Integrating fashion and sustainability – how might future approaches to change transcend a current paradigm of thinking, doing and communicating fashion?
This article explores the recent history of fashion’s adoption of sustainability, drawing out some key qualities of this process, and paying particular attention to how the culture of fashion itself has shaped it. Of particular importance is the question how long-lasting change can be embraced, sustained and (probably crucially) invigorated by a system that intrinsically favours novelty and thrives on the visual manifestation of change and the aestheticisation of politics. Some alternative readings of fashion and the fashion moment that may support a deeper and more holistic embracing of sustainability are suggested. The article takes a systemic perspective on fashion and sustainability. Yet, it tries to situate the discussion in everyday examples of the user, the designer and other stakeholders’ practices and experiences. The piece draws upon some relevant theory, and findings from my own research into fashion, sustainability, futures studies and metadesign.
Sustainability is a systemic concept that asks for a healthy interdependence of environmental, social and economical factors, in order to secure the well-being of humans and other species both today and in the long-term future. (See e.g. WCED, 1987) Striving for a more ethically and environmentally sound fashion is by no means a new phenomenon. Already in the late nineteenth century: “the ongoing effects of living in big cities and the relentless drive of consumerism instilled in certain groups of society a yearning for greater authenticity, for products and lifestyles that would unite man and nature, maker and consumer, clothing and body”. (Arnold, 2001: 26-27).
Later, the modern environmental movement, to which Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962), the Club of Rome Report (Meadows et al.,1972), and the Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe, can all be termed significant drivers, in fashion manifested itself in the strong eco-looks – non-bleached cotton, naïve natural prints – of the late 1980’ and early 1990’s, and then went largely undercover. In many cases those eco-looks did not coincide with sound environmental strategies. The robust aesthetics – ‘knit your own muesli’ – resulted in a backlash and created a stigma for environmental work in the fashion industry (and beyond). This wave, although cementing stereotypes to this day resident in the fashion mind, also fostered important initiatives: research into new fibres, such as the recovery of PET bottles for fleece, and some designers and brands have remained openly proactive since. (See e.g. Hamnett and Patagonia) However, in the main, mass-market and high fashion kept eco-fashion at arms length. (See e.g. Arnold, 2001; Black, 2008)
Sustainability is no longer a fringe concern, but instead – at least according to a wide political rhetoric – instrumental to virtually all concerns at both local and global scales. At the time of writing, the very much televised and webcast tsunami, and the resulting nuclear plant catastrophe in Fukushima present tragic and loud reminders of the need for global cooperation and local creativity and action. The last decade’s exploration into sustainable fashion has come with more support from a general zeitgeist and public discourse.
Mass-market fashion, which can be exemplified by H&M, stands for the dominant programme in this process of change, and also the programme best documented. Under the umbrella of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) it is carried out through Code of Conduct documents (an agreement a supplier to a company signs), and such instruments as the chemical restriction list. Over the past decade the Codes of Conduct have become increasingly standardised across companies, the emphasis of the relationships with factories have shifted from control to dialogue, and within the fashion organisation the work has gradually grown from the specialised CSR department to include (to very varying degrees) merchandisers, buyers and designers. In many places the responsibility of CSR was initially given to (or pushed onto) those in charge of, for example, quality control and chemistry and therefore developed from a natural scientific framework; the language and instruments quantitative and reductionist in character.
As a whole, this programme can be described as a top-down and formal approach to change. It has been highly successful in reaching a big audience, making sustainability mainstream, in influencing the supply of organic cotton, in raising the standards of factories. Yet, while increasingly the lifecycle model (a comprehensive cradle-to-grave and more recently cradle-to-cradle outlook) guides the work, it still emphasises the processing stages of fashion production, targeting for example emissions from dyeing and labour rights. The astounding potential of environmental improvement by design (see e.g. Thackara, 2005; Fletcher, 2008), and the oftentimes very high impact of laundry in the user stage (see e.g. Allwood et al., 2006) have not to date been prioritised. In addition, a standardised approach to improvement (which the focus on the process stages exemplifies) excludes a more sophisticated engagement with real user-product interaction, and most importantly, what is arguably a core of fashion – the symbolic rationales behind purchase, use and disposal of the fashion garment.
The latter type of approaches are explored and championed by a relatively small but growing number of researchers and designer/makers. They operate on the outskirts of an established fashion system, which gives them licence to challenge its purpose, structure, practices and laws – and the very essence of fashion. The ideas include the hacking of fashion and manipulating of its codes (von Busch, 2009), scenarios from slow to fast fashion springing from the notion that environmental strategies need to be as diverse as users’ interaction with their clothes in reality is (Fletcher and Tham, 2004), and cradle-to-cradle fashion (see e.g. Amy Twigger; Matilda Wendelboe; McDonough and Braungart, 2002).
These initiatives have been important in forwarding the discourse and exist as potentially inspiring imagery of alternative strategies for change, but have – so far – won little resonance in the main stream or high fashion. An in-between category constitutes those pioneering companies that have started from principles of sustainability, and – at least in some cases – are distinctly design driven (see e.g. Howies, People Tree, Terra Plana). Yet they are still firmly resident in a known paradigm of fashion in terms of, for example, the fashion cycle seasons and formalised retail outlets as interfaces to fashion.
There are of course fashion designers and brands whose work is intrinsically close to some notions of sustainability, without explicitly adhering to or advocating them, examples of which is Maison Martin Margiela’s (Article in German) recycling of ideas, or Pringle’s loyalty to craft and the local expressed in its continued knitwear production in Scotland. Yet, a search on one of fashion’s key portals, www.style.com, reveals few explicit or implicit commitments to sustainability amongst those designers that show on schedule during the ready-to-wear fashion weeks in spring 2011.
Instead, in terms of change agency, the multitude of initiatives focusing on reuse, from improved access to textile banks and the structured offer of vintage and second-hand to informal clothes swapping events, constitute significant contributors not least because they address the deeper layers of attitudes, habits and perceptions of fashion.
Finally, media has of course a pivotal role in shaping the notion of and promoting sustainable fashion – as an idea and in terms of actual products. Generally, the conventional fashion media has been opportunistic in its relationship with sustainability, taking stance only when cool designers (such as Stella McCartney) offer up an organic or human-friendly line, and celebrities are keen to wear it. In the main, the coverage represents a superficial reading of fashion’s adoption of sustainability, typified by the slogans ‘eco-chic’ and ‘green is the new black.’ A growing number of off- and on-line publications dedicated to sustainable fashion and lifestyles have also emerged. (See e.g. Camino Magasin, Inhabitat, Treehugger) These have been important in generating awareness, providing inspiration, and spreading examples of more sustainable design, but predominantly, and as almost all the initiatives outlined above, focus primarily on the product level of fashion, and the replacement of a harmful garment, material, or process with a less harmful version – for purchase.
In summary, while there is certainly some cause for celebration and pride – fashion has in the last decade taken a big leap – we are nowhere near a fashion that is ethically, environmentally and economically responsive. Many barriers can be identified, such as the continuous lack of a global labelling system, the shortage of comprehensive lifecycle studies, the slow implementation of cleaner technology, the complexity of defining clear targets for fashion in relation to larger scientific frameworks (such as the Planetary Boundary model, see e.g. Rockström et al., 2009). However, here I would like to focus on the role of the culture of fashion itself in impeding comprehensive changes. It presents barriers so intrinsic to the system, or our paradigm, that they easily defy our notice. In this instance, as often, fashion epitomises tendencies in society. Therefore analysing the culture of fashion in terms of its coming together (or not coming together) with sustainability, may help us understand hiccups in the even larger processes of change called for.
Here two themes are selected to illustrate how barriers to a comprehensive adoption of sustainability can be termed intrinsic to the system of fashion, the umbrella of the two being fashion’s relationship to and dependency on change.
Visual manifestations of change
The resistance to wind farms (visual pollution), to unkempt lawns, to non-bleached irregular fabric – or the embracing of the same, all point to perceptions as regards ‘the visual’ placed in a gatekeeper role. Although interpretations are subtler than the eco-looks of the late 1980s and 1990s, ‘fashion and sustainability’ as a pair is still introduced through certain metaphors accompanied with vivid visual references. In fact, the literal translation of fashion’s encounter with environmental improvement to ‘green is the new black’ is understandable in the sense that most changes in fashion – at least at the obvious level – concern the visual.
By ‘visual’ I do not here simply refer to a look (such as those of the late 1980s and early 1990s). Instead I refer to the placing of change on the surface, coupling it with personal or celebrity lifestyle or image, and focusing on its props ready for purchase. While the middle-class is often accused of buying into such shallow translations, manifestations at a subculture level – for example movements drawing upon a DIY mentality, also come with an aesthetic. While cash in the latter case is not a currency the building of an identity still is. The stylisation still signals a certain disposability of, if not the commitments, at least their manifestations.
It can be argued that the over-reliance on our eyes, what we can see (seeing is believing) is part of a much larger cultural predicament. Ann Thorpe uses the term ‘visuality’ to describe the tendency of seeking to satisfy our needs in external and superficial ways through the consumption of and interaction through image and imagery instead of a turning to a deeper engagement, which demands more commitment in terms of actions and emotions. (Thorpe, 2007)
Yet again, change must be palatable. The Transition Town movement’s guidelines for how a community can transform in the face of climate change and peak oil, emphasise the importance of visual milestones. The community garden, or the local currency may not be the most direct measures in terms of, for example, reducing carbon dioxide emissions. However, they are pivotal in the rallying of a community in terms of seeing progress being made and therefore believing that change is possible and underway. (Hopkins, 2008) My own research shows the importance of the experience of personal agency in processes of change. On the surface insignificant changes that the individual can make immediately and is in control of making (such as washing clothing at lower temperatures or less often), are more important than any other factor in terms of opening doors to deeper learning, wider engagement and empathy, and further action. (Tham, 2008)
At what level do we then encounter change? The recent history of fashion (and, arguably, society at large) adopting sustainability, points to the eyes as our predominant interface to change – if we consider the representations in mass-media, and the brain – if we consider a predominant strategy in companies and for the public, the tick-box list. This leaves the hand predominantly unengaged – unsurprising since few of us are actually physically involved in production, farming and so forth. It also leaves the heart uninvolved. Yes, of course we respond emotionally to attractive or repulsive imagery, yet, how the ecological crisis is most often conveyed, its epicentre placed far away from us in time and in space, makes empathy very abstract.
Celebration of novelty
The reliance on the level of the visual and tangible, places change within the framework of the trend. At first the trend is deliciously risky and undefined, then it takes off and secures a following, finally it dies, and only those clueless (or committed at another level than fashion) remain loyal. Introducing change to the fashion system is therefore a paradoxical activity. Fashion should intrinsically welcome the new – if it is packaged suitably, but its rejection of the no longer new is as intrinsic. The process of adoption and rejection is fairly blind to nuance, when a new idea is packaged as a tangible proposal, it is hard for its underlying complexities to survive the demise of its surface.
People who have worked in fashion for a while will be familiar with problem of correct timing, the feeling of wanting to move on to new ideas, when the market is only catching up the a previous proposal. Gladwell describes this period of incubation of the ‘trend-virus’ before it reaches its tipping point. (Gladwell, 2000) Yet another example of how fashion’s (and contemporary culture’s) intrinsic celebration of novelty affects its implementation of sustainability concerns the fast consumption of concepts. In language and terminology we often travel faster than our hearts and hands certainly, but also our brains. The frequent repetition, to the point of buzz-wording, of terms such as ‘cradle-to-cradle’, the ‘triple bottom line’ – even ‘carbon emissions’, ‘climate change’, and ‘sustainability’ itself, lends a familiarity to the concepts, which can be confused with understanding. In reality, these words hide incredibly complex ideas, and sometimes incredibly radical proposals the full opportunities and consequences of which we have still far to fathom, let alone realise in practice, before new words come at us and tantalize us with their promises of difference. A back-log of radical but dusty ideas remains, like so much old stock.
In ‘No Logo’, Naomi Klein pointed out how the current framework paradoxically shapes the fight against it. (Klein, 2000) This can of course be a strategy in itself as in the example of culture jamming (see e.g. Lasn, 1999), but dominant qualities or driving forces of a framework are often so intrinsic to it that they are hard to discern, let alone subvert. I chose here to explore the themes of visual manifestations of change and the celebration of novelty, but I could as easily have looked at an emphasis of product over process, or the notion of exclusivity as emblematic in fashion’s reading of sustainability.
The purpose of exploring these themes is to illustrate how difficult or even impossible it is to transcend the prevailing framework in the search for new ways of thinking, being and doing /fashion/. Thomas Kuhn, to whom we are indebted for the term ‘paradigm shift’, described how ‘normal science’ – a current and dominant scientific framework – suddenly fails to solve a problem. We then either deem the particular problem unsolvable and defer it to later, or undergo a paradigm shift; a new scientific framework emerges sufficient to address the problem. (Kuhn, 1962) It is clear that in the case of fashion and sustainability, we are still very much resident in the paradigm that created the problem. In our search for solutions we parrot this paradigm by, for example, wanting change itself to change.
My own stance in terms of the implementation of sustainability by fashion is by no means to try to abolish its celebration of the new, or its visual manifestation of change. I do not advocate making all fashion slow, or for that matter safe. Yet, I believe it is possible to have a fashion industry that thrives, and a fashion moment that exhilarates AND looks to the present and future prosperity of people and planet. In fact I believe this is the only way of ensuring fashion’s survival. I think the answer lies not in going against what fashion represents, but instead in searching deeper into its culture, exploring its capacity for change at more profound levels.
Metadesign can be described as a higher order of design, the design of design itself, an emergent and open-ended design process that transcends design disciplines. It is inherently collaborative, inviting users and other stakeholders into the process. (See e.g. Giaccardi, 2005; Tham and Jones, 2008) Metadesign may be used to negotiate complex needs, such as in the case of transforming a city to a lesser dependence on fossil fuel. The notion of acupuncture may provide a helpful metaphor for the sophisticated re-attunement of relationships seeking to reach the root cause of unsustainability that metadesign suggests. (See also urban acupuncture, Lerner, 2005) This stands in contrast to a design that addresses a problem at the level of its symptom. The outcome of a metadesign process, may as well be a new etiquette, or a service, as a tangible product.
My own research into fashion and sustainability, using a metadesign perspective and participatory processes, has resulted, for example, in a series of pedagogical and methodological approaches that may be applied in the fashion industry and fashion education, and scenarios for the manifestation of product service systems in the fashion industry’s mass-market segment. (Tham, 2008; for product service systems see e.g. Manzini and Vezzoli, 2003) While a metadesign unfolds with the particular and situated needs, therefore favouring a distinctly bottom-up approach to design and change, it simultaneously, through its trans-disciplinary nature and licence to re-design design itself, offers a systemic outlook. Metadesign can therefore offer helpful perspectives on the current predicament of ‘fashion and sustainability’ and point to re-attunements in the approaches to change at both micro- (the individual designer or user) and macro–scales (the fashion industry and system, and the paradigm by which fashion is currently defined).
In terms of the continuous process of implementing sustainability in fashion, I would like to offer two questions – inspired by metadesign – which seem pertinent when seeking to nurture the spirit of fashion while simultaneously liberating it from some constraints of a current paradigm.
How might we unleash the creativity and interest in futures intrinsic to fashion for ends beyond the physical object or immediate trend?
What if the fashion proposition from a designer or brands to a user were a process, a mode of interaction or an experience? In practice and a mass-market context this might point to different ways of accessing fashion, for example through a clothing library, or as loose recipes – open or closed codes. It might also point to an entirely de-centralised fashion, where the boundaries between designer, maker and user are blurred or non-existent.
How might we unleash the delight and skills in manifesting change intrinsic to fashion in such ways that transcend the visual, and that generates continuous and deepening interest in a concept?
What if fashion could unfold different stages of an idea in progress, and allow for truly situated interpretations of a proposition? Again, this might point to different ways of accessing fashion, and perhaps a shift where the user becomes participant and researcher instead of consumer. A potential modelling and prototyping of ideas less reliant on the visual might prompt both designers and users to explore other sensory dimensions of fashion.
Of course these questions are also children of their time – as is the whole proposition of metadesign. They should not be understood as guidelines, but instead as provocations or invitations to engage in a re-attunement of the complex relations in fashion.
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