The Politics of Fashion

Jax reports from Sweden on the complex world of fashion and sustainability.

SONY DSCJax Wechsler

Hey Hey (Swedish for Hi)! I write this post from an airport in Gotenburg in Sweden where I have just spent the last few days at a conference called Crafting the Future held by the European Academy of Design. Here I learnt a lot about the topic of sustainability and fashion from academics Dr. Kate Fletcher and Professor Simonetta Carbonaro from Milan. These talks have led me to rethink my own shopping behaviour and I wanted to share some of their sentiments with you.

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Sustainability is a complex issue. Sustainability and fashion together is extremely complex. Whilst many brands pull the green / sustainability / eco card – what does that really mean? Does this approach to sustainability have enough impact? There is an inherent paradox in the term “sustainable fashion”. If you think about it, how can any brand that wants us to buy more stuff be truly sustainable. Eco-alternatives may offer products with a smaller ecological foot-print but they still promote consumption. Are the business models and economic paradigms of the fashion industry more problematic than their manufacturing and distribution processes? The key issue with sustainability and fashion is quite simply that of mass consumption and as Kate and Simonetta both articulately argued at the conference – the problem is not a tactical or technical one but a political one. Where globalisation has spread consumerism to the far reaches of the planet, consumption is a huge and growing problem.

Some symptoms of this complex and wicked problem have been summarised below:

  1. There are too many garments being produced on the planet. Are you aware that 1/3 of the clothing given to Africa for aid is dumped and that donation of clothes to Africa and other developing nations actually have a very negative impact on the local economy? These communities have been clothing themselves through their own local economic structures for a long time before aid began.
  2. The fashion industry is constituted by a system. Expenditure on fashion by consumers in the UK has increased by four times while the amount spent has decreased. This distorted equation must mean that somebody/something somewhere must lose. This price erosion has led to a very unsustainable system inefficiency. It has also led to a desire for ‘more-faster-and cheaper’ and the perpetuation of the idea of “out of fashion” to acquire to growth by the industry.
  3. A recent UNAC survey noted that by 2050 the global community needs to reduce its consumption of resources by 1/5, resources that are required for creation and consumption of all things including both garments from Primark, K-Mart, H&M, and SES, as-well as eco-alternative brands. All consumption depletes our finite resources.

In order to understand the relationship between sustainability and fashion it is first important to recognise fashion as an economic and political system. The fashion industry has made us value ‘cheap, fast and good’ clothing. The mechanism for growth is for consumers to buy more, hence the ‘going out of fashion’ idea. This idea is also discussed as ‘fast fashion’.

Kate argued that we are so focussed on the short-term that we forget about the long-term and we need to understand that instant gratification through consumption is having long-term consequences for current and future generations. We need to take responsibility for our role within this political system as consumers and understand the long-term consequences of our purchasing decisions.

Both Simonetta and Kate stressed that new economic systems will bring sustainability to fashion. They both discussed a growing trend of craft- based design and DIY fashion which extend the value of fashion to something that is enduring and personal and not throw away. Simonetta stated “the era of fashion that goes ‘out of fashion’ is finished”. We are (hopefully) on the dawn of a new system for fashion.

Below I have shared a few contemporary fashion labels/sites with interesting business models/systems.

> Patagonia : are very transparent about their supply chain and foot-print and encourage the lowering of consumption through their Common Threads Inititaive. They are probably the first organisation who encourage consumers to buy less through advertising.

> IOU Project :  A wonderful site where you can read profiles about the artisans who make your clothes. Ethical and sustainable fashion with an interesting business model. It’s a social site through which they have built a community around their brand, also giving their clothing a unique and human face.

> Etsy  : A site where people can make clothing and accessories and sell them to the public. It’s full of unique, niche, non-mass produced craft based products.

> Made In Jail  : is an Italian fashion label that is manufactured by people in prison. These garments have a “uniform” style and you can be assured that they have been locally produced.

> DIY fashion movements : there are lots of DIY fashion blogs where people make and shape their current wardrobe. For example, Local Wisdom is a digital platform project by Kate Fletcher exploring the ‘craft of use’ where people can share their stories about the craft of use with different sites for different countries.

> Filipa – K : is about a belief in the quality and timelessness of their designs as they buy their products back for resale.

Now some questions …

After reading this post I urge you to consider some questions. Please try to remember these questions next time you “need” something new.

> Can fashion be a driver for a better future?

> Can we create maximum value for as many people as possible through our purchasing decisions? How?

I urge you to stop out-sourcing your responsibility and start being conscious about  the long-term impacts of your consumption. Get rid of your “single-use” mentality and start being creative. Can that item you want to throw out be re-purposed for something else?

The fashion train is evolving. Round up your friends, sisters and brothers … and jump on board!

Jax is passionate about the power of design to create better futures for people and the planet. She is currently completing  a masters by research relating to human-centred design and has just launched a new consultancy called Sticky Design Studio which helps organisations to solve complex problems through human-centred design. She consults independently at Jax Interactive, blogs at http://cocreatingchange.com and tweets as @jacwex.
Life Balance = Travel. Walks. Puppy pats.

 

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