Can fashion ever be sustainable?
By Naomi Barling.
“It’s not even about the survival of the fashion industry. It’s about the survival of life on earth as we know it.”
Carry Somers – Fashion Revolution
Another season of sartorial razzmatazz has come to an end, and while fashion month marks the pinnacle of the industry’s madness, consisting of the usual spectacle of runways, presentations, anxiety-inducing VIP parties and endless internal politics over things like seat allocations, there was something different in the air this season. People felt restless, the question of whether we should be continuing with shows in their current form were heard in whispers up and down the FROW. People feel the change coming, but no one knows what that change will be, and where they will fit into it.
The fashion industry is reputed to be one of the most polluting industries, behind only oil. In a world where the debate surrounding climate change is altering the way we understand our planet and the evidence and consequences of our behavior and consumption become more apparent, we all have to ask ourselves: how can I make a difference?
We use clothing as treasured markers in our lives, tying stories, memories and versions of ourselves into fibers hanging in a wardrobe. Fashion is integral to self-expression; the decision to adorn our bodies is deeply personal and evolves imaginatively over a lifetime. There is, however, a strong case to be made that all this self-actualizing through buying new stuff is helping to kill the only home we have.
Aspirational advertising, algorithmic ‘sorcery’ and social media encourages us to unconsciously align our sense of self with brands and their vision of the world. With influencers selling lifestyles, the lines of what is real and what is staged are becoming less clear. And it’s all so easy! When we click and buy online or flick through racks of ever-changing stuff, or when things magically appear on our doorsteps neatly packaged and wrapped in plastic, most of us avoid thinking about where our garments come from. Those inconvenient truths, however, are becoming too immediate to ignore.
Did one of the millions of children employed anonymously in the garment trade create that new date-night outfit, or pick the cotton that made it? Was it stitched by a woman who faces unsafe conditions and sexual harassment in the factory she works in for a wage that equates to less than our morning coffee? Perhaps it was touched by the hands of a Cambodian garment worker who was later shot by police for protesting about the country’s minimum wage. Or by a worker who lost their lives in the 2013 Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh where 1,138 died and 2,500 were seriously injured after a factory collapsed.
Fashion Revolution is an organization working globally towards radically changing the way our clothes are sourced, produced and consumed. “Every time we buy, wear and dispose of clothes, we create an environmental footprint and an impact on the people who make them, most of whom are women,’ says founder Carry Somers. In a recent Fashion Revolution consumer survey, more than one-in-three people said they consider the social and environmental impact when buying clothes. However, Somers says a “far bigger, faster cultural shift” is needed by all of us to “change the culture of fashion”.
It’s easy to play the blame game when it comes to topics this critical and expansive, with fast-fashion often coming under fire. But for the sustainability movement to work, it needs to be inclusive and understanding. Not everyone can afford to buy sustainably or save up to buy something they know was made ethically. Fashion is status; the aspiration is still to mimic the luxury brands, aspire for more. It’s a trickle-down effect (cue the Devil Wears Prada cerulean sweater monologue). Until this deeply entrenched notion is shattered, sustainable fashion will play second fiddle to dizzying consumerism and status anxiety.
Sharing the facts, talking about the problems with the industry and encouraging consumers to put pressure on governments is the only way forward. Small designers can only do so much to lessen their impact. Until the major players embrace this need for change, we’re left with unconscionable waste. But business is business. Many brands won’t make the decisions needed to radically rethink and restructure their process unless they feel their profits are on the line. Brands want systemic change that does not destroy their bottom line. This is where the consumer comes in. Our job is to be mindful of how we consume fashion, to think of alternatives and change the narrative around self, fashion, style and status.
Of course, the suggestion that individuals can fix an entire multi-billion-dollar industry all by themselves is ludicrous. Yet there are things most of us can do that will genuinely help. For so long we’ve been tricked into thinking there is no alternative but to Buy, Buy, Buy! But if we buy less, the industry will make less. Curate your wardrobe instead of constantly reinventing yourself with new stuff. Create a wardrobe of quality staples that last and just indulge in pieces you care really about. Sell, donate, recycle and upcycle your old clothes before you start investing in the new.
Every time we shop, we make a choice – and we can choose to challenge the exploitation of women, men and children and the pollution of our air and oceans. A sustainable, eco-responsible fashion future is ours if we want it. Ultimately, it’s in our collective interest to work with nature rather than against it. But we must make that choice and change the narrative. With a Global pandemic shifting everyone’s priorities and threatening so many industries, what better time to reassess?
Photos courtesy of Fashion Revolution. Homepage photo credit: Studio Panoulis.