completely new system founded on sustainment. Professor Lynda Grose, a pioneer of fashion and sustainability of some 30 years and a brilliant educator, recently referred to our current state in fashion as conspicuous production, in part inspired by Guram Gvasalia. We need to keep calling conspicuous production out. We have a fashion system whose scale is out of sync with planetary systems. If we don’t address scale, over-production and greed, we are not in a conversation about sustainability. This is where language is crucial. I no longer think of people as consumers because our agency in being a consumer is limited to shopping decisions, and we have a lot more power than that!
 
What about fast fashion — do you see that going anywhere? Are people becoming more aware of the processes behind it and what goes into making things so inexpensive?
The last five years have been transformative, although we’ve not yet in anyway ‘arrived’ at some end point. Nonetheless people are more aware and asking more questions about where clothes come from and who might have made them. I don’t see a future for fast fashion as it currently exists: a future of companies not paying a living wage, of companies not taking responsibility for materials toxicity, of companies not taking responsibility for conspicuous over-production, of not taking responsibility for post-consumer waste. Those are part of a system that does not have a future. Maybe the question we should ask is, if we want there to be fast fashion, what should it be like? Why is fast something we value?

Finally, I’m grateful to Jackie Mallon at Fashion United for her portrait of me as a craftsperson and artist, and for the genuine interest in my cross-stitched poetry.

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