Last week I posted about the Kate Fletcher sustainable fashion and textile book and how we might start thinking anew about what sustainable fashion actually needs to do. Today I want to talk about one suggestion the book makes for actually making fashion more sustainable, which is around the concept of speed.
This takes as a starting point the idea that any resilient system (whether ecological, economic or social) needs to be characterised by both slow and elements, having a backbone/framework of stable structures in which very fast small scale changes can happen. For example, a mature forest takes hundreds of years to grow, but new plants can flower and die over a single season. Slowness provides stability and relability, whereas fast elements provide innovation, creativity and adaptation.
And it is the same for fashion. A resilient fashion system needs to be:
a celebration of the glorious bits of fashion (a fast layer, dealing with newness, change and fashion symbolism) and of really good making and material quality (a slow layer, dealing with resourcefulness and optimisation). It requires us to find ways to extend the value and use of some products while simultaneously learning how to express the fashion moment while minimising the impact of material consumption.
This means that we can no longer think in terms of fast=bad and slow=good. instead it is about finding the right mix of fast and slow and designing clothes that are appropriate for the way they will eventually be used.
When you think about the way an item of clothing is used in practice, it becomes apparent that the resource use attached to any one item can vary massively. For example, a staple item such as a plain shirt (or underwear) is worn regularly and washed a lot over its life, meaning that the energy used to launder it eventually dwarfs the energy used to produce it. In contrast, for a cheap party top that is worn only a handful of times before it disappears in the back of the wardrobe, the energy use is all in the production. Then there are other cases, where items such as winter coats are used a lot, but cleaned only once a year.
So when you think about it that way, for the heavy use item it makes sense to focus most on changing the way people wash them and care for them (for example, high tech self-cleaning fabrics, or by offering mending services) whereas for the low use ‘fashion’ items, it may make sense to actually design for disposability. Rather than making your party tops out of polyester, which takes centuries to degrade and usually ends up in landfill, or conventional cotton, which uses up lots of water and is heavily pesticide dependent, and therefore really should be used as long as is possibly possible, you could make them out of compostable cellulose fabric for example (a bit like the disposable 1960s paper dresses in the picture). Disposability need not necessarily be a bad thing, provided it is carefully thought through and planned as part of a wider system in which some items are long term investments while others are designed to meet our needs for newness, fashion and identity.
The overall message is: there are no hard and fast rules and there is no substitute for actually thinking things through. Which is really a lesson that applies to pretty much any situation!
Oh, and in researching this post I discovered that the book’s author, Kate Fletcher, has a web site, where there are some links to other recent projects.