In this third and final post in the series based on Kate Fletcher’s Sustainable Fashion and Textiles I want to talk about a completely different approach to making fashion more sustainable, which doesn’t focus on the actual sustainability of the fabric, production method, disposal etc. but on how we as users of fashion items interact with the design process – a move from being a consumer to what Fletcher calls a ‘user-maker’.
This starts from the premise that in the current configuration of the fashion industry, most peoples’ relationship with clothes is passive. Visiting the high streets of the world, there is choice between shops and brands, but the choices are restricted as everywhere the clothes essentially very similar. The shop interiors are uniform across the world, and small independent shops who may have offered something a bit different are pushed out by the dominant global brands producing large quantities cheaply. So shoppers end up with little real choice, and as Fletcher argues, “this lack of choice erodes our individuality and dulls our imagination, limiting our confidence about what clothes can be”.
We become passive ‘followers’ of trends and which are dreamt up by the fashion elite and the designers, who are seen to know best. Fashion items are presented to us as ‘closed’, and we are not encouraged to personalise them for our own needs, but instead are asked to buy into a ‘perfect’ vision of what the designer intended. Over time, the availability of ‘perfect’ clothes has meant that the sewing alteration skills people used to have just decades ago have become lost. The practice of designing and making clothes has become professionalised, which reinforces the fashion systems current power structures, with ‘genius’ designers at the top. We end up in a situation where we have:
deskilled and ever more inactive individuals, who feel both unrepresented by the fashion system and unable to do anything about it. The system, and the clothes that represent it, appears to undermine our self-esteem and yet we lack the knowledge and confidence to make, adapt and personalise fashion pieces ourselves. From this position of passivity the only choice available to us seems to be to consume.
The solution Fletcher proposes is ‘participatory design’, where users either re-learn to handmake things or enter an interactive dialogue with designers to co-produce items that are individually tailored. Through participatory design people begin the process of re-skilling themselves, and in doing so move from a position of passivity to a ‘life of action’, which can make them more satisfied as humans:
When we are actively engaged in, learning about or teaching something, we tend to feel more fulfilled. We are drawn out of a passive state where our focus and goal tends to be ‘having’ a garment and into the more active states of being (engaged and creative), doing (sewing) and interacting (with fashion symbolism). These active states have a requirement for an evolving set of knowledge and skills so that we don’t become bored or frustrated. The aim is to enable us to engage in a process of enrichment that is chiefly concerned with skills, knowledge and experience and one where our focus is switched away from the accumulation of possessions to one where possessions, while still important, are used as tools to help us become better skilled.
I appreciate that not everyone has the time or inclination to become a ‘user-maker’, so it’s always going to be a minority movement, but I really like the idea that this way, fashion is not just this flippant thing that women like, as it’s often portrayed to be, but a force for human development and advancement of knowledge, and hopefully a better society of active citizens. It’s a different type of sustainability than the resource use/business ethics angle the rest of the book takes, but I think that an active, engaged society is a more sustainable society, so it does fit in.
In terms of the more traditional definition of sustainability, the argument goes that if people are engaged in and aware of the details of the fashion process, and possibly even participating in the production of clothes it is easier to build in concerns for sustainability, because it is not just the profit margin of the big retailers that dominates everything. Fletcher also argues that things that are hand made and/or co-produced are valued more by people and therefore worn more often and for longer. I’m not sure I’m completely convinced by the latter point, I have quite a few handmade things I’ve worn for a short time then got bored of, but there’s probably some truth in it where the handmade thing is also good quality and tailored to the person’s needs.