The final element of the Three Horizons model - the Second Horizon - exists in the tumultuous transition space between the First and Third Horizons. Though it is clear what is broken in our current reality and also what the hopeful future entails, a huge gap exists between the two. This final section will pragmatically consider the potential alternative strategies to begin scaffolding between Horizons, and what the implications of this transition might be for industry leaders, small players, and individuals. It is speculative in nature, but based upon the analysis it proceeds. Each subsection concludes with a speculative business model that highlights possible avenues to reach the hopeful future.
One major barrier to the current fashion system shifting between paradigms appears to be the difficulty in imagining alternatives, especially for those most deeply embedded within the system. Coupled with their significant resistance to change and the lack of flexibility within fast fashion business models, industry leaders may have an imperative to change, but often not the impetus. This lack of perceived alternatives could explain why - as innovator Guy Kawasaki has pointed out - many players (even the major ones) do not make the leap from one paradigm to the next, even when their very survival depends on it (Kawasaki, 2014, 6:00-6:47 [Video file]).
Professor Justin Lewis of Cardiff University argues that we have become so embedded in the current paradigm of consumer capitalism that we view it as a natural consequence of human progress, despite evidence it is both contrived and distinct. In doing so, we risk suffering from a collective blindness that renders us unable to recognize credible alternatives to the status quo (Lewis, 2013, Chapter 9, Section 2, Para. 7-9).
Why has it become so difficult to imagine alternatives? Thomas Kuhn, the American physicist and scientific philosopher who coined the term “paradigm shift” believed that, “an important part of the conflict between paradigms is, nonetheless, the lack of a common language, shared references, or a single taxonomy” which results in a sort of “untranslatability” between paradigms (Curry & Hodgson, 2008, p. 14-15). This is certainly true of the garment industry, which must transition from a system that profits almost exclusively from the sale of new clothing to one that finds ways to dissociate profit from material throughput. Within the current paradigmatic mindset, such a future can seem difficult to imagine. If the resource constraints beginning to be faced by the industry are any indication however, change will be necessary for survival, let alone transformation.
Another challenge with regard to the transition from the status quo to the hopeful future is the narrow understanding currently held by the public (and to a certain extent, the industry) about what the term sustainable fashion means. Though there are many ways to achieve sustainability, what tends to receive the most attention - and what appears to be most readily promoted by brands that wish to appear “green” - are material in nature (i.e., the promotion of natural textiles like organic cotton or bamboo, and the pursuit of material efficiencies). While important, these efforts only touch the surface of a much deeper set of solutions, and in the case of material efficiencies, they can sometimes produce a paradoxical effect. In his book Making the Modern World: Materials and Dematerialization (2013), author and scientist Vaclav Smil points out that despite a drastic drop in material and energy intensity across all industries, our per capita levels of consumption have skyrocketed (Stuff, 2015). Even a seemingly straightforward solution to the problem of high levels of consumer waste - increasing the physical and/or emotional durability of garments - does not guarantee a parallel decrease in consumption, as demonstrated by the now $50 billion self-storage industry in the U.S. (Fletcher & Grose, 2012, p. 86-87).
Though these “eco design” efforts are by no means futile, they tend to tinker in the margins of the status quo if not accompanied by further actions to address deeper issues - “green” consumption is, after all, still consumption. Dr. Kersty Hobson, Lecturer at the University of Oxford believes that even the United Nations’ definition of sustainable consumption places too much emphasis on the “rationalisation of lifestyle practices” - that is, “making them more efficient and shaping them according to the logic of instrumental rationality, as part of a prevailing ecological modernisation paradigm” (Hobson, 2002, p. 96). Rationalising lifestyles into a series of efficient practices certainly appears to be a common-sense approach to addressing the problem of overconsumption on a finite planet, but focusing on the “facts” can miss an opportunity to address the complex cultural values, beliefs and meanings that also drive our purchasing and lifestyle behaviours (Thorpe, 2010, p. 13), and connect people to the story of sustainable changes through intrinsic values like equity, community building, social justice, or beauty. It’s also missing an opportunity to find methods in which to tap into such behaviours and values in ways that are both sustainable and profitable. What if - as some companies have already begun to do - efficiency gains were not the end goal, but were instead used a catalyst to spur deeper transformative change?
What is the business imperative for industry leaders to change? Why don’t fast and mainstream fashion businesses simply re-imagine themselves as sustainable fashion empires? As previously mentioned, business models that rely upon low prices to fuel consumption are often less equipped to increase costs to their production. This is because increases to the price paid by customers lead to a decrease in sales volume - the two work in tandem to fuel (or stymie) growth. To complicate matters, the more clothing people purchase, the harder sellers must work to entice them to buy more (Lewis, 2013, Chapter 4, Section 1, para. 2), which is often accomplished by offering clothing with price tags requiring little deliberation to justify the purchase. Contemplating the viability of more expensive sustainable and/or ethical initiatives can thus be difficult for companies in the business of rapidly producing and selling “perishable” clothing.
Despite the challenges, there are several prominent mainstream companies making purposeful strides toward both environmental and ethical responsibility. They may not be fast fashion companies, but their success does suggest change is possible. Nike, Inc., for example, has adopted a (now decade old) "sustainable innovation" philosophy that has resulted in clear improvements to their supply chains, while savings accrued through waste reduction fuel further sustainable practices like closed loop production and zero-waste designs (Black [Ed.], 2013, p. 112).
Similarly, the women’s clothing company Eileen Fisher, Inc. launched Vision 2020 in 2015, the first in a series of five-year plans to move the company toward 100% sustainability in all their operations. What it means to be 100% sustainable is up for debate, but the initiative spans a spectrum of initiatives from material improvements to deeper systemic considerations about resource dependencies and the exploration of alternative business models.
It is difficult to find similarly comprehensive initiatives being pursued by fast fashion or discount retailers, in the same way it is difficult to imagine either of the above business cases for corporate responsibility remaining viable were they competing with today’s low-cost brands. Indeed, both companies operate at a significantly higher price point than many of their mainstream competitors. And yet, as labour and material expenses increase - and if the Millennial generation’s reverence for the environment, concern for social welfare and increasing distaste for the glorification of consumerism remains high (Winograd & Hais, 2014, p. 6) - the low-cost pricing strategies relied upon by fast fashion and mainstream companies could become increasingly inoperable. Rather than waiting to be forced to change (or risk being left behind by the new paradigm), perhaps there is something to be learned from those companies forging more sustainable pathways in the present.
The following recommendations outline four potential strategies industry leaders might use to transition into more sustainable and responsible business models. The system is far too complex for directives, so rather than precise steps, they consist of guiding principles based on the analysis found within this report.
As previously discussed, many fashion business models generally rely on only one source of revenue generation – the sale of new clothing and accessories. There are certainly reasons for this, but thoughtfully diversifying a company’s offering could open up new sources of revenue while reducing the need for material throughput. This could include expanding into wearable technology and data collection as Nike has done, offering repair/cleaning services, refurbishing and reselling used clothing, providing lessons on garment design and construction, etc. - anything that takes advantage of the core strengths within the organization. In this spirit, fast fashion companies could look to their own strengths – the logistical ability to navigate complex supply chain networks, for example – to diversify into business-to-business (B2B) activities that make full use of fabric remnants; a potential new revenue source that reduces waste in the process.
A cursory online search of “experience vs. stuff” brings up a wealth of articles, reports, and blog posts about how experiences have begun to matter more to people than physical things. Fashion clearly exists squarely in the physical and material world, but it also holds a unique position in the world of symbols and memories. Expanding on the prior recommendation, it seems feasible that companies could further diversify their offerings by tapping into the non-material (or at least less material intensive) experience of fashion.
The couturiers at the House of Chanel, for example, has begun to release detailed “making-of” videos documenting the painstakingly beautiful techniques that go into the couture garments. Pinterest, meanwhile, is filled with examples not only of garments to be purchased, but also images concerned primarily with the details that can turn fashion into an artform – textures, embroidery, methods of construction, etc. Providing customers with the experience of fashion – by diversifying into accessible fashion education, for example, or classes that focus on personal styling, composition, branding, etc. could open up new avenues for less materially intensive profit generation.
Touched on previously, this recommendation is based on actual examples of business models that have adopted such strategies. Clothing company tonlé, for example, uses remnant fabrics to build a negative-waste business model that fuels meaningful employment compensated with a living wage. Nike also uses waste reduction savings to fund its sustainable initiatives, while California-based clothing companies like Everlane and Reformation both choose to sell almost exclusively online in order to reduce costs and finance the use of, for example, high quality materials and/or responsible local manufacturing. By combining efficiency gains with a higher purpose, companies can make strides toward deeper levels of sustainability while maintaining financial viability.
It can also inspire new ways of viewing things like waste in the production process. Shifting from a perspective where waste is viewed as “bad” to one in which it is viewed as “fuel” or provocation for new activities could result in interesting new business model loops that work symbiotically to make use of all resources.
Intellectual property licensing in fashion design has limited scope due to its classification as a utilitarian object (Blakely, 2010). Some see this as a problem to be fixed, but it might also hint at an effective way to develop industry-wide sustainable practices. If it’s not possible to copyright, why not copyleft?
Levelling the playing field is essential to shifting the industry toward responsible resource management (unless everyone complies, competitors have little incentive to play by the rules), and those who wish to see change happen have the most incentive to make it so. Joining forces could reduce the barriers to innovation, expedite the process of change, and perhaps even build important leverage for lobbying governments to enact binding legislation. It could also result in new business opportunities; industry leaders might begin to explore how their core strengths could be in service of the greater whole – perhaps collaboratively developing new systems or technologies that support the innovative work of smaller players.
Inspired by the regenerative growth caused by the seemingly destructive force of wildfire, this speculative business model envisions a venture where the fabric remnants of one season’s collection act as the foundation (and metaphorical “spark”) for regenerative designs... (Click to Read)
Smaller ethical and sustainable players may not be equipped to immediately compete on the same scale as industry leaders, but their size often comes as a distinct advantage while pursuing more radical forms of sustainable innovation that experiment on the edges of what a post-industrial future might look like. This section will examine how their experimentation – and resistance to the status quo - could spur greater change in the long term.
“We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable – but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art.”
- Author Ursula K Le Guin in her acceptance speech at the 2014 National Book Awards
As many of the small, beautiful and poetic ideas (like those mentioned in the Environmental Scan) have shown, there is already a growing resistance to the status quo. Smaller players with more adaptable infrastructures, purpose-driven business models and strong digital literacy have begun to leverage their unique perspectives to shift the commercial fashion landscape toward a more diverse ecosystem of players, embracing accessible and affordable technologies to scale their production and connect with buyers (Carbonaro & Votava, 2009, p. 39).
Small-scale projects and businesses - be they startups, forms of critical artistic commentary, or academic research - play an important role in challenging the dominant system. These types of initiatives can not only put pressure on larger brands to change by increasing the scope of available alternatives (and attracting customers along the way), but also by threatening the certainty of current leaders’ roles in the new paradigm. That is, by leveraging their strengths as nimble, adaptable enterprises and initiatives, smaller players could be in a better position to influence the system of fashion commerce, moving it in a more sustainable and responsible direction.
Princen, et al. explain that modern industrial forces, as well as technical innovations and institutional mechanisms have distorted economic development in the increasingly narrow direction of increased consumption, leading to markets primarily dominated by commodities (Princen et al., 2002, p. 69). Such a myopic view of what is possible has in turn limited the development of low commodity potential (LCP) goods and services - that is, those involving direct or cooperative social and ecological relations - that could meet our needs in less resource-intensive ways. With enough resistance, perhaps a new ecosystem of alternatives could emerge - one with a more rich and diverse range of possibilities and alternatives, not just those with high commodity potential.
Such an economic ecosystem of high, medium and low commodity potential activities might also represent fast, medium and slow speed systems that work in concert with one another to serve the greater whole of a sustainable system. Instead of operating as separate layers, perhaps the different layers and speeds of such a system could work in more interconnected ways, with a network of industry leaders, smaller players and individuals contributing their specific strengths in ways that allow fashion to be what it is meant to be – a deep expression of the diverse human experience.
The tables below imagine what these high, medium and low commodity potential goods and services might look like in a post-industrial fashion ecosystem.
High Commodity Potential (FAST SYSTEMS): Products involving distant or abstract relations between producer & consumer
Medium Commodity Potential (MEDIUM-SPEED SYSTEMS): Products involving direct relations between producer & consumer
Low Commodity Potential (SLOW SYSTEMS): Products involving direct or cooperative social & ecological relations
As shown above, each “level” of speed could potentially support the activities of another – for example, HCP services like closed loop textile production systems might feed mass-bespoke design services (MCP), which could then be purchased and shared via a location-based LCP “collective closet” sharing system. Similarly, material innovation researchers might work collaboratively with haute couturiers, who then inspire ideas that manifest in hyper-local fashion trends (or vice versa).
The mainstream system currently dominating mass-market fashion may not be “disrupted” overnight, but fuelled by the innovative resistance of experimental and agile smaller players, a more interdependent and symbiotic network could emerge – one that embraces multiple speeds of activities in support of a diverse range of sustainable enterprises.
In the field of architecture, a careful attention to boundaries and context often results in the best and most beloved designs. Architects who take cues from the physical constraints of a site to inform their design innovations (rather than designing in a metaphorical vacuum) tend to find inspiration from its edges... (Click to Read)
What about a bottom-up revolution? We may never return to sewing our own clothes as the technology exists today, but individuals might begin to demand a system that does less harm while fulfilling their desire for authentic forms of expression. Material efficiency improvements are important, but they tend to further mechanize fashion rather than humanize it. The section that follows will explore the counterintuitive nature of efficiency as a leverage point for change within the fashion system.
How might we move toward a more hopeful future if not through logic and efficiency? In her influential paper Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System, scientist and preeminent systems thinker Donella Meadows explains that within complex systems exist leverage points - that is, the places “where a small shift in one thing can produce big changes in everything” (Meadows, 1999, p. 1). Leverage points, she explains, are points of power. As Meadows’ colleague, systems scientist Jay Forrester explains however, once we find them we tend to push with all our might - in the wrong direction. This is because complex systems and their leverage points are often not intuitive. Or if they are, “we intuitively use them backward, systematically worsening whatever problems we are trying to solve” (Meadows, 1999, p. 2). Growth is Forrester’s classic example of this counter intuition: pushing our economies to expand at all costs has ended up causing many of the problems they were meant to solve (Meadows, 1999, p. 1).
What if efforts in the garment industry to improve sustainability were making the same mistake - pushing on the correct leverage point, but in the exact wrong direction? What if, instead of a more efficient system, what we need is one that also supports activities that are less so? That is, activities that embrace the messy, the irrational and the eccentric, the “resolute inefficiency” (Malamud Smith, 2013) of the creative process - the human? Perhaps such a system, despite its inefficiencies, could tap into the consciousness and empathy we have lost but desperately need.
Fashion is by nature a reflection of our humanness, but as clothing becomes more and more commoditized, that humanity is displaced by goals of mass consumption. How might we make fashion more human again? To do so, it is worth examining the foundational needs driving our most intrinsically motivated behaviours. Edward L. Deci and Richard M. Ryan, co-developers of the Self-Determination Theory (SDT), maintain that humans are intrinsically motivated by three innate needs: competence, relatedness and autonomy. Under appropriate conditions, they argue, these three basic psychological needs serve “to guide people toward more competent, vital, and socially integrated forms of behavior” (Deci & Ryan, 2000, p. 252). Deci and Ryan believe these fundamental needs span cultural, geographical, and demographical boundaries (Deci & Ryan, 2000, p. 252), and that they are essential to fostering long-term psychological health and well-being.
When looked at through the lens of SDT, it would be difficult to say that mainstream fashion commerce is effectively meeting these intrinsic needs, but there are many possibilities for how it might occur. For example, it seems possible the avid interest of those who most closely ascribe to commercialized fashion cycles could be channelled into healthier, more sustainable forms of goal-seeking behaviour - behaviour that more sufficiently meets their intrinsic needs for competence, relatedness and autonomy. Challenging activities that promote personal growth are, after all, characterized by novelty (Deci & Ryan, 2000, p. 233) - fashion’s partner in crime!
According to design consultant David Shah, “...fashion can never be sustainable unless the public demands it, and not enough consumers are doing so. This is the fashion world, and whatever the public wants, the stores give. Unfortunately fashion retailing is not about education but about driving a bandwagon” (Black [Ed.], 2013, p.219). Perhaps projects that engender a deeper sense of autonomy could push the bandwagon in a new direction by helping people resist the extrinsic motivations and pressures that currently perpetuate the status quo (i.e., advertising, celebrity endorsements, social media, etc.). That is, a strong sense of autonomy could create more space for thoughtful reflection and decision-making, and help push us toward the more hopeful future.
In the speculative model below, the concepts of SDT are put to action through a hands-on DIY platform.
Sewing and construction techniques used by the “petites-mains” of haute couture houses, though delicate and time-consuming, are fairly simple to master. This scenario imagines an online open-knowledge platform where people can purchase “kits” for creating haute couture-style embroidered clothing, but also contribute their own ideas for designs that can be shared freely with other community members... (Click to Read)
There is no one grand solution to move us from the First to the Third Horizon. It took many small steps to get us to the current situation, and it will take many more hopeful gestures to move us to the preferable future. Many of the industry leaders that rely on fast fashion principles are bound by the symbiotic elements of low price, high speed and quick turnover could find it difficult to make more than small material improvements and efficiency gains toward more sustainable business practices, but there are still potential pathways toward transformation if undertaken with purpose and earnestness. Increasing labour and resource prices may force business models to change, it could also result in a more diverse ecosystem of businesses and initiatives that do less harm while re-instilling the pleasure and potential for magic latent within this age-old expression of what makes us human.