Sustainability is a buzzword 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 with the news that the V&A Museum in London will curate a new exhibition in April exploring the relationship between fashion and nature, and initiatives from the likes of LVMH, Kering, and even fast-fashion giants such as the H&M group, are we finally seeing a significant shift in how clothes are produced around the world?
Tamsin Blanchard is a freelance journalist who's been writing about sustainability long before it was a thing; she's 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-aughts, 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,” she continues. “But you hated yourself for saying it because it immediately sounded like bad fashion.”
While the words 'eco fashion' have slipped from our vernacular, sustainability and ethics are very much in vogue, 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 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.
Consumer pressure and social media have also contributed to this progression, and now it’s not unusual to walk into a fast-fashion store and see a ‘sustainable’ line. There’s Zara’s LIFE collection, Mango Committed, and brands like Arket, which informs shoppers exactly which factories have made the garment they’re looking to buy. But the brands that have been most successful at pushing sustainable products are the ones that have put design — not ethics — at the forefront of their messaging.
Former Burberry employee Agatha Lintott 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). But 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.” Essentially, we need more than moral reasons to buy better — we need convincing of the argument.
“I think a lot of it is messaging and education,” Ben Bailey co-founder of Studio British, says. “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 okay 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.