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: 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: Because 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: It 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.