The Language of Fashion and Sustainability


The theory of linguistic relativity suggests that language shapes thought: that words influence how we perceive and imagine the world. It goes some way to explain how, for example, the Inuit, who with their many words for snow, perceive variations and possibilities in snow types that speakers of other tongues have never considered.

It seems that the language we speak shapes our view of reality.

Sustainability becomes a supply-side concern because we talk about it only as a production issue

So what does the over-riding language of fashion and sustainability do to our ideas about fashion and sustainability? What do words like traceability, certification and process optimization suggest about our garments, our industry, our workers, our potential? And what sort of ideas of future possibility does a lexicon of ten point plans, technical improvement, production efficiency and ‘science-based material scores’ (like the Nike Materials Sustainability Index) generate?

From where I sit it shows us that we are drifting. We are floating without power into a way of thinking, sensing and seeing sustainability that is shaped mainly by the words used by today’s industry. These words describe the systemic, multi-faceted and multi-located problems faced by our sector; and it’s a pretty stinted outlook. The language of transparency, traceability and certification leads us down the route of thinking that sustainability is a supply chain information problem. Speaking in terms of materials and process efficiency and optimization suggests that these are the things that matter. Giving quantitative data primacy makes us think only in terms of things that can be numerically measured. Sustainability becomes a supply-side concern because we talk about it only as a production issue. Technical-, numeric- and management-speak create a sustainability reality dominated by technology, indices and global value chains.

It’s not that these things don’t matter, but more that such words sluice our thoughts about sustainability down a channel of problem minimization.

Other language leads us to alternative ideas about fashion and sustainability.

So what is this language? And what are the stories that these words tell? They speak of things like ‘empathy’, ‘process’ and ‘interdependence’ (I will be blogging more about these over the coming months) and the stories they tell are of satisfaction and resourcefulness. They convey material, individual, social and political creativity and action. Much of the lexicon of opportunity in fashion and sustainability is emerging in places other than industry boardrooms and CSR conferences. Some of this language is rising up from the streets, from ordinary people and everyday fashion practices, like those captured by the Local Wisdom project, where the speech is of loving, imagining, connecting and sacrifice. These are not the terms of problem minimization. They are the words of creation. They speak of the qualities that foster what Aristotle called eudaimonia. This is the language and ideas of flourishing. Let us also make it the language and ideas of fashion and sustainability.

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1 Comment

A really interesting post and I do think that some of the issues with sustainability in fashion and its acceptance are also to do with the language that is used. I look forward to exploring the Local Wisdom site further.