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Sustainable fashion part 1: conceptualising the issues

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?

picture, by Kate_A.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Jennoit 8 March 2010, 5:39 pm

    Really interesting. I think the problems that you describe here encapsulte why I feel mixed about "fashion" or my clothing in general. It's as if paying attention to what I wear is somehow not just narcissistic, but somehow also unsustainable. I realise it's not that simple, but then – what is? 😉

    I appreciate the idea that the relationship between fashion and consumption conflicts with sustainability – AND that it's so obvious that we almost never seem to address it.

    Sorry – long reply, but I do find this topic interesting.

  • Retro Chick 8 March 2010, 5:49 pm

    Sounds like a brilliant book, I'll have to see if it's in my local library. I'm interested to read more of your thoughts on it.

    I don't think there is a definite solution to making "fashion" or "clothing" completely sustainable, but I do think in recent years the speed of change in the fashion world has got so insane that we need to take a step back.

    When normal women think they can't wear the same thing out twice something has to be wrong!

  • Sal 8 March 2010, 5:57 pm

    FASCINATING, and such a well thought-out argument. It has often seemed to me that the attempts to change – or even describe – the problems inherent to fashion and sustainability have been feeble at best. And I think you're exactly right: What should be addressed is the emotional and personal needs that style and fashion fulfill. A solution that just tells people to use clothing to keep warm and dry is asking too much and too quickly. Very curious to hear about the suggested solutions from the book.

  • jesse.anne.o 8 March 2010, 8:15 pm

    Agreed re thrifting not being the panacea – in the same way the freegans/dumpster diving isn't an answer. It's more a method for current dynamics or – even – a statement.

    I hadn't thought of 1 sewing machine vs more sewing machines before – I suppose that could be countered with rented sewing machines/sewing machines by the hour/sewing maching cooperatives…but I do think it's a good point.

    It's such a difficult topic because a lot of it is supply and demand and the demand is often forced by people who don't think they have any reason to think about the demand they're creating. As in, they don't think they're stakeholders in the environment? It's so difficult to change that attitude or thought process and it seems the clothing mfg industry is mostly beholden to those types of folks with little accountability elsewhere.

    So I am also very interested in hearing the book's premise/points.

  • Style Eyes 8 March 2010, 8:49 pm

    Wow great post. It is so good to see a fashion blog tackling the topic of sustainability in such an indepth way. There is so much talk of eco fashion and whilst this is a step in the right direction, I think there is so much more to it than that.

    I am currently struggling with my blog a little in terms of talking about fashion (which I love) in a way that doesn't just encourage consumerism. The problem is that I finding it increasingly difficult to separate the two.

    I think that the whole sustainability issue needs to be tackled from both the consumer, retailer and manufacturer side of things.

    Sounds like a really interesting book. Can't wait to read the next post on this.

  • parakeetpie 9 March 2010, 3:36 pm

    An interesting post, thank you. As you know this is a subject which has been at the back of my mind. The book sounds like it makes some good points. I'd like to read it but know I'll most likely never get round to it so thanks for the overview and I look forward to the next installment.

    I am coming to the conclusion that when shopping, I don’t know enough about the production standards of companies to decide whether I am happy with their ethicality, i.e. just because something is made of fair-trade cotton doesn’t mean it wasn’t produced in a sweat shop, or just because something costs more on the rail doesn’t mean the person who made it received a fair wage. So for now, as long as I am satisfied with the quality and am sure that it will last (both in terms of “will I want to wear it next year or the year after?” and “will it wear out in 6 months?”) then I’ll buy it. I hope to improve on my knowledge of which retailers have fair standards combined with good quality and sensible prices. People Tree is top of my list to try out.

  • Eyeliah 9 March 2010, 11:43 pm

    If I am going to buy a 'new' piece of clothing I am always looking for something more sustainable, in a natural fibre and classic shape. But for thrifting I don't worry as much (but still try to follow my fibre guidelines). The idea of the charity shop system collapsing is terrifying; I think more likey the donated clothes will keep becoming of lesser and leser quality.

  • Millie 11 March 2010, 1:44 am

    This is really thoughtful and well written (and while it's a bit long by some people's standards, I thought it was a good length. This is a complex issue, and discussing it with any depth involves discussing a lot of different angles.) Sustainability (and more broadly, material and labour ethics) in fashion is something that I've been turning over in my head for a while, and I've been sitting on a couple of half-formulated posts of my own on this too. I'd never thought about the sewing machine efficiency argument, though as someone who sews for a hobby, I feel gain more from sewing than just clothes, and not having a sewing machine would mean I'd lose my main creative outlet.

    And I think that is important to recognize: we _do_ gain more from clothes than pure functionality, and so reducing sustainability in fashion purely to resource management ignores much of the picture of fashion. I'm really curious about the two suggested ways to address the issue, and I'll let you know when I get around to posting about this myself.

  • Out of Order 13 March 2010, 3:06 am

    I admit I was a little lost & unfocused by the end, but you raise some valid points. How do we curb the intense drive for "new" and "more" that produces such an impossibly disposable wardrobe while enjoying the fantasy & creativity of the fashion industry?

    *Interesting point regarding the inherent problems with the diy/thrift "solution."
    *I had a sewing party with a friend a few days ago, where we easily alternated sewing and pinning our projects for about 6 hours with one machine and a lot of artichoke bread. Go us!

  • LyddieGal 13 March 2010, 7:03 am

    I never thought about the sewing machines before.
    That is a very interesting point – especially since I've had a sewing machine for about 10 years, but to compare the number of clothes I've made to what I've purchased over last decade, makes my sewing machine seem more like a paper weight than a source of clothing.

    I also must admit that I have become addicted to acquisition of new clothing, be it truly new, or just 'new to me' a day does not pass where I don't think about buying clothing. From taking an extra long look in a shop window, to getting an email reminder from ebay, I am constantly being influenced to buy more clothes, and I have little will power to not.

    Chic on the Cheap

  • Academichic 15 March 2010, 7:39 am

    I think this is a great post (and one that is really well written) and I agree with the points made although I hate to admit to them. I like to think that by thrifting I'm being eco-conscious and the truth that even thrifting is part of a larger consumption circle makes me uncomfortable and sad – but it's a fact that needs to be addressed nonetheless. I'm looking forward to reading your followup post to this, since I'm curious what the two points you took away from Fletcher's work are.

    Great food for thought!


  • the Citizen Rosebud 19 March 2010, 1:17 am

    First of all, I'm impressed you have access to the book, it's over $100 bucks on amazon.com, which is tough change to cough up. Your points are very good, and I hope it stirs up a lot of thought and conversation. I too, mostly thrift, and support handmade creation,s thank goodness my mom still sews for me, lol. I hope that we change our disposable lifestyle and make a commitment to quality. Sustainability can't be sustained without emphasis on smart design and quality construction.

  • Emily Kennedy 22 March 2010, 9:20 pm

    Thank you for posting about Fletcher's work. I look forward to reading her book.

  • roni 7 April 2010, 2:49 pm

    I didn't read the whole thing, as I'm trying to skim this without my boss catching me. But the whole idea of stop producing new clothes is brilliant. Do you remember when all the designers teamed up at Barneys to create new designs out of old jeans? It was handsdown some of their BEST WORK in years.

    Some things of course would have to be made anew, but there's not reason for regular plain tees to have to be massively reproduced every year.

    Inherently you are correct that if everyone holds on to their current items, the economy the clothing aspect of it at least would indeed collapse.

  • Anonymous 10 December 2010, 11:07 am


    I've just bought this book and I absolutely LOVE it.. it's so well written and easy to understand!

    Just wondering what page you were reading for
    "tackles the impacts related to the scale of conspicuous fashion consumption, it does little to influence its root causes"


  • Franca 10 December 2010, 2:59 pm

    A, I can't remember, I got that book out of the library and it's now gone back. My guess would be somewhere near the beginning!