CSR: Commodity Sustainability (Right?)

For a while now I have been wondering about just how many people in the fashion sector see sustainability as a product type, a line of garments in an ‘eco’ material, a tradable commodity – and nothing more. How many view it primarily as an opportunity to assign sustainability an economic value and draw it into the fashion market place? I ask, because my intuition tells me that these people may have reached a critical mass. I have no evidence for this really, just a hunch, a sense that the dynamics of fashion-sustainability system are today wildly different between different actors. And that those who engage with sustainability from this perspective – incorporating comfortable environmental and social themes into the mainstream – are speaking with louder voices than ever before and that theirs is the overwhelming message that is being heard.

Of course appropriation of original ideas and activities has always been widespread – in sustainability as in anything else. In fashion whole industries are set up for this express purpose – trend forecasters commandeer the zeitgeist, reduce it to a set of distilled discrete ideas, colours, silhouettes and regurgitate it back into the world. The same dynamic of appropriation happens when a high street chain looks at the catwalk show of a couture designer or trawls the streets to take and reformulate the imagery and culture of other sorts of visionaries and leaders. The result is always to reduce an idea or creative process into a simpler format. But what if the idea cannot be made simple? What happens when a few parts of an evolving, complex way of thinking and acting are hived off and overlaid onto a different, established system?

Sustainability in fashion requires us to reset our senses, to look beyond the monotone familiar to the unexpected pattern world of sustainability

Part of the answer can be found by looking at the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) initiatives in fashion. In recent years there has been a huge groundswell of activity, much of which is valuable and which I applaud. But so often what is left after sustainability has become absorbed into such initiatives is, to a great extent, a weak, naïve version of what is possible. The outcome is still utterly dependent on resources in decline – and the brand that puts it out in the world cannot think beyond this. It speaks the CSR lingua franca of value chains – but fails to recognise that it is, after all, still a chain that takes in at one end an emits ‘outputs’ at the other. It supplements the cult of celebrity with the cult of transparency and confuses these proxies for the real goals of authenticity and trust. In the struggle to be taken seriously by the commercial fashion industry, the sustainability movement has conceded ground. It has traded its intricacy, possibility and expansiveness for the prospect of an odd headline and an occasional place at the fashion high table. It has transmogrified from complex, evolving process to commodity.

Only through some clever language engineering could this be seen to approximate towards sustainability – yet it is frequently presented as such. Yet it is quite simply something different. Eminent industrial ecologist John Ehrenfeld’s website header explains it thus, ‘Reducing unsustainability, although critical, will not create sustainability’. Sustainability in fashion needs to reclaim its roots.

While the prospect of a radical re-visioning may sound wrong-headed to those working on the task of increasing efficiencies and reducing waste within the mainstream – and who directly experience environmental gains and personal fulfilment from doing so – creating sustainability involves an alternative approach. It requires us to reset our senses, to look beyond the monotone familiar to the unexpected pattern world of sustainability. Sustainability in fashion is more than a new initiative around chemicals restrictions, a materials index or universal standards and tools for defining and measuring environmental and social performance. It is a chance for all of us who are part of the broader fashion ecology to flourish. Let a chorus of different voices say ‘aye’.

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