Towards a future framework for fashion

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?

Who’s in? Register your support by leaving your name, adding a comment below or on twitter #newfashsystem

Links to other calls for systems change:

A Sustainable Fashion Industry? Yes, We Can!

Fashion At The Crossroads by Greenpeace

After the binge – the hangover international consumer survey by Greenpeace

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19 Responses

  1. Thank you, Kate, for this important and thoughtful response. I agree with everything you say. It is frustrating that we have been ignoring vocal, sound warnings for more than four decades (Limits to Growth, Small is Beautiful); we humans seem very unwilling to deal with reality. Icing on a mud pie does not a cake make. I do not question the good intentions of the report’s authors, but we are still in a conversation for unsustainability, rather than a conversation for sustainability. The need to change the conversation is urgent, and more so with each year.

  2. Mathilda Tham says:

    Thank you Kate for this very timely call for us to rally – us who in our research, practice and personal lives seek to challenge a fundamental underlying root cause to unsustainability, the growth logic.

    We do need to rally, as a dominant paradigm of sustainability work, as you say, despite increasingly purporting to be systemic, still locates the growth logic outside the remit of what can be questioned, as a fixed fence around a system.

    Questioning the growth logic often results in being accused of being naïve and idealistic and not objective. Yet, there is nothing objective about the reports that say all is fineish; with enough number crunching we can save the world. They are just not value explicit. The values are there: economic growth, anthropocentricism, often a Western hegemony, and a dash of patriarchy. However, sustainability work of the dominant paradigm – and its tools, such as reports – appears credible because it doesn’t tell anyone to change too much (and profound change is scary and uncomfortable) and exactly because it is part of a dominant paradigm. It has had years and years to practice, build up arguments and form networks and so references itself. Because of its long momentum, it can present itself as one.

    That is why we, in our diverse manifestations need to rally. We don’t have to agree about everything. We can show many ways of doing things. But we need to bring together our many narratives in a form that can be recognized as one.

    • Kate,
      A recent two day North American Apparel Sustainability conference that I had prescribed myself (as a reality check) was both heartening and disheartening at the same time. So many people acknowledging the problem – so many more initiatives trying to address the situation but, BUT. And here, your post really resonates – little to no acknowledgement of the gross support structure fashion is built on – consumption – a Must? I have spent the last 10 years trying to wrap my hand around this. It baffles me that most of us who are invested in and passionate about clothing are not using/ recognizing the potential of this medium to counter…

      Cloth is pervasive – we are constantly wrapped up in it ( literally). Arguably the form cloth takes around our bodies ( and in our lives) frames our understanding of our world. I am not interested in clothing in terms of “made and bought”. I am intrigued by its capacity to either lock us in or alternatively open up new insights / views / perspectives. The world understood when donning a Victorian corset surely is different from that taken in when wearing a sarong, a three piece suit, a hoody and low slung jeans. Artifacts in the space we inhabit can model/ provide models for new behaviour and more importantly offer up new ways of seeing and prioritizing in our world. What would happen if fashion actively acknowledged this? Are there worn items that inadvertently hold us in the existing unsustainable scenario? Do we need an active fashion conversation about the ethics around clothing semantics and embodied experience.

  3. Peter Gorse says:

    This reminded me of the excellent book by Tansy Hoskins – Stitched Up The Anti-Capitalist Book of Fashion. Which echoed that is it no good just tinkering around at the edges of the existing system to bring about the necessary change to protect our people, environment, you need a fundamental change in the system itself.

    On a different matter. Which could be described as tinkering. Do you think there are any merits in a ‘plastic free’ certification label for textiles?

  4. Hi Kate,

    I absolutely agree and had a fruitful discussion with a few designers this weekend on their take. It inspired me so much to be meeting new people who share our perspective and goals. I would love to combine camps and discuss how we might use our voices together.

    Thank you for your work on the subject.

    Best,

    Kat

  5. Sam roger says:

    Happy to be involved in the conversation. Interested in the psychology of shopping and thinking whether there is a research project that can be put together that would be helpful at this stage.

  6. Kate, thank you, for showing as always brave and fearless leadership and vision with this powerful critique and call for solidarity. We, need to ensure that we do not become complacent and accept a repackaged version of ‘business as usual’.

    It is alarmingly clear that the fashion industry is still stuck in 20th-century thinking, which maintains fashions position at a lower order of design.

    There is much to change and as an educator and practitioner, I think it is time to fundamentally question the role and remit of the fashion designer. Fashion designers focus on form, what they are designing, and not on who and how they are designed for or with clothing wearers has restricted designers from applying their skills and knowledge across a wider range of activities or on systemic solutions including services, and systems (Morelli 2002, Buchanan 1992). Unless clothing, become part of one’s life experience, they have little value or significant meaning.

    I recently submitted my portfolio of research to our government review in NZ (REF equivalent) with the opening statement “this portfolio profiles my practice- based, post growth, system approach to sustainable fashion”.

    It felt good to nail my colours to the mast and contribute in my own small way to this deeper wave of change.

  7. Hannah says:

    Hi Kate,

    I’m new(ish) to sustainable fashion but very interested in consumer behaviour and the psychology of over-consumption. I want fast fashion brands to make less but without taking away the livelihoods of thousands of garment workers. I’d love to hear more as your movement progresses. Thanks for writing this article. Best wishes, Hannah

    PS I’m running a social media campaign (Digital Mums course) at the moment called Clothes for Good. It’s on Twitter, instagram and Facebook. Also working on the European Clothing Action Plan with Love Your Clothes.

  8. Anna says:

    Thanks Kate. Budget day only serves as a reminder of the politics involved and the bigger project of ‘business as usual’. I feel that these positions of perceived neutrality, that are uncritical and refuse to look deeply at power and who benefits are presented to us daily and there are so many of us looking for ways to speak out, have our voices hear and crucially be listened to and believed.

    I’m sure later we will see more talk of efficiency, cost savings and productivity steeped in language of paternalistic common sense that in turn makes speaking out more difficult and in which I see parallels with technocratic approaches you outline above. Your voice makes new ideas for fashion (and beyond) around values and emotions more possible to be spoken about.

    Let us gather together.

  9. Verena Lima says:

    Kate, I can’t even express the perfect timing of this post!

    I do agree with the replies above, from Timo Rissanen and Mathilda Tham. A few days ago, I was reading some works of professor Robert Crocker and from professor Tony Fry, both from Australia, and based on their arguments I was just thinking that the “problem” with the reports (Brundtland, Eco-92, Rio+20, and others, and even the Sustainable Development Goals) is that they are all still committed with our modernist view of development – which is totally technocratic and connected with (economic) growth. How we can be so modern in contemporaneity? Of course the reports are important and play an essential role. However, it seems that unless we start thinking and acting towards different production and consumption patterns (that supports our unsustainable lifestyles), with different scales from the ones we have nowadays – we need longer time and shorter amount – we will be stuck.

    I am definitely in!

  10. Thank you for your timely and insightful contribution. This perfectly exposes how the dominant “technocentric” voice plays a big part in the problem of fashion’s impacts on the environment – and is not necessarily the solution, as we are led to believe. Adapting and perfecting “business as usual” is a powerful narrative – because it’s simpler to do and is an easy sell for politicians, afraid of a bigger challenge. Greenpeace has also identified the flaws in this dystopian vision. Instead, our recent report “Fashion at the Crossroads” outlines other possible pathways for fashion to slow the flow and showcases alternative, more creative solutions from companies and individuals already out there, that are putting the brakes on overconsumption. We have so much to gain from doing things differently – not only for the planet but also for the many people who feel trapped by a consumerist mindset where their self worth depends on their next shopping fix. Doing and creating has to replace our buy-and-throw culture. Together with our allies from Fashion Revolution and Shareables, Greenpeace will be contributing with a new worldwide initiative in December – Make Something Week – where people can come together to learn new skills and MAKE SMTHNG, instead of joining the seasonal buying frenzy. Count us in for the “debate about the heart and soul of environmental action in the fashion sector”!

  11. I am solidly on board, Kate. Time is running out, and working with the old established system is myopic, bread and circuses. I’m ready for bold system change.

  12. Kate, Thank you for this call to action. After reading through the Pulse Report, it isn’t any surprise that their findings are positioned to preserve the status quo of continued growth and consumerist priorities. The Global Fashion Agenda’s strategic partners are made up of large multinational fashion conglomerates (Kering, H&M, Target). The scale and fundamental economic structure of these corporations requires that they continually funnel more and more money to their shareholders. The global fashion and textile industry operates according to the prerogatives of corporate capitalism, the imperative to grow with little restraint and to centralize. This directive is inherently counter to sustainable practices; the conservation of natural resources, building interconnected systems and economic diversity. The GFA is asking brands to commit to implementing one out of four actionable items that address circular production and recycling. Although well meaning, embracing anything less than all four of these efforts, will no doubt, be an ineffective elixir to remedy the environmental and social effects of anticipated growth (the GFA projects apparel and footwear consumption to grow from 63 mil tons to 102 million by 2030). On the other hand, embracing all four of these initiatives would threaten the financial gains these conglomerates depend on. The only rational way to move forward is to decentralize modes of production in order to balance the economic distribution of power and address our environmental issues. The time is now to shorten supply chains and redirect profit back into regional networks.

  13. Vibeke Riisberg says:

    Thank you Kate for once again spelling it out so clearly, it is high time for radical systemic changes and for us to seek ways of promoting behaviour change at all levels

  14. Liz Parker says:

    I found myself responding to this in terms of what I need to be able to articulate my own position within all of this.

    I need…

    …to hear from those voices of people that are normally marginalised. Not only the people who work in factories, farms and workshops but also those who are selling, sorting, dismantling and re-creating from stuff that gets thrown away and ….

    … to find more and better ways to support the struggles once I’ve heard them

    …to learn and name in full what is at stake, down to the individual insects, mammals, moths, rocks, waterways and all other living forms that are affected by the dominant fashion system. I wish I knew but I don’t…

    …to ask questions such as those being asked by the Open Source Circular Economy folk about who stands to gain, who maintains power…

    …to create better systems for exchanging my own clothes, keeping them in circulation, building relationships with other people and feeling good about myself

    …to continue to love to mend what I wear

    … to understand better how I can find my power in relation to the clothes I wear, what I stand to lose and gain by my choice of what I cover my body with

    …to interrogate more deeply how change happens at the collective level. Investigations into individual behaviour seems to be drawing us away from how change happens.

    I’m in.

  15. Penille Dalmose says:

    Dear Kate,
    Now I am full of hope again. Thank you for your always fantastic thoughts and work, which can put things in right order again.

  16. […] the Wardrobe’, edited by Kate Fletcher and Ingun Grimstad Klepp), the discussion also touched on Kate Fletcher’s recent blog post and addressing the elephant in the room: pricing. “We do some consulting with businesses,” […]

  17. I’m a Brand Strategist interested in how to take sustainable fashion mainstream. It’s currently marketed as an ethical alternative and can be hard to find for those not looking for it. But the message is lost on mass consumers. A shift it required to go from niche to the new normal. I’m in.

  18. Lynda Grose says:

    Thank you Kate for your clarity and your courage in writing this piece. I also read the Pulse Report with a heavy heart as it mostly laid out a ‘sustainability’ agenda for the fashion industry, which has been prevalent for more than twenty years….that is, incrementally improving upon what the product and processing norms currently are. Yet the ecological and social context in which the fashion industry sits is in much greater crisis now than it was when this framework was established in the early 1990’s.

    Everyone in the industry has known for some time that incremental improvements on the current industry are inadequate to meeting absolute ecological gains. Doug Tompkins, first made his statement ‘A Plea for Responsible Consumption’ in 1990 (Utne Reader, July/August issue 1990). SustainAbility’s diagram indicating the next big business hurdle as ‘Need’ was published by the Economic Intelligence Unit in 1992.

    Futurist Paul Saffo notes that economies don’t fail, they end because they succeed in fulfilling a scarcity; the Industrial Economy began because there was a scarcity of ‘things’; the consumer economy because there was a scarcity of ‘desire’. Saffo posits that we are now in the Creative Economy and the new scarcity is ‘meaning’.

    Yet, our sustainability actions in the fashion industry are still locked into the logic of the ‘Consumer’ and ‘Industrial’ economies. Vetements co-founder, Guram Gvasalia’s recent criticism of even the most ecologically responsible companies conducting ‘Conspicuous Production’ hit home.

    I’d like to suggest ending reports and awards for improvements on the current industry/supply/value chains. Aspiring to a gold standard in the current system only gets us so far. I’d like to see us reaching for the bronze standard in completely new systems, with completely different indicators being tracked.

    This demands new language to shape a different way of thinking. The “Craft of Use’, “Wardrobe Studies’, ‘Metabolism of a Closet’.

    Here’s a very modest start for others to add to adapt, critique…amend……refine

    I hope your courage Kate spawns more critical discussion and completely fresh ideas. We need them!

    Lynda

    -Tracking multiple uses of single garments
    -Tracking multiple methods enabling sharing of garments
    -Tracking satisfaction of the wearer in sharing and use systems
    -Business models that flex and change according to real stocks and flows and capacities of available resources.

    etc

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