Part 2: Transforming fashion systems – Fashion & Sustainability

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TRANSFORMING FASHION SYSTEMS

However much we innovate and act to improve the sustainability credentials of a piece of clothing, the benefits brought by these changes are always restricted by the production systems and business models that market and sell the garment and by the behaviour of the person who buys it. Producing a garment with lower-impact fibre or better labour conditions, while important, changes the overall system very little, for these ‘better’ fibres and pieces are made into the same sorts of garments, sold by the same retailers and then worn and washed in the same way as before. Part Two of this book explores new ways of engaging with the process of sustainability in fashion, starting at a point that acknowledges the profound and multiple challenges inherent in bringing together sustainability, the fashion industry and our economic system based on growth.

As we work to foster and cultivate sustainability benefits in fashion, it makes sense to broaden our scrutiny from a close focus on products to a focus also on the business models and the economic goals and rules that shape the sector today – otherwise we will always be limiting our possible actions and their potential effects. Many of these goals and rules and the mindsets that give rise to them remain unacknowledged and unquestioned in the principal industry circles, quietly validating the current way of doing things. Yet, to many sustainability advocates, it is these modes of doing that are the root problem of unsustainability. For without a process of scrutiny of the established structures, motivations and business practices, the pursuit of environmental and social quality will remain at a superficial level and will never transition to a point of flourishing (that is, of sustainability) for human and non-human systems alike.

World Bank economist Herman Daly puts it like this: ‘To do more efficiently something that shouldn’t be done in the first place is no cause for rejoicing.’1 This is not to suggest that the many important developments that have taken place thus far in the name of sustainability innovation are of no value – far from it – only that they are not all that needs to be done. We have to recognize that, although it goes against the grain of much modern thinking, many environmental and social problems in the fashion sector have no purely technical or market-based solution: rather, their solutions are moral and ethical (values that are not captured by business and the market) and require us to take a step back from business-as-usual and look at what shapes, directs and motivates the bigger systems.

Environmental philosopher Kate Rawles has acknowledged the immense difficulties in offering a serious challenge to dominant thinking from within the mainstream, since ‘people cling to the status quo’.2 Yet if we are to begin to resolve some of the environmental and social problems of the fashion sector, we need to realize where the roots of these problems lie. On this point, eminent industrial ecologist John Ehrenfeld counsels: ‘Discipline yourself to live inside the questions…, then you will slowly be able to discard the old tried, but no longer true, answers and replace them with new, effective ways of building a sustainable future.’3

To this end, Part Two comprises a set of innovation opportunities that lay the foundations of a different set of practices for the sector at large and designers in particular, in the light of revised economic relationships, different values and an ecological (i.e. nature-inspired) world view. Some of these ideas are familiar, while others require us to stretch our minds to imagine their full potential, and still others seem out of time or place. Yet they are all built upon sound sustainability principles from people we all consider to be cultural leaders or are from reasoned logic based on empirical data from well-respected sources. The innovation opportunities detailed in the pages that follow often involve slower, more complex and more strategic work than that which fashion designers and the fashion industry are used to. Yet it is by engaging with this process that we can improve current practices and also build a vision of an alternative future.