For 6 years I had a blog that grew into a website called StyleDefined NYC. We focused on street style and young design talent and the highlight for my small staff was attending fashion shows. The final year of the site, before I ended up selling it, I worked with a man, whom we’ll call Ted, who was convinced I was missing out on opportunities to monetize it. Although I was wary, I agreed we could work together through one fashion week and try his marketing ideas. I quickly realized we were not only not on the same page, we weren’t even reading from the same book. When my writers turned in their reviews of the shows Ted insisted they be rewritten. He wanted us to break them down by fabrics, colors, styles in a way that one collection could be compared to another. This one had 20% silk, that one had 32% silk. This one had a blue and green color palette, that one had a black and white color palette.
I told him looking at fashion was not like looking at a computer where you can compare memory, ram, screen size. It can’t be separated into these parts and I certainly wouldn’t ask my writers to do this. We agreed to disagree and parted ways.
The IDEA of “Sustainable Fashion” is much the same. It is a term that is used with increased frequency and googled 66% more last year than the previous and continues to be searched. I have been creating my own database of “sustainable brands” and trying to understand what is meant by this term. Is it organic cotton? Denim created with less water? Sneakers made from recycled plastic?
The truth is trying to pull one or two things out and label them “sustainable fashion” is similar to how Ted was looking at a fashion collection: just as a collection must be seen as a whole to understand it, the problems with our current fashion system must be seen as a whole to understand it.
Study Hall’s conference this year was called Climate Positivity At Scale and it looked at the larger picture: that the crisis in fashion is part of a larger crisis of humanity. So our responses must acknowledge that it is a global crisis rooted in inequity and exploitation of both the people and the planet. The good news is once we look at these truths we can join with others worldwide who are working towards climate justice and finding some exciting solutions to our current wicked problems.
I encourage you to watch the summit yourself on Study Hall because there’s no way this article can be comprehensive but these are a few things that stayed with me.
We need to have hope but hope as an ACTION
Jungwon Kim of Rainforest Alliance said “Despair is a perfectly natural response to the state of the world right now…and to stay in that despair is both privileged and arrogant.” She went on to say it is a privilege to be able to say “Oh it’s too late, what can I do?” because we’re not in a situation where we must act. And she explained that it is perhaps arrogant (not meaning to be chastising) to think we know what the outcome of our efforts will be. It may take a year, a decade, a generation for the results of our actions now to be seen. But this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t work towards a more just, equitable and holistic world. We have to let go of our expectations built on our culture of immediate gratification and be committed to the long term. So to do this we must have hope as an action. We need to do this on an individual level, push the policy level but most importantly discover our power.
The voices and expertise of indigenous cultures must be brought to the forefront of any discussion on sustainability* /rethinking systems as we decolonize the fashion industry.
When companies manufacture their products elsewhere for greater profits they are not only exploiting the workers in these countries by paying unlivable wages in poor working conditions, they are polluting their rivers and lands with toxic chemicals and tearing down their forests and harming their ecosystems. Those who are affected must be part of the solution in changing this system. It can’t be done solely through well intentioned outsiders.
Trash can be reframed as a resource / we need to consider the ‘end of life’ of an item.
How often have you thought about what you’ll do with an item when you are finished with it before you’ve even bought it? Will you recycle it? Resell it? Swap it? Take it apart and use different parts for different things? It’s a question that can expand your creativity when trying to come up with an answer. Ayesha Martin, Director of Global Purpose, adidas, remembered coming home from school excited to have some ice cream she saw in the freezer only to open it and discover that her mother had reused the carton to store something else. The carton still had value. Scientist Theanne Schiros said “Waste is only waste if you call it waste. It’s a missed opportunity. In nature it’s a complete recycling of nature and energy, the byproduct of one reaction, is the feedstock of another.” Time and again things were said that made me see that there is potential for circularity on many levels.
WISHCYCLING is a “thing” – and not one you want to be doing!
Jay Kaplan from Waste Management explained that “Wishcycling is when your expectation of recycling of a material or something you want to discard exceeds the ability of the recycling facility to deal with it.” –it’s not really recyclable as is. i.e. a toaster that breaks – it’s metal and you put it in recycling but it’s not fully metal and it ends up that the cord wraps around a conveyor belt and the system is down for hours. We’ve all ‘wishcycled’. Let’s vow to do it less!
There are a ton of exciting developments happening towards solving our current problems and collaboration is key.
Through programs like One X One: The Conscious Design Initiative fashion designers are reaching out beyond their industry to work with scientists and other experts to improve circularity, human-centered design and the use regenerative technologies in their work. Several companies are creating new environmentally friendly fabrics grown from bacteria or -in the case of Bolt Threads a “leather” made from the mycelium cells of mushrooms. All biodegradable and with less environmental impact than traditional textile manufacturing.
I left Study Hall feeling truly inspired by the incredible work that the panelists are doing and the excitement about the possibilities for the future. Our future. Because it’s also clear to me that the future we will get is the future we earn through our actions. So let’s continue to listen, learn, question and collaborate. For me that’s ultimately the message of Study Hall.
*sustainability as a term seems inadequate and much discussed but no alternative word was perfect either.