Sustainability is a buzzword that many people are sick of hearing. It’s been overused and virtually lost its meaning (although trying to define it in practical terms is actually pretty hard, but more on that later.)
But with the news that the V&A will curate a huge new exhibition in April exploring the relationship between fashion and nature, and initiatives from the likes of LVMH, Kering and even high street giants such as Inditex (Zara's parent company) and the H&M group (owners of Arket, & Other Stories, Cos, etc) getting on board, are we finally seeing a significant shift in how clothes are produced around the world? Is this a watershed moment for sustainability?
Tamsin Blanchard is a freelance journalist who was writing about sustainability long before it was really a thing, and is now heading up the Open Studios initiative for Fashion Revolution (which will launch next April). “I started writing about fashion in the early '90s and I suppose it was a time when Primark had just started and fashion just seemed to be getting much faster,” she says. “But I don’t think the word 'sustainable' was even used then.”
It wasn’t until the early noughties, says Blanchard, that the idea of ethical and sustainable fashion was even considered. And even then, it was sidelined to one particular show: Orsola de Castro’s Estethica. That was when people began to talk about ethical fashion and eco fashion. “They were the real buzzwords,” says Tamsin. “But you hated yourself saying it because it immediately sounded like bad fashion.”
And while the words 'eco fashion' have slipped from our vernacular, sustainability and ethics are very much in vogue. But the words themselves still pose problems. Maybe not so much with the hemp sack connotations, but certainly in our lack of understanding what they actually mean. As The Washington Post recently highlighted, there is no one set of guidelines for what constitutes sustainable and ethical production.
And ironically, despite their lack of practical definition, they also present a totality which makes them difficult to buy into. As Blanchard says of the origins of the movement, it can create something of a “them and us” situation, where fast fashion is the devil and ethical fashion its unattainable and perfect counterpart. It’s a totality that makes us feel bad and puts people off thinking about it when it shouldn’t: it’s almost impossible to buy sustainably all of the time. In some ways, acknowledging the nuances of sustainability has contributed to moving the conversation forward.
Consumer pressure, social media and the imminent arrival of the supposedly altruistic Gen Z as the world’s largest purchaser group have also contributed to this progression, and now it’s not unusual to walk into a high street store and see a ‘sustainable’ line. There’s Zara’s LIFE collection, Mango Committed, and even brands like Arket who put transparency upfront; informing shoppers exactly which factories have made the garment they’re looking at on their website. This would have been unimaginable even five years ago. That said, it’s hard to know what to do with this information, other than sleep a little sounder in the knowledge that you might have bought something that’s doing good rather than bad.
Speaking of bad, former Burberry employee, Agatha Lintott has recently set up an online store called Antibad. The concept behind the platform is to sell only products from ethical, sustainable and vegan sources. For many, the answer to fashion’s sustainability problem is for everyone to simply cut back on our consumption (recent figures show that the amount of clothes produced globally has doubled since 2000). Lintott takes a slightly more pragmatic approach. “It’s not about buying less,” she says. “I don’t feel like that’s a realistic target, I don’t think it’s the right thing to change. It’s about giving people another option.”
And these other options are increasingly available to us, from both large corporations and startups. But the brands who’ve been successful at pushing sustainable products are the ones who’ve put design, not ethics, at the forefront of their messaging, says Lintott: “I think Reformation has done a really good job of doing that so far. It’s about creating lifestyle brands that are inspiring.” Essentially, we need more than moral reasons to buy better – we need convincing of the argument, of the sort that changed the course of the food industry: fast food was made to look cheap and unhealthy, and it became aspirational to buy better. And as for food, for fashion. (Whether you can afford to, and whether fast fashion is a class issue or not, is another story entirely.)
The word ‘mindfulness’ is thrown around a lot now but it's part of a wider movement that's taking us in the right direction. Radio 4 presenter Claudia Hammond recently wrote a book called Mind Over Money: The Psychology of Money and How To Use It Better, examining our relationship with our bank accounts and why we put so much effort into making money and often very little into how we spend it. And as Hammond urges us to consider who we give our money to, so the likes of Jon Alexander’s New Citizenship Project envision a world where we see ourselves not just as passive consumers but as active participants in society: as citizens.
Obviously, this doesn't just apply to fashion. The rate of our consumption is not healthy for either us as individuals or the planet. Whether it’s your phone company trying to flog you a new handset or another subscription service demanding your loyalty, we live in a world where spending mindlessly is as much a part of our daily routine as brushing our teeth.
Someone else who’s got behind the idea of shopping with considered awareness is the cofounder of Studio British, Ben Bailey, who hopes that one day everyone in the UK will have one British-made item in their wardrobe. “I think a lot of it is messaging and education,” says Bailey. “I think people will genuinely be happy to be ignorant about something if it makes their lives easy or more convenient.” Bailey and his cofounder Annabel Calvo visit all the factories which make the clothes they buy, and have strict rules about what they sell through their online platform.
But is it too late to regain some self-control over what we buy and not give into impulsive last-minute sale-shopping? “I”d like to think it is possible,” Blanchard says with caution. “I think it’s become unhealthy. I think it’s like saying that it’s ok to buy lots of food because everyone does it. But I don’t think it makes people feel better to go on a mad shopping binge.”
There might not be one single solution to solving the industry’s ills. But by acknowledging the many nuances of the challenges sustainability presents, and taking some responsibility for our own individual consumption, we’re at least starting to have a more grown-up conversation. And that surely will get us one step closer to finding long-lasting solutions.