Fashion and Sustainability FAQs

Fashion and sustainability raises so many questions… here are a few of my responses to them, gathered over the last year covering everything from slow fashion to mainstream business, materials to education.

Q: What is your definition of fashion sustainability?
KF: Fashion that fosters ecological integrity and social quality through products, practices of use and relationships.
KF: A more authentic, flexible and interconnected view of fashion, people and the world.
KF: fashion that helps us engage, connect and better understand ourselves, each other and our world.
KF: Fashion that engages with a process of flourishing of human and non-human species.

Q: It is said that a main factor that prevents successful communication of sustainability is the unclear definition, do you agree?
KF: I don’t really agree. A single definition is unlikely to be meaningful to everyone. I think what we need is multiple narratives that convey the complex and unbounded nature of sustainability in a host of different ways. 

Q: What is the biggest myth/misconception about sustainable fashion?KF: That it’s all about materials and technology. For It is also about behaviour, relationships and ways of thinking.

Q: The supply of clothing is global and gigantic, and an estimated 75% of it ends up as waste in landfills. For the increasing overproduction especially fast fashion is considered responsible. What makes high fashion better?
KF: It is a specious argument to distinguish between clothes of different price points as ‘better’ or ‘worse’ as it seems to shift the burden onto particular groups in society, which is not helpful. Conspicuous overconsumption is locked into a deeply problematic relationship with conspicuous overproduction. Buying and selling, both share responsibility. That unit numbers are lower for high priced goods is not necessarily a sign that care is taken in production. Perhaps the only thing that can be said with authority about ‘high fashion’ is that high price acts as a limit to number of sales because many people can’t afford to buy. That said, the global middle class is growing….

Q: On a scale of 1 to 10, how much has the Covid 19 pandemic accelerated the shift toward greater sustainability in fashion?
KF: That is a hard thing to gauge. It has been a case of two steps forward in one direction, two back in another. Certainly activity has reduced in some arenas and concentrated in others. Perhaps what we all know (if we didn’t before) is how great the inequalities are in the sector. This is one of the legacies of COVID.

Q: You are a professor at the Centre for Sustainable Fashion, which is part of the London College of Fashion. What do your students know after a semester with you that they didn’t know before?
KF: I hope they know about the imperative for change and also how to begin to make it happen. I hope they know about interconnectedness — about how humans — and fashion – are part of the world on which we all depend for life.

Q: You are currently working on a project called “Lasting”: You have to explain that to us in more detail, please?
KF: My involvement is to explore clothing durability from outside of a Euro-American perspective. So many sustainability-related ideas have been cultivated out of the cradle of Western thinking and often this disregards other ideas, other ways of thinking, other priorities, other time frames from other geographies. As we try to recognise the enduring effect of colonialism on fashion including on the environmental effects of fashion, challenging key ideas with more plural approaches is essential.

Q: Do you think that eco-fashion is still a niche market? If so, why?
KF: Yes. It is anathema to the mass market. And will always remain somewhat anachronistic if the mass market remains unchanged.

Q: How do you feel it can move more into the mainstream, or if not why?
KF: Surely the question is about how the mainstream can transform?

Q: Do you believe the ethical fashion industry is succeeding at present to radically change the fashion world or is it still a luxury niche?
KF: Neither is it radically changing the fashion world nor is it a luxury niche. Perhaps that’s part of the problem – neither fish nor fowl…

Q: What role do designers play? What can they influence and what role model effect do they have?
KF: Designers can affect big change because they can build foresight into products and systems and prevent negative effects from occurring. They are also storytellers, and they give form to ideas, helping create new insight into how to live. And we dearly need new stories and ideas…!

Q: Stella McCartney and Gabriela Hearst at Chloé are among the important pioneers in sustainable fashion. Who is following in their footsteps now?
KF: I think, in general terms, that pioneers are not in the places where you expect them to be. The pioneers in this space are driving change including from outside of the pioneer-as-expected territory.

Q: In your opinion, what are the top 3 things that brands should focus on with regards to promoting their sustainable practise.
KF: a) users b) social value c) integrity

Q: Do you think ethical clothing will ever out-compete the mainstream less ethical products (eg. H&M, Topshop) and dominate the fashion industry in the future? Why?
KF: Perhaps the future is for such pieces not to be as voluminous as less ethical ones – as mass consumption and production is part of the problem. Rather they should be different.

Q: Why do you think people are still buying from mainstream shops that sell unethical clothing?
KF: Because alternatives are squeezed out and made to appear culturally undesirable, impractical and expensive.

Q: How do you envisage the future of the UK fashion retail industry in terms of sustainability?
KF: Less = more. Lower volumes, higher prices. More variety.

Q: What advice would you give an individual looking to start-up a sustainable fashion retailer, particularly with the threat of a current ‘retail recession’?
KF: Develop a concept that is based on sustainability; not one based on fashion as it is today with green fibres or manufacturing. This will draw people to it.

Q: In your book you state ‘sustainable fashion is about creating a strong and nurturing relationship between consumer and producer’ – to what extent do you believe long supply chains & overseas production hinders this?
KF: I think what is important is trust – and this is something made possible by personal relationships. Long supply chains make such personal relationships difficult.

Q: Do you see sustainable fashion ever truly breaking through its nice into the mainstream?
KF: We should try to think of it as something different… not something encroaching on an inherently unsustainable system.

Q: From when you published your book in 2008, “Sustainable Fashion and Textiles: Design Journeys,” where have you seen major positive or negative changes in fashion in the past 4 years? In your view is it working?
KF: Certainly over the last 4 years ideas of environmental responsibility have been rolled out across the industry more generally – whereas before it was stuck in very separate siloes. Today still it is separate to business in that it is an ‘add on’ rather than an essential part of business; here (with the exception of leading proponents of CSR) sustainability is pursued as a reactive device to deflect criticism. In other places by contrast it is being used to leverage social value which brings economic value. Though this is rare.

My big concern at the moment is that sustainability has been turned into a commodity by big brands – and traded like another commodity – because that’s what big brands do… absorb it into its business model. And then they think they have acted sufficiently. When of course this is an illusion.

Q: What causes do you see most supported among young designers today? Examples would be great.
KF: If by ’causes’ you mean ideas and themes they are motivated by and interested in, then there is strong interest in activism inspired by the Occupy movement and which is made manifest in design process by using more collaborative, participative approaches where makers and users influence the shape and purpose of design (see Antiform). There is also renewed interest in the UK (and a number of other sheep-rearing European and Nordic countries) in that old textile fibre wool and associated conservation programmes to protect rare breeds and reinvigorate our cultural and economic interest in it (see for example bellaobastian). And of course there is growing interest in UK production as way to revitalise communities, create jobs, foster skills development etc (e.g. denim brand Tender)

Q: How do you envision the sustainable fashion movement to look like in 2012? Where do you see it progressing towards?
KF: I hope it moves towards greater self-awareness and realisation that effort (even sustainability effort) expended in the wrong place won’t bring big results.

Q: Why hasn’t ethical fashion taken off in the way that it should – have we possibly been approaching the ideology in too literal a manner?
KF: I think a great deal of effort has been expended in trying to reduce the inefficiency of the fashion system we inherited from our forebears (let’s face it, a rather negative concept); rather than creating a positive vision of the present.

Q: One way out is circular fashion. What does this mean and how does it work?
KF: Circular principles attempt to close materials loops, the idea being that the materials are infinitely reused, cycling back into new products in-perpetuity. It is an excellent idea — at least in theory. The reality of this is more challenging. With items like clothes which are relatively cheap, small products (compared say to a car), they are widely distributed and easily ‘lost’ to the system — something that we knew already thanks to the laws of thermodynamics – meaning that material cycles are definitely not closed. Also the practicality of closing loops for clothing typically involves lots of transportation of goods to recycling and re-manufacturing plants in different parts of the globe, and the cost of logistics is high… In short: circular principles are a valuable tool to reduce the impact of clothes in the short term, while the industry transforms into an entirely new configuration. They are not a way out per se.

Q: Do you think the future of the industry should be slow fashion?
KF: Well it can’t stay as it is. It is currently causing environmental and social destruction because of the scale and speed of production and consumption.

Q :Do you think consumers will ever be satisfied with having a few capsule pieces in their wardrobe? According to WRAP’s latest data almost half of UK citizens purchase clothing at least once a month.
KF: Consumers are part of a system. The logic of the system is one of continuous growth. Most of the time the logic of continuous expansion and economic growth feels like it beyond question, God given, but it’s not. We designed it that way. We can design something else. We can design a system in which healthy communities, vibrant ecosystems is the goal of the economy. And then consumers would be part of a different system, acting differently. 

Q: What will a shift towards slow fashion mean for the global fashion supply chain and all of the workers operating within it?
KF: A profound shift, where fewer pieces will be made. High volumes and overproduction and overconsumption of clothing is the chief factor that inhibits the fashion sector transforming. Slowing things down would also mean reducing volumes. What this means for workers is still being understood. Yet what we know is that current livelihoods are not viable and that companies could pay more. We also know that many producer companies are already experiencing climate change and that fast fashion is not a trustworthy broker of human well-being. It is time for something else.

Q: Do you think slow fashion in general is gathering speed in a meaningful way? A recent study by the Sheffield Hallam University said that there is a clear gap between ideals and practice when it comes to slow fashion, because Generation Z members say they want their clothes to be sustainable but still regularly buy fast fashion. What do you think the fashion industry can do to minimise this gap? 
KF: The gap between intention and action is long-standing. I guess it is partly because intentions are grown from our mind and action from our gut, our body. We need to think with our hearts and our limbs more. And realise that buying more keeps us in a social trap: we buy goods to satisfy needs, like acceptance and belonging, yet when we are more materialistic, we are less happy, and then we buy more… We have to spring this trap.

Q: Your main concept I believe is slow fashion what is your definition of slow fashion?
KF: Fashion conceived of from a different starting point to growth, consumerist fashion.

Q: How would you define ‘Slow fashion’ compared to ‘Fast fashion’?
KF: It represents a changed point of departure for fashion with different values, goals and objectives.

Q: What is your opinion of slow fashion?
KF: It’s an opportunity for us to have our cake and eat it: to be nourished by fashion and nature.

Q: Do you think the fashion industry, in particular the high street will ever move away from the high volume, low pricing strategies it employs now?
KF: Yes. It’s likely that economics will drive this shift. The price of cotton has doubled in recent times and the cost of synthetic fibres is also going up… this will change the profitability of the high volume model.

Q: From working in the industry are you witnessing any innovative steps towards more sustainable and slow fashion processes?
KF: Lots of steps are being taken. What leads to big change is that these small steps are in the right place. This remains to be seen…

Q: Do you expect fast fashion to continue on into the future? Also if so why?
KF: Recent closure of Peacocks seems to suggest not… the end of the line for that business model

Q: Do you feel ‘Slow fashion’ could take over with increased awareness and pressure on the environment, also in this current economic crisis?
KF: Take over what? The business model that dominates at the moment? I don’t think that’s its purpose…

Q: How do you think the slow fashion concept can help biodiversity?
KF: Well it certainly contributes towards the notion of diversity of scale, location, possibility, opportunity and in as much this is an intrinsic part of biologically diverse ecosystems, slow fashion supports it…

Q: What does the slow fashion concept have in common with Haute Couture?
KF: Nothing unless you understand Haute Couture to be a revisioning of the purpose and rules of fashion around something based in responsibility, values etc and then there could be common ground…

Q: Today, on average, everyone buys 60% more clothes that they wear for half as long as they did 15 years ago. What are the reasons for this change in consumption?
KF: In short: the predominance of a business model that is based on growth. The driving purpose for the sector is to grow sales, increase market share and profit. Against such a backdrop such a statistic seems like evidence of success. The problem of course is that this driving purpose is devastating our future. We need a new one.

Q: Do you think Haute Couture could be a good solution for solving the consumption problems we face today?
KF: Well its extreme high price would rely on conventional market economics to price people out of consumption. But the issue we have now is the habit of mind of consumerism, not only the material dimensions of consumerism.

Q: Do you have any statistics about fashion consumers’ frequency of purchasing? Who buy’s the most, and what type of clothes do they buy?
KF: I am not sure what ‘difference’ is actually made by buying an organic cotton T-shirt (for example) from a retailer that is operating within the prevailing business model – when arguably it is the business model itself that is the root cause of unsustainability. It’s a sticking plaster on a scratch – when the system has another fatal wound… That said I do think it is worthwhile to explore more about what people buy and why – to qualitatively explore purchasing and to understand that within bigger structural, societal and cultural influences.

Q: I just completed a survey and I noticed that not many people knew how they could be sustainable when it came to fashion, without it being more expensive, What would be your best tip?
KF: Take 5 minutes to go through your existing wardrobe and write down why you bought a some of the things in there and what you liked about them… this often makes you remember why you chose them, almost makes them ‘new’ again and makes you want to wear them more…

Q: Do you think people would care more about their garments if they understood the chain/process of production – where they came from? If so, why?
KF: Yes probably. Knowledge is an important people in enabling people take responsibility

Q: Do you think that understanding the chain of garments is associated with considering the true cost of the garment?
KF: Not always

Q: Do you think considering the true cost of the garment increases the personal value of the garment to the consumer?
KF: Not necessarily

Q: How and why would you encourage consumers to choose ethical/sustainable clothes over fast mass produced garments?
KF: How – through aesthetics. Why – because it enriches you.

Q: How long do you expect sustainable garments to last?
KF: It is largely in the hands of us all – the users of those pieces…

Q: Do you think price is an issue within the ethical industry?
KF: Yes. The extreme cheapness of most garments pushes standards down.

Q: What are your feelings towards the stigma towards sustainable fashion, from those who believe it impedes the aesthetics?
KF: I feel such a stigma is misplaced. However much we designers would want to dispute it, much of the aesthetic of today’s fashion is shaped not by us but by our predominant (consumerist) business model and set of manufacturing operations… Change these models and the aesthetic will change. So it seems to me that this stigma reveals resistance to change… perhaps from those who stand to lose the most from sustainability values…

Q: In your book you state that “Fashion trends themselves have confused sustainability issues and promoted misconceptions”. Do you agree that fast fashion trends and high consumer demand are the main reasons for fashion “undermining sustainability”? Please advise on any other reasons.
KF: What I was referring to in that quote was the tendency of trends to trivialise a concept like sustainability – and reduce it to a colour palette, fibre selection etc. I do agree however that the business model of consumerist fashion undermines sustainability. See my paper in Fashion Practice ‘Slow Fashion an Invitation for Systems Change‘ for more on this…

Q: Do you think there is a ‘granola stereotype’ associated with eco designers which stops people buying them?
KF: This certainly used to be the case – though evidence would suggest this is changing…

Q: Is the trend for vintage clothing a sign that ethical fashion is already happening? Perhaps unconsciously?
KF: That’s not the most obvious sign

Q: Is it important that ethical fashion rely entirely on the style of the clothes selling themselves or on the ethical aspects of the clothing?
KF: Good design is paramount.

Q: Can you provide 2 opinions regarding the ‘future of fashion sustainability’ eg. will the fashion industry ever be 100% sustainable?
KF: a) it’s about behaviour b) it’s about relationships

Q: Are the young fashion design graduates lacking a proper sustainable fashion education?
KF: Absolutely.

Q: Do you think these graduates see sustainable fashion as a trend? Would they understand the complexities of a change of paradigm?
KF: I don’t imagine they even see it as a trend. They see it as a ‘serious’ and optional set of choices to make within their current practice largely around materials and production. They fail to see that it is a different way of thinking.

Q: For young fashion fashion designers it seems that the only way to adapt to the market is to design for a traditional unsustainable fashion house or company. To start your own collection is not only very difficult but at the same time you may just be adding more products to an already overstocked industry. Is this a catch 22 for designers who want to change things?
KF: I think designers should see their skills differently. To look for opportunities to design by facilitating change or design by educating people rather than just using design skills to create more products. But if they do want to do that, then there are many challenges associated with working in a big company that you philosophically you don’t agree with… just like there are for designing a small collection.

Q: Can we close loop and make the fashion industry Cradle to Cradle instead of Cradle to Grave? Are we doing enough?
KF: I think Cradle to Cradle is a very useful concept – though it doesn’t acknowledge that we need to make sacrifices. We need to steer Cradle to Cradle projects, direct them into areas where they deliver the most benefit with tough moral questions.

Q: From your experience as a designer and educator, what tools do you think would work best for the Haute Couture industry in educating them on sustainable practices and biodiversity?
KF: Give them a direct experience of Nature and diverse ecosystems. Most change comes from personal values. Change these of key actors and the sector may change

Q: The production of a cotton T-shirt uses 2,700 litres of water, a pair of jeans needs 7,000 litres. Which materials are sustainable, which are less so?
KF: This depends on the product it gets made into, ie. the appropriateness of the material for the item… but in general terms in Northern Europe, hemp, wool, linen…

Q: Vegan leather, sneakers made from algae, new dyeing processes – what do you think are the trend materials and green alternatives of the near future?
KF: The main ‘trend’ is in recognising that fashion-sustainability issues are whole systems issues — a material exists within an industry which exists within planetary limits – and so they must not be dealt with in simplistic, singular ways. We must start from the whole.

Q: Which fabric do you believe to be the most promising for the future, in terms of mass-market fashion as a replacement for cotton and synthetics?
KF: I don’t think you can deal with replacements for cotton and polyester together – they meet different functional requirements. To replace conventional cotton there are options like organic cotton, low chemical cotton (etc), hemp, linen (sometimes) and lyocell. For polyester things like recycled polyester, wool, Ingeo…

Q: Do you think most clothing retail companies take responsibility in decreasing the amount of textile waste produced through the production process to make their clothing?
KF: No

Q: Do you think that clothing retail companies should encourage consumer awareness about the importance of clothing recycling?
KF: Yes

Q: What barriers are restricting the successful integration of clothing recycling schemes into clothing retail businesses?
KF: Lack of knowledge about their potential; lack of commitment; lack of a business case; predominance of short-term thinking.

Q: Do you know of any clothing recycling schemes that are being used successfully at present?
KF: Klattermussen, Patagonia.

Q: In your opinion, what kind of textile recycling schemes would work well in clothing retail companies?
KF: I don’t think clothing companies present any particular structural difficulties to implementing recycling schemes compared to other sector. So the answer is that most schemes are probably appropriate; though some would be more efficacious than others.

Q: If an increase in profit was achievable through a clothing exchange scheme, like Marks & Spencer’s Oxfam exchange, do you believe more companies would make this option available for its consumers?
KF: Probably

Q: What factors, other than direct financial benefit, do you believe would contribute to the encouragement of consumer clothing recycling?
KF: Knowledge, positive pr, moral value

Q: What do you think about the new directive of Green Claims proposed by the EU?
KF: The new directive seeks to tackle unfair commercial practices that mislead consumers and influence their choices. This is most definitely a good thing! Getting rid of false claims and inaccurate information is essential work and this directive on Green Claims will help do that. Yet, getting rid of the bad, doesn’t necessarily make the rest ‘good’. The absence of false green claims doesn’t mean ecological nirvana. We are locked in a system where we buy more than we need and then we choose green products to try to reduce their impact. But consumption always has an environmental cost. And buying less in the first place is a faster route to reducing impact. I welcome the directive – here’s to fewer false green claims and fewer products overall.

Q: What could have been done to achieve more in your opinion? 
KF: The big green challenge in the fashion sector is overproduction and overconsumption of clothes. I would have liked the Green Claims directive to be also include a year on year reduction in the volumes of new garments manufactured and sold.

Q: Do you think this directive will affect consumers’ interpretation of products, considering that a lot of brands will lose their environmentally-responsible labels due to disinformation? 
KF: The hope is that all of us who wear clothes will start to ask more questions, to not take labels at face value, to trust our instincts more with clothes. To ask, can a worker really have been paid a fair wage if this is selling for this price? Is this a fibre that I can live with? I think we already know many of the answers. We just have to start acting on them and to vote with our wallets and also know when it is time to put our wallets away and buy nothing.

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You must receive hundreds of questions, so I was really happy to see you chose 5 of mine to be on your blog! Kittos as we say in Finland.

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