more recent thoughts on fashion and sustainability

Union of Concerned Researchers in Fashion banner made by Fashion Praxis Lab at Parsons School of Design, 2019. Photograph by Otto von Busch.
Below are yet more responses to journalists, edited here for clarity, in addition to posts here, here and here. I can see that my escalating sense of urgency is coming across as frustration, impatience and even terseness. This is not at the journalists as such, but at our collective cognitive dissonance: we claim to know what there is to do and yet we do not do that. In fact often we do things that only further perpetuate the crisis.
Reflecting on the first question below, two weeks ago I participated in my first clothing swap organized by Global Fashion Exchange (GFX), founded by Patrick Duffy. (Patrick and I finally met after a couple of years’ of mutual admiration on social media. Listen to my friend and hero Clare Press and Patrick here.) There was something profound about acquiring a new garment, in exchange for one I gave away, without any exchange of money. So, if you think you need to buy something new (translation: you want to buy something new) I urge you to organize a swap instead. The toolkit to do that is open source through GFX.
Hi ___,
See below; I hope the responses are helpful. They are colored by my commitment not to perpetuate the idea that by shopping ‘better’ we can simply continue shopping. We are on track to three (possibly more) degrees’ warming by the end of the century; we are in a climate emergency. That should be the context from which we all assess our lifestyles, and our actual needs (versus wants). For those of us who’ve been in this for a while (in my case 15 years) the urgency is getting overwhelming. It’s loud in the introduction to Earth Logic, a recent publication by two esteemed colleagues, Kate Fletcher and Mathilda Tham. It is that urgency that led us to form the Union of Concerned Researchers in Fashion.
1. What are the most effective shopping methods for consumers who want to continue building their wardrobes but with minimum impact on the environment?
On shopping, some estimates suggest that in the global north we need to curb our consumption by 75-90%. So, the most effective method is to not buy anything new for a year and then consider going another year without. I did this in 2010-12, and I argue that this is feasible for anyone 20 and over who has up to that point regularly acquired new garments. Even the most sustainably created garment does not justify shopping for novelty and a brief dopamine rush. Overproduction and overconsumption are the main problem and the only solution is to cut both drastically. We are in a planetary emergency.
2. Which category (or categories) from this infographic about different forms of sustainable fashion do you think would result in the smallest carbon footprint? Is there a category on this chart that you would not recommend, and if so, why not?
The various issues in the diagram are mostly not mutually exclusive so I would not look at them as ‘either/or’ but rather ‘and’ whenever possible. Also, ‘clean & green’ doesn’t really mean anything. In connection to my response to question 1, the problem is that this diagram doesn’t capture scale. The levels of consumption in the global north are utterly unsustainable and even if every garment in the world was hitting all of the criteria in the diagram – and perhaps they should – there is an unimaginable excess of clothing being produced every year. Drastically reducing production and consumption is urgent.
3. If a person shops more sustainable options online (ex. vintage sites, eco-friendly e-commerce brands), does the negative impact of packaging and shipping ultimately outweigh the good?
I haven’t studied lifecycle analyses (LCA) on that so I am not able to respond, but there would be a lot of variables including the frequency of purchase, mode of transportation, distance, types of packaging, etc.
4. How can we distinguish between brands that are actually sustainable versus brands simply using green buzz words as a marketing tool? What kind of traps should consumers be aware of?
Words like ‘clean’ and ‘green’ do not mean anything. Also, while we should strive towards fair trade, sustainable materials, non-toxic dyes and other chemicals, reducing manufacturing waste, etc. more than anything we need to reduce overproduction and -consumption. As for brands, look up what their CEOs and CFOs say. Two recent examples include H&M and LVMH; the CEOs’ words say more about the brands than any of their marketing campaigns. Finally, I recommend following organizations like Remake and Fashion Revolution, and reading books like Clare Press’ Wardrobe Crisis (and her podcast), Kate Black’s Magnifeco and Elizabeth Cline’s The Conscious Closet.
5. What do you think shoppers get wrong about sustainable fashion?
There are two issues that commonly come up. First, that sustainability is something we can buy. It is not. Second, that by buying ‘better’ we don’t need to reduce our consumption in the global north. We do.

The following responses were for an article by Sophie Benson for Huffington Post, here.

What are your thoughts on brands pushing a message of sustainability while still producing millions of garments yearly and aiming for exponential growth? For example, H&M having a conscious collection, while opening 300 new stores and expanding their other brands’ online presence to 70 new markets in 2019 or Zara committing to sustainable fabrics while releasing 500 new designs per week.
The business model is inherently unsustainable. The challenge is applying the concept of planetary boundaries to an individual business. We have some sense that humanity overall and including the fashion industry have breached some planetary boundaries but we do not have mechanisms for regulating that. If we know there is a finite amount of pie, how do we determine which brand gets how much of the pie? At the moment most businesses operate as if all of the pie was theirs alone, and even then as if the pie was limitless.
Is it disingenuous for a fast fashion brand to use the term sustainable when the business model is inherently unsustainable?
Yes it is. In H&M’s case, having some ‘sustainable’ materials in the mix makes little difference when in 2018 they overproduced $4.3 billion worth of goods. It is a waste of materials and labor and time, a huge waste of resources. Any model that creates billionaires by keeping others in poverty and/or through tax avoidance should be immediately called out as unsustainable and unjust.
Are there any tangible benefits to big fashion brands talking about sustainability such as raising broader awareness? Or is it simply drowning out other voices who are perhaps committing in a more authentic, fully-rounded way?
Maybe there is, but they also mislead the public not unlike the fossil fuel industry has for several decades.
Brands often talk about using ‘eco’ materials, circularity and recycling when it comes to sustainability. What other methods might they employ in order to get closer to being truly sustainable?
As a bare minimum in the context of the planetary emergency, a brand should determine the size they will remain at and commit to it permanently, and then transform their operations to become carbon positive.
Can you give an example of a brand or organisation that you think is doing innovative things within the sustainable fashion space?
We need more not-for-profit fashion brands, employee-owned brands and community-based, non-profit clothes sharing platforms. We shouldn’t have a single billionaire in fashion, or at all. I admire Fashion Revolution and Remake, to name two, and I am proud of having co-founded the Union of Concerned Researchers in Fashion.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Pingbacks & Trackbacks