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.

DEFINITIONS
Q: What is your definition of fashion sustainability?
KF: Sustainable fashion is fashion within planetary limits.
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: What are main sustainability approaches?
KF: Sustainability approaches are many – though they tend to fit into two broad camps. 1. impact reduction  – where changes are made, usually by a series of increments to current ways of working, thinking about and making fashion. Typically it puts its faith in the ability of design, technology and managerial ingenuity to make existing systems more efficient and leaves fundamental, structural questions about fashion unconsidered. 2. sustainability creating – where change work involves the precepts of the system as a whole, considering fashion system purpose, culture, dynamics, rules, goals etc. The latter is where the most profound shifts are possible, shifts like are seen as essential by the climate emergency and catastrophic biodiversity loss.

Q: What is the current situation of sustainable fashion?
KF: Is in a period of development both qualitatively and quantitively. Certainly there is more engagement with sustainable fashion than ever before (take this special issue as an example!). Hearteningly some of this is also going deeper, building on the years of previous work, opening up unexplored territory. It feels like we have finally reached a position where a more robust knowledge base is the basis of different decisions.

Q: What problem does sustainable fashion try to address?
KF: The ‘problem’ sustainable fashion seeks to address is that the fashion sector currently behaves as if the finite resources that enable the fashion production and consumption are somehow infinite and that issues of social justice and inclusion are bad for business.

Q: Greenwashing remains an industry-wide concern. What is Greenwashing? What are the top ten signs of greenwashing?
KF:
Greenwashing is where a superficial appearance of ecological credibility glosses over damaging practices.

Q: What are the common flawed ways brands talk about sustainability? Do you think the proliferation of ineffective communications is holding sustainability back? What are your tips on how to use language that teaches, convinces and inspires sustainability?
KF: Commodification of sustainability concepts with no actual action. Exaggeration. False claims. Wrong or poor information. Lazy and stereotyped thinking. Misleading claims. Assumption that sustainability goals can align with goals of unfettered economic growth logic. It can’t.

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: How can the press and media contribute towards sustainable fashion, positively or negatively? The opportunities and challenges.
KF: By being better informed – ask experts to speak about what they are expert in, not about what they are not. Tell different stories. What if the fashion press talked only of care and not of consumption?

Q: What does the IPCC report mean for the fashion industry?
It means an end to overproduction and overconsumption. It means the fashion industry will shrink in size. It means that new opportunities for meaningful employment and livelihoods in all parts of the world will have to be part of urgent action.

Q: Can you comment on the current sustainability trends, namely, rental and resale approach; circular fashion and circular economy; and traceability and transparency?
KF: These trends are all transition strategies, useful while the sector transforms into something more sustainable. They are not enough on their own. They do not fundamentally lead to to the sort of scale of change that is needed.

Q: What about the ambiguity of circular fashion? Why is doubt expressed about the concept of circular fashion?
KF: B
ecause it is a technological ‘fix’ to a problem that is not a technological problem. Because the technology that it relies upon is not yet developed. Because it goes against the third law of thermodynamics. Because it allows businesses to continue as they are, but add recycling targets into their practices, as if this was enough.

Q: What is key to reversing the current trend of fashion production and consumption? Is there a clear answer on what is better: shopping secondhand or buying new from sustainable brands?
KF: Buying secondhand is significantly lower impact than buying new. It’s a straightforward resourcefulness and efficiency issue – use what you have for longer and the energy and other resources already embodied in the piece keep delivering satisfaction. Further they delay a replacement purchase being made. That said to only frame reversing overproduction and overconsumption as a ‘shopping differently’ challenge is to miss the point. Fashion is much more than shopping. Recognising a wider range of fashion activities as valuable – including those that do not only involve us accessing new – or secondhand – goods, is a critical and liberating starting point of change.

Q: Is the Sustainable Fashion Movement Classist in its exclusion of lower-income people?
KF: Sometimes it is seen in this terms as so-called ‘sustainable’ pieces are expensive with a high premium associated with ‘ethics’ and so ’sustainable fashion’ becomes beyond the reach of lower-income people. Yet once again this is a narrow and reductive approach to both what fashion is and to issues around class. It also is a false assumption that ethical practices necessarily cost more. Important to recognise is that class doesn’t just impact wealth, but also things like cultural capital – and so the question becomes about access to cultural capital about connection with nature, communities and sustainability practices.

Q: Whose responsibility is it to make sure fashion is sustainable? Is it the brands, the consumer, or the textile manufacturers?
KF: I
t is a collective effort and collective responsibility. There is also a key role for government and the media.

Q: Sustainable leaders play a crucial role in promoting sustainability. What are the opportunities and challenges faced by the leaders?
KF: To put fear aside. To lead with courage and be prepared to act for the long term. Not all of what needs to happen will benefit the bottom line. It is time to act on this knowledge.

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.

RESPONSIBILITY
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….

MISCELLANEOUS
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.

NICHE AND/OR MAINSTREAM?
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…

SUSTAINABILITY & BRANDS
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.

CHANGES WITHIN THE FIELD
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.

SLOW FASHION
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…

CONSUMPTION
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…

ABOUT USERS
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…

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

TRENDS & AESTHETICS
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.

SUSTAINABILITY FUTURES
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

FASHION EDUCATION FOR SUSTAINABILITY
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

MATERIALS
Q: Are synthetic fabrics sustainable? Do synthetic fabrics have the potential to be sustainable?
KF: Not per se. That said, every fibre has an impact. Synthetic fibres are made from petrochemicals. On top of the multiple impacts associated with extraction of oil and use of an incredibly valuable, finite and non-renewable resource that has taken millions of years to be created; synthetic fibres have energy demands in production compared to other fibres although they typically have far lower water demands. Not only that, but many synthetic fabrics (especially those with ‘hairy’ surfaces and that are warm to the touch), like those made into fleece jackets, are the primary source of microfibre plastic pollution that is increasingly found in a wide range of environments including pristine ones, in the human food chain and in the placenta of pregnant women – with unknown consequences.

Q: Do synthetic fibres have the potential to be sustainable?
KF: If you take sustainable fashion to mean fashion within earth’s limits, then the answer is not on any scale currently recognised.

Q: How do synthetic fabrics contribute to the marine microplastics problem? Are there other notable environmental consequences?
KF: They contribute by fibres on the fabric surface ‘sloughing’ off as part of normal wear and tear. They enter the air this way, and also the water cycle – as when we launder the fabrics the loose fibres enter the washing machine’s waste water and then get flushed into the sewer system and ultimately into river and ocean environments. The easiest thing to do here is not to buy any more synthetic fibre clothing. Wear out what you have – it will shed anyway – perhaps using bags to catch loose fibres and then disposing of these microscopic fibres very carefully; but ultimately, change your habits.

Q: What part of the textile production process is the most carbon/water/waste-intensive? Where do we stand to make the most progress?
KF: The part that is most intensive is the part where the decision made to go into production. We stand to make the most progress by producing fewer new pieces.

Q: Do you have advice for consumers on how to decide for themselves if a product is sustainable?
KF: Look at the label. Ask questions. Inform yourself. Enjoy the feeling of not buying something. 

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…

WASTE & RECYCLING
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

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4 Responses

  1. Carolina says:

    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.

  2. […] be classified as a luxury niche targeting a niche market, Kate Fletcher admits this in an interview “ Q: Why do you think people are still buying from mainstream shops that sell unethical clothing? KF: […]

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  4. […] de mayor calidad, realizadas con tejidos naturales provenientes de comercio justo. En palabras de Kate Fletcher, diseñadora y consultora británica, cuya especialidad es la moda […]

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