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Sustainable fashion part 2: thinking about speed

RRRIPP!! paper fashion

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.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Sal 15 March 2010, 6:47 pm

    It never ceases to amaze me how multifaceted questions of eco-friendliness can be. It never even occurred to me that the amount of washings could eclipse the energy input of production. (Though it HAS occurred to me that buying a new hybrid car when you have a perfectly good non-hybrid is probably counterproductive.) I love that people are thinking of more unusual, imaginative, and, in my mind, reasonable solutions to sustainable fashion.

  • LyddieGal 16 March 2010, 1:47 am

    I never though of cotton as being a fabric that consumed so much energy, or that laundering factored in.

    At least 95% of my clothes don't go in the dryer and I never dry clean!

    Chic on the Cheap

  • ilovemyhouse 16 March 2010, 7:56 am

    What a great to new insight you gave me, early this tuesdaymorning!. I think a lot of what you wrote could apply to furniture and decoration, don't you think? Great blog!x

  • Retro Chick 16 March 2010, 10:36 am

    That really sounds like a fascinating book. I must remember to write it down before I next go to the library!

  • Diana 16 March 2010, 4:34 pm

    This is a fantastic post, and I love how you point out that it is possible for fast fashion to not necessarily be bad. I love the idea of party items being made out of compostable fabric.

  • The Waves 16 March 2010, 6:23 pm

    This is a great, thought-provoking post. I guess it comes down to the same plastic bag vs paper bag debate, where several studies have shown that plastic bags can actually be more eco-friendly, when you take production and shipping costs into consideration. (Of course, long-term shopping bags made of recycled cloth are the eco-friendliest!)

  • Millie 16 March 2010, 9:15 pm

    I'm doing a series on sustainability too (partially inspired by your first post on it), and my first post is half finished. The first half is about laundry! Great minds think alike 🙂

    I like the idea of fast vs slow, and the notion of finding a balance between them. It makes economic sense, too, for those of us (like me!) who have a limited budget and can't always afford really well crafted (and thus expensive) clothes. I can afford some, yes, but not a whole closet's worth. That said, I like the quality of slow fashion, and clothes that aren't going to go out of fashion in a month.

    This is getting a bit long, though, so I'll save it for the post and pass it along once it gets finished.

    Oh, and I never thought about the paper dresses of the 60's being compostable! I really like that idea.

  • Sarah 16 March 2010, 10:00 pm

    I love the idea of finding a mix of "fast" and "slow" instead of just thinking fast=bad and slow=good. But transforming that idea into a manufacturing system as you've proposed in your post seems to presuppose that we all have the same ideas about what styles are "fast" and what styles are "slow." That is, it seems to take some of the individuality out of clothing–we'd have fashion but not style. I agree with your point in your earlier post about how secondhand shopping isn't really as "sustainable" as we might assume, but one thing that I really value about the current setup of secondhand stores/swapping/etc. is the way that it allows for an interpenetration of fast and slow–one woman's fast can become another woman's slow and vice versa.

  • Style Eyes 18 March 2010, 9:53 pm

    It is a really difficult issue. Of course it would be better if fast fashion were biodegradable, but even better if we bought clothes to last that were also made in an eco friendly way. I suppose you may never change attitudes/ culture enough to get people just to buy clothes that will last and forget about the latest fashions, so you are right there needs to be some sort of compromise.

  • An Affair With Fashion 18 March 2010, 11:39 pm

    Fantastic post written from an even point of view. I think fast fashion has it's place, as does slow. I think it's great that you wrote this in a way that doesn't criticize people for their choices, but in a way that makes people think.

  • Janine 20 March 2010, 1:49 am

    What an interesting, insightful post! I think that really there is a call to the consumer to buy responsibly. I've definitely changed my stance on "disposable clothing" since reading this article! It is all so much more complicated than it seems. Great read!

  • neighbourhood.gal 22 March 2010, 6:25 am

    Thanks! I just requested this from my library. I will forward to information to another blogger (she sews…) who is beginning to study sustainability.

  • sapphirewhisper 23 March 2010, 2:34 am

    Very interesting post: both parts one and two!
    I really must check out Kate Fletcher's book and am hoping you post a part three to this topic soon.

  • Ciel 23 April 2010, 11:05 am

    This is a great posting, you might also like to add your comments on our designers Call Green 2020 which we launched at the Unite Nations in January 2010 & just last week started the first follow up to get opinions from designer, creator makers to complete our questionaire about green practises they follow and what they can do & would like to be able to do. We launched this in association with Ciel and The EFF and Ethical Fashion Show Paris to create a green fashion industry – we have posted the link on our new fashion blog : cielfashion dot blogspot dot com :

    please do take a look and register your views! Thank you
    Ciel x