Voices and Values for Sustainable Fashion

Make love, not fashion copy

CSF Professor Kate Fletcher calls for more voices to be heard and amplified in discussions around fashion and sustainability. Here and on her blog she writes of the need for a deep look at the values currently promoted within the fashion industry and a greater understanding of the structural shift that is needed if we are to protect and nurture the environment. We’d love to hear your thoughts and insights, you can email us at sustainability@fashion.arts.ac.uk or through our social media platforms using the #newfashsystem (on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter).

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Action needs to be taken to reduce demand for materials and cope with future environmental threats. In fashion, as in other sectors, such measures are challenging and uncomfortable for both the wearers of clothes and the billion-dollar industry that creates them. The environmental crisis requires that different choices are made about our lives and the role of fashion provision and expression in them. It is nothing short of profound systems level stuff; a new framework of concepts, results, and procedures in which all subsequent fashion work will be structured. It is built on a new set of values. It describes new purpose, new ways of distributing power and benefit, new economic models, a changing fashion culture, fewer pieces…

This framework is the future of fashion. It is the agenda of our times. I want to talk about it.

Yet many sustainability advocates in the fashion industry avoid addressing this new underlying framework or the systems shifts which such a change would trigger. They do lots of work, including many impressive projects, but never do these projects enter the territory of deep change. These advocates believe that solutions lie in retaining contemporary economic and technical practices, in making them a bit more responsive, more accountable. Their proposed remedy: the same, and more of it. Here additional economic growth, more sophisticated management techniques, enhanced technological innovation, greater material prosperity are put forward as the solutions to environmental problems.

This perspective on implementing environmental action, often called technocentrism, embraces consumerist culture and the momentum of contemporary society and its values. It sees consumer culture as the way to move people towards effective action, by directing what is made and bought. The mantra goes that in letting human creativity loose, better design, government policies and market adjustments will make industry more efficient – and this is better for the planet. It says that if managed carefully, society can continue to make, buy and discard as much fashion as it likes; we just have to be cleverer about doing so.

The recent Pulse Report from the Global Fashion Agenda fits this category. Its objective, ‘to provide direction and guidance towards a better fashion industry’ seeks to create a fashion industry that fits the world around its priorities. Its problem definition and solutions are classic technocentric prescriptions: describing the fast fashion business model as environmentally non-threatening; promoting polyester as a fibre of choice; advocating the design of a specific materials system. The findings present economic and technical measures framed in ways that preserve the status quo – the same measures and strategies that have, in fact, prevailed for more than 25 years.

This accounts in part for technocentrism’s popularity and the Pulse Report’s traction: they mesh with the priorities of consumerist societies; they allow those with power to keep it; they suggest there is nothing fundamentally wrong with the way we are doing things today. In short, they avoid the hard choices that have for decades been put forward by visionary leaders like Fritz Schumacher, Donella Meadows, Doug Tompkins. They fail to deal with the reality of biophysical limits and their incompatibility with the logic of growth. They fail to acknowledge that efficiency improvements lead to more, not less, resource use. They fail to recognise that beyond a very low level of consumption, material goods and materialistic attitudes actually damage, not improve, human well-being.

Technocentrism is a view, a voice. Granted it is loud, but then it is often championed by those who own the means of communication and set to benefit most from things staying as they are. Other voices exist; leaders and enablers of new visions based on fundamentally rethinking the whole system. These include those which probe more deeply into the root causes of the problems we face, and with imagination, not fantasy, engage with the disruptive, complicated reality of the changing world, including for fashion business-as-usual.

I call for a far-reaching, inclusive, cross-sector-and-beyond conversation about the rules and goals of the fashion sector. A conversation that questions intent, frameworks, values and action; and one that dares to deal in hard choices about an industry totally dependent on a selling more material goods at greater speeds and volumes than natural systems can support. It is a debate about the heart and soul of environmental action in the fashion sector. It asks: What is important? Who benefits? How do we want to live? Do our actions move us towards interdependence?

(By Professor Kate Fletcher)