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Sustainable fashion part 3: participatory design

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.

What say you?

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Empress 22 March 2010, 5:12 pm

    This is a great idea, I've been tossing up the idea for sometime now to reuse materials in my own closet to create new clothes and I think that is a sustainable option that many people can also consider.

  • jesse.anne.o 22 March 2010, 5:33 pm

    I love this series book review. I am definitely finding that the more I back off from shopping that's not mindful, and decided to prioritize use a seamstress for dresses I already know I want and can be fitted to my measurements, I've felt less antsy about shopping.

    These sentiments:

    "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."

    — made me think. I also have some handmade stuff I got from browsing Renegade Craft Fair or the like and even though I try to have an eye for skilled workmanship, I did still end up with some fits that just aren't "me" and I've gotten bored of over time. So I wonder if what I'm asking a seamstress to make, handmade, will have more value than the stuff I found that was handmade but not co-planned by me?

  • jesse.anne.o 22 March 2010, 5:36 pm

    Also – I originally thought it would be a great idea to move back to bespoke stuff where everyone has clothes tailor made for them like back in the day where you picked out textiles and had your dressmaker whip them out. But then, to your previous post about appropriate materials for the purpose of the clothing, I wonder if people would still be wasteful about it? It would no longer be a compulsory thing integrated into an industry, but a conscious choice to show extravagance?

  • Missa 22 March 2010, 7:17 pm

    I just wanted to point out that the designers and the fashion elite are not in a bubble coming up with their ideas.

    It seems that today's designers and in turn clothing retailers in general, who are often just creating knock-offs of what the big designers are doing, are looking more and more (especially in this age of independent fashion bloggers and streetstyle sites) to what new trends are happening on the streets.

    Trends started by creative folks who shop vintage and thrift stores to find pieces that are unique and wear them in a modern way through alteration or even just creative styling. I mean, how often do you look at what designers these days are putting out and say to yourself: "I could totally find that at the thriftstore."? A lot!

    So in a sense I'd say this is already happening though the two factions, the creative street people and the high end designers, are not so much working together as just borrowing ideas from one another. Yes, I think the creative dresser on the street is also often taking inspiration from what the designers are doing as well.

    I guess my point is that this relationship occurs currently in a way that is exclusive of the issue of sustainability. If that makes sense.

  • Anonymous 24 March 2010, 8:22 pm

    This post had me nodding my head, for sure. Especially when Fletcher talks of the 'being, doing and interacting' of fashion.

    I feel much more excited by my wardrobe when I have a box of sequins to sew artfully to a cashmere cardigan, when I can't find the idea I have in my head anywhere in the shops, or when I hem a dress that has been unwearable due to its length.

    Small examples, maybe, but they are ways of participating in fashion that at least please me. I am woefully low on 'making' skills, despite my desire to be a truly crafty girl, but even participating in the creation of my clothes in the smallest of ways certainly makes me feel fulfilled, and creates the hope that as I age, I will become as skilled as some of the women in my family were. I truly believe that it is an empowering and important thing to do, participating in the business of clothing ourselves.

    Thanks for the ever-thought-provoking posts. And congrats!


  • Millie 27 March 2010, 2:43 am

    I say YES! I found myself nodding along going "this is exactly why I sew!" To me sustainability is not just about reworking the resource arithmetic, and your distinction between passive and active consumers is spot on. I don't really have much to add to this! I will say, though, that I'm much, much more attached to clothing I or someone else has handmade as opposed to the clothes I buy either new or thrifted. That's really individual, though, and not everyone's got the opportunity to learn to sew or has a seamstress they can get clothes from. I'm all in favour of fostering a locally centred individual garment industry, though 🙂

  • neighbourhood.gal 27 March 2010, 7:13 am

    I sew too. In my neighbourhood I'm a bit of an oddity, because I sew complete garments from new material. There are a few folks around who refashion stuff from thrift stores and this is seen as far more in keeping with the local vibe.

    But I just can't do it.

  • sarah 29 January 2012, 6:54 am

    is it too late to post on this? I identify with Fletcher’s “user-maker,” but not just in terms of fashion. My husband made a beautiful console table for us while in graduate school; I both mend and repair our clothes and make new ones for us from time to time (I could and maybe should do it more often, in lieu of shopping? I say that some times you just want to shop, too, though), but we also grow some of our own food, and over the last two years we have increasingly taken to foraging for foodstuffs, some of which I preserve and then give as gifts in large care packages at the holidays; I make jewelry for my girlfriends (one friend actually has a pretty large collection of handmade pieces from me); the list goes on. An artist friend is going to take a dying plum tree out of our yard for us, in exchange for the hard fruit wood that he can preserve and use for wood-block printing. And I agree that there is a way of being active in your own engagement with objects which actually enriches life and living. But I disagree that the user-maker must necessarily remain a minority population. I think that one of the first illusions of consumer capitalism that we are taught to believe is inherent/natural/inevitable is that people can’t and won’t make for themselves. There is always time – if not for fashion, for some other slow processes of making in our lives – and I think that we live at an interesting time when the barter system is really starting to resurface; I think there is a potential economy for trade between user-makers in our near future. After all, I swapped with you for one of your handknit hats many years ago, which has had a LOT of wear since then! (One quarter my students even confessed that they could always pick me out at the gym by my “red hat, green bag” and would come and say hi! That hat became an emblem!)

    In fact, here’s another idea for reading (I just posted one on another blog post – geez, sorry these are all so scattered tonight); do you know the writings of William Morris? He was envisioning a return to slow industries and quality handmade craft traditions back in the 19th century. I agree with many of his ideas – that fine things are meant to be used, that we ought to make and live with beautiful objects in our daily life, to allow them to be run down, used up, etc. He’s so conscientious about making USE of things – if you haven’t read his works before, you might really enjoy them! (plus, he is speaking AS an artist, which is also a nice perspective from which to write – he knows something about the processes he describes)
    sarah recently posted..something new – and something oldMy Profile

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