recent thoughts on fashion and sustainability

Often when responding to journalists (or students) via email, my rawest thoughts come to the surface. Even when those thoughts don’t make the cut to the final piece, they’re worth sharing, both for my own memory and in my hope that they trigger a reader’s thinking. Here are questions and answers from three recent exchanges with journalists, and one with high school students. The first of the articles was published in the student newspaper of The New School.

What is it that first inspired you to begin creating zero waste fashion designs? When did you first learn this was an option?
I knew of many historical examples of zero waste from around the world during my undergraduate study in the 1990s but I wanted to know if it was possible to design fashion without wasting fabric in a contemporary context. Early in my PhD research I discovered designers like Yeohlee Teng, who have adopted zero waste fashion design into their practice, in Teng’s case since the early 1980s.
How long did it take for you to finalize your methods?
I began my PhD in late 2004 and exhibited garments from it in 2008, while also publishing about the findings of that research at the same time at conferences and in book chapters. In 2016 I co-authored a book about the topic with Holly McQuillan.
What are the main challenges associated with converting the fashion industry into a more sustainable field?
Like all industries, fashion for the most part operates within the dominant economic system. Our current system is predicated on endless growth and it is thus unsustainable. Overall, all sustainability efforts in fashion, for example transparency, circularity, fair wages, eliminating toxic chemicals, reducing different types of waste, transitioning to regenerative and carbon farming, tackling microplastic pollution from fashion, etc. are failing to catch up with the growth of the overall system. We are avoiding the necessary, difficult conversations about a post-growth future. This is inseparable from the future of work. It’s also inseparable from the distribution of and access to resources. The wealth to take care of everyone already exists, but not everyone has access to that wealth. A framework of just transitions is useful as we discuss these new futures. A number of colleagues and I formed the Union of Concerned Researches in Fashion at the start of 2019 partly in response to the continued avoidance of the root causes of the problems.
Do you feel as though The New School has enough resources available to teach sustainability?
The resources exist but there is more work we need to do to make them easily accessible, and there is more faculty development to do. Parsons has perhaps led the way: we launched Sustainable Systems, a required course for all undergraduates at Parsons, in 2013.
How to you incorporate a zero waste design approach into your curriculum?
I’ve incorporated a number of zero waste projects in my studio classes over the years. In my early years at Parsons I used to teach an elective I developed based on my research, Zero Waste Garment. The New York Times wrote about it nine years ago. A number of other fashion faculty have taught zero waste projects at Parsons, too.
What do you hope to see in the future of fashion design?
I want to see a decolonized, pluralistic industry with multiple approaches to access (i.e. not limited to ownership) instead of a monoculture of western fashion sold throughout the world. I want to see local, decentralized economic systems that distribute wealth equitably. I want to see a multitude of small fashion industries that exist within planetary boundaries while creating flourishing for all.
The following set of questions were somewhat beyond my expertise and I’ve removed the ones I felt I couldn’t meaningfully respond to.
How are people reconsidering fashion through the lens of sustainability?
More and more people are realizing that to be ‘sustainable’ isn’t primarily about shopping. It’s about living in balance with the world, connecting with the world, seeing endless value in the world.
What has been the biggest driver of consumer’s sustainable awareness?
Consumer studies are outside of my expertise, but many such studies have been conducted. I would ask, why is it that we have to choose between ‘fashion’ and ‘sustainable fashion’?
What are the most innovative ways of making fashion sustainable?
In my opinion, and speaking at the level of individual, anything that doesn’t involve buying something. The stories of Local Wisdom contain many such examples. We really need to break out from the idea that sustainability is something that can be sold and bought. A radical example is Jonnet Middleton who in 2008 pledged not to buy any new clothes for the rest of her life, instead mending what she has. Less radical but nonetheless effective is Livia Firth’s #30wears Instagram campaign that celebrates long use lives of clothes.
Can you think of any fashion brands that are innovating sustainable initiatives particularly well (both high-end luxury and more mainstream brands)?
Nu Wardrobe is not a brand but rather an initiative that I think is innovative in making sharing clothes easier while also creating and building community. With mainstream brands, often the total growth of a business and its associated impacts cancels out any sustainability gains, and that goes for the industry as a whole. If the industry’s current growth continues, I’m not sure it will be ever be what one might call ‘sustainable’.
Have you noticed a shift in how people think about recycled and second-hand clothing?
This (consumer attitudes) is not something I’ve studied. Second-hand has always been a part of my own wardrobe and it’s also widely adopted among my community so I’m perhaps in a bubble that blinds me from any larger shifts.
Luxury brands such as Stella McCartney have encouraged people to resell old garments and pick up second hand designer garments to feed their thirst for the ‘new’. Do you envisage a trickle down effect of consumer’s willingness to adopt luxury re-sales goods upon the mainstream High-street market?
Again I will respond with a question: Why do we not challenge the value that we attach to newness? Why are we comfortable with the ‘thirst for new’?
What are the biggest sustainable fashion trends right now?
Temporary trends are not really compatible with sustainability. Of course fashion is always changing because it’s part of society and culture and they are always in motion, but the kind of seasonal trends that are marketed to us are for the most part manufactured, and not real trends. Fashion changes more slowly.
The following were for an article about clothing rentals and sustainability. I recommend reading a recent article by Elizabeth Cline on the topic, as she eloquently highlights a number of issues.
To what extent might peer-to-peer fashion rental services contribute to a viable, the sustainable future or the fashion industry—do you think it’s possible for these services to be as sustainable as they claim?
There is nothing definitively sustainable about a rental service until we can demonstrate that such a service has resulted in a decreased volume of clothing being produced. The most urgent issue for fashion to resolve is to drastically reduce the overproduction of clothing, and the responsibility is on business, not on individuals. Clothing rental and clothing sharing platforms can be a part of this degrowth strategy. The number of studies to date on rentals in relation to reduced production are limited. Perhaps because rental is still a recent concept, there are as of yet few studies to investigate whether rentals are resulting in reduced clothing production overall.
This study looked at a subscription service of infant clothing brand, Vigga, in Denmark. When the infant grows out of the current set, it is sent back and another, larger set is sent to the customer. (The company seems to have since then been absorbed into a European-wide, multi-brand rental, Circos.) As the study notes, a rental subscription model resulted in some of the subscribers buying less. A potential downside, the authors note, is a lack of emotional attachment to the clothing being rented.
My concern with the current examples of clothing rentals is that they normalize the insatiable search for novelty. I am not sure the practice of wearing something once, as the dominant practice, would ever be sustainable. To put another way, I don’t know how many individuals would need to wear the same garment once to reduce the per-wear impact to an acceptable level. At worst rentals could perpetuate the idea that incessant change is fine, ‘sustainable’, when there is no evidence for that. The #30wears campaign that Livia Firth has pioneered for several years on Instagram is a healthy antidote to the addiction to newness, one that celebrates emotional attachment and clothes with memories. Novelty in small doses is probably fine but as the norm, not something we can sustain. The growth logic of current economic thinking requires obsolescence via this addiction to novelty so perhaps we should ask, what would an economy of enough look like?
Many existing fashion rental services have a high monthly fee attached. From your research, do you think there is a model for circular fashion or P2P rental that caters to low-income consumers?
Questions of affordability are difficult in a culture that normalizes (and even celebrates) income inequality and treats poverty as a shortcoming on the part of the poor. That said, Nu Wardrobe markets itself as affordable, as does Circos. It’s interesting that H&M is now entering the rental market. 350 Swedish kroner (approximately US$37) for three pieces does not seem that different from buying three H&M pieces, but at least the company is taking responsibility for the garments that might not get that much wear if retailed. Again, critical, independently conducted studies are needed to evaluate if these initiatives have any sustainability benefits.
The following questions were from two high school students.

How do you personally contribute to making the fashion industry more sustainable?

I work as an educator, training the next generation of the fashion industry, as well as publishing my research on fashion and sustainability, making it available to colleagues worldwide through publishing and other forms of dissemination.

What changes would you suggest people make in order to create a more sustainable world?

Challenge your own values on a deep level; without that things will remain superficial. Stop thinking of yourself as a consumer, and consider yourself a human being. Consider all other living things on Earth your relatives. Then begin asking honest questions about your needs. In order to live great, highly satisfying, fulfilling lives, we don’t need most of the crap we fill our homes and storage units with.

What is your ideal vision for the fashion industry?

My vision of fashion is one that is just and safe for all living beings on Earth.

What materials should we look for in clothing that are better for the environment, and are there any sustainable fashion businesses that you recommend?

There is no simple response to questions of materials. I do think the age of fossil fuel-based materials (polyester, nylon, acrylic and other fibers made from oil) is at an end. More than anything, reducing consumption is the most impactful individual action we can take. I went two years without buying new clothes and it was liberating. I understand that won’t work for a teenager as easily, but put another way, find ways to get satisfaction from your existing wardrobe. Read the stories of Local Wisdom for inspiration.

There are benefits to the fast fashion industry including the significant amount of money it contributes to the economy and the high number of people it employs.  Do you believe that fast fashion should be completely eliminated, and do the benefits of sustainable fashion outweigh the drawbacks?

The uncritical pursuit of endless economic growth is a major cause of the current planetary emergency. We have to stop justifying the pursuit of growth and job creation if it literally compromises future generations’ ability to live, and there is ample evidence that this is the case. The idea that people in the wealthy global north ‘help’ people in the poor global south by shopping is oversimplified and masks the abhorrent working conditions that many garment workers experience. At worst this idea simply becomes an excuse to continue shopping. If we want to buy things made by Bangladeshi or Cambodian or Ethiopian women (or any country where the majority of clothing is now made), I believe we are also then collectively responsible for ensuring that the price we pay for clothing is sufficient to cover a living wage (as opposed to a minimum wage), reasonable working hours comparable to the global north, benefits like health care and parental care, safe working conditions, etc. Currently this is mostly not the case. The idea that we in the wealthy global north – and acknowledging that not everyone is wealthy – are entitled to endless mountains of cheap clothing is a new one (it emerged less than 30 years ago), and one we should put behind us as quickly as possible. We need to eliminate wealth inequality, both within countries and between them, as a matter of urgency.

1 responses to recent thoughts on fashion and sustainability

  1. You’ve spelt it out so well. It’s so easy to make sustainability a buzz word and rush into ‘solutions’ that do more harm than good. One has to dig deeper; challenge ones view of the world; re-examine values.

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