A wee while ago I did a post on ethical shopping, but I thought it was a good idea to also approach the issue of ethics/sustainability from a more conceptual angle. I’ve been looking out for literature on the subject for a while, I haven’t found much that really worked for me. Actually, I generally have found most academic fashion writing not to be particularly illuminating, it’s either pseudo-philosophical dense prose saying virtually nothing, or quite commonsense and journalistic in style. But then again, I’ve never studied this area and am restricted in my search to the books available in the (excellent) Edinburgh public libraries, so I may just have been looking at the wrong stuff. If anyone can recommend anything they think I would enjoy, please let me know!
Anyway, I *have* found a book on sustainable fashion that I think is excellent, Sustainable Fashion and Textiles, by Kate Fletcher. The first part of this book is the textiles part, which is mainly about the production processes involved in making fabrics and manufacturing clothes. Not being a fashion designer, this wasn’t so interesting to me. I was more interested in the second part, which about how we can make the fashion industry sustainable beyond the use of particular products. This part of the book opens with the following quote:
It’s an obvious truth that the relationship between fashion and consumption conflicts with sustainability goals – although, like the elephant in the room, it’s so obvious that it’s often overlooked.
And I think that’s so true – a concern for sustainability and ethics is becoming ever more mainstream, but it just feels to me that we are so concerned with finding solutions that we never really recognise or define what the problem actually is. As this article from the financial times talks about, sustainable fashion can refer to anything from having close cooperative fair-trade relationships with people in other parts of the worlds, via using unbleached cotton to simply making well designed and good quality items (which, for a luxury firm, seems a bit of a cop out). What we need to do, Kate Fletcher goes on to argue, is to:
cast fashion and textile in a more subtle and complex sustainability role than is frequently recognised. It is a role that can never be fulfilled by a straightforward minimum-consumption drive alone. As while reducing what you buy or choosing second hand, recycled or organic is extremely positive and tackles the impacts related to the scale of conspicuous fashion consumption, it does little to influence its root causes.
I couldn’t agree more. Rationally thinking, the best thing to do for the environment is simply to stop producing new clothes. This will stop wasting resources and will make people care better for the clothes they already have. But obviously it’s not as easy as that. Quite apart from the fact that we live in a capitalist system that relies on the fashion industry for employment and economic growth, none of us would stand for it. Because for all our (time limited) shopping bans, we still want new stuff regularly, don’t we.
And the increasing popularity of thrifting and handmaking, while a positive development overall, isn’t the panacea it’s often described as. Buying from charity shops and thrift stores can’t be a true alternative to buying new for everyone because the second hand and the new economy are intrinsically linked. If everyone stops buying new, and holds on to what they have, there are no more charity shop donations, and hence no more charity shops. The whole system would collapse.
And as for handmade, from a purely resource use point of view, is probably worse for the environment because of the outlay in the tools of the trade. Sewing machines are resource expensive to produce, and the fewer of them there are out there, the better. One person (or factory) making a 100 dresses on one sewing machine is better than 50 people with 50 sewing machines making two dresses each. This is purely from resource use point of view. There are of course good arguments for handmaking stuff (which hopefully I’ll come to later) but I’m suggesting that we are a bit more critical about all of this.
Anyway, back to the book. Kate Fletcher is suggesting that one way to arrive at a realistic and workable concept of sustainability is by thinking about the different functions of clothes and the different human needs that they meet. I’m simplifying hugely here, but basically the fashion industry is concerned not only with with clothes, which meet our material needs by providing shelter, warmth etc, but also with fashion items, which help meet for the non-material needs for identity, creation, participation and so on.
If we were only talking about clothes-as-clothing, it would be simple. We would simply design clothes that fulfil all the functional requirements for warmth, dryness, ease of movement etc humans require, we’d make them really durable and then people wouldn’t need to buy anything else for the next ten years. But unfortunately, it doesn’t work like that because clothes-as-fashion have this second function of helping people meet their needs for defining and re-defining their identity, and therefore the vast majority of clothes are chucked out before they are even anywhere near being worn out enough to no longer serve their material function.
The recent move towards fast fashion has accelerated the cycle at which we get bored of clothes, but it is important to recognise that even without/before that, clothes were/are being used for a shorter period than they physically lasted, because of this role in meeting needs for identity and participation. Any concept of sustainability has to recognise that and build on this in a way that lets people satisfy their ‘fashion’ desires without using the amount of resources we are doing at the moment.
The book has many suggestions for how we can make fashion more sustainable in this way, some more convincing than others. I have picked out the two that I like best around ‘speed’ and ‘interaction’, but I’ll save this for another post, because I’ve gone on for so long already and anyone who is still reading has probably lost the will to live by now! I do apologise for the length and girth of this post (and this is me trying to restrain myself!)
Anyway, if you’re still reading, what do you think?