We’re So Fixated On The Future Of Sustainable Fashion — Are We Missing The Point?
We need to look back before we move forward.
Ever since sustainability has seeped into our everyday fashion conversations, it seems like the industry has been tripping over its heels trying to play catchup. In a sheepish attempt to cover up previous neglect, fashion brands have, ironically, ramped up their ‘eco’ productions and slotted buzzwords into every second Instagram caption and product listing.
Truthfully, this frantic overcompensation — by both brands and the media — is exhausting. How many more 'conscious' clothing lines do we need? How many think pieces can we read that extoll the benefits of vegan leather?
It might be one of the reasons why many people are asking what’s next for sustainable fashion. The future of sustainable fashion is a hot topic right now, particularly with the advent of digital fashion, the metaverse and NFTs.
Estimates show that the fashion industry could be responsible for a quarter of the earth’s carbon budget by 2050 at the rate we are headed. And while digital-first fashion could be a way to mitigate this (digital fashion platform DressX found that making its digital garments emits 97% less CO2 than physical garments), we can't rely on this alone to slow down fashion’s detrimental environmental impact.
“At the end of the day, not many people I know sit on their computer in the metaverse nude; everybody wears clothes,” Zoltan Csaki, co-founder of Citizen Wolf, tells Refinery29 Australia. “Until we exclusively live in the matrix where we're just plugged into some vat of liquid or whatever… digital fashion and the metaverse isn't going to solve anything.”
Over the phone, Csaki is palpably exasperated at the craze around “shiny new things” in the digital fashion space. “There's a tendency to get hung up or to get excited by [these new ventures] but my fear is that it takes the focus off trying to solve very real sustainability issues [like] overproduction.”
"Traditional knowledge and respect of Country is the epitome of sustainability."
Recent strides in research and development have paved the way for creative sustainability solutions — but what if some of the most effective practices are right under our noses? Living on the land of the world’s oldest continuing cultures, we’re privy to, and indebted to, the care that First Nations communities have for Country.
“Traditional knowledge and respect of Country is the epitome of sustainability, [such as] using resources that come from the land [that] can be returned to it and also only using what you need,” multi-disciplinary creative Nina Fitzgerald tells Refinery29 Australia.
As an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander woman, Fitzgerald shares some of the fashion practices intrinsic to Indigenous traditions. “Traditional weaving practices are an age-old, inherently sustainable practice. All materials, the fibre itself and the dyes used to colour it, come from the land, and the entire process is done by hand,” she says, pointing to dilly bags and baskets as examples.
These practices date back decades, but they’re still being utilised today. Fitzgerald also points to natural dyeing techniques that are growing in popularity. “Traditional knowledge of plants gives rise to a multitude of colours from roots, berries, leaves and barks [that] can be used in place of chemical dyes harmful to waterways, the land and people.”
When reflecting on the fashion industry as it was before fast fashion was a thing, we can learn a lot about the more considered way of creating and consuming garments. Made-to-order processes, patience for repairing clothes, investing in quality staples — these sustainable fashion practices are hardly groundbreaking. But slow fashion is the antithesis of fast fashion, and so it's unsurprising that these dependable methods are largely unchanged.
"Overproduction is killing the planet… The solution is radically simple, which is to make only what we sell.”
Csaki tells us about Citizen Wolf’s decision to become a made-to-order business that offers free repairs for life. “Our position is quite simple. Overproduction is killing the planet… The solution is radically simple, which is to make only what we sell.”
“Citizen Wolf was set up to prove and validate an entirely new, but in some ways a very old, way of making clothes at scale, which is made-to-order [pieces that are] custom fit[ted] to the person that's going to wear it. We have zero overproduction. In fact, we have zero inventory, which means zero waste, which means zero garments sent to landfill,” he says.
It mimics the fashion system prior to the Industrial Revolution. “For all of human history, clothes were made to fit the body of the person that was going to wear it — that was true whether you were a king or a peasant,” Csaki shares. “And that all sort of went out the window because there was this new thing called mass production.”
Stylist Madeleine Park echoes this idea. “Traditionally, clothes were tailored, which meant there was an exact fit and we had more involvement in the creation of the garments, which returns to the idea of being invested in [our] clothes,” she tells Refinery29 Australia. As someone who specialises in vintage and preloved pieces, Park's ethos bears witness to the careful consideration that garments were made with.
“I love the art and design of vintage pieces, you can really see the beauty in the details. [There’s] this sense of individuality and point of difference vintage and preloved pieces have to offer,” she says.
Debates about what sustainable fashion should look like rage on — whether local or overseas manufacturing is the best way of empowering workers, whether organic or deadstock materials are better for the environment, and whether buying from emerging designers or vintage sellers is more sustainable. There aren’t any correct responses for these conundrums. But slowing down and looking back to our past is pivotal to the fashion fight. Instead of worrying about the future of sustainable fashion, we can take pride in the past. Because not that long ago, all fashion was slow fashion.