“The ultimate task of the next generations – starting now, with our present generations – is to break the economy out of this petrifying mould of interminable, unlimited material growth and senseless wealth accumulation and turn its vital force to the pursuit of a responsible and sober happiness based on quality: real quality that truly counts toward better life and impels the growth of culture, education, the arts, science, knowledge craftsmanship, experience, and last bit not least wisdom. By transcending itself, capitalism could most probably count on centuries and centuries more, because it will enter the last growth phase of the consumer economy, the one of an economy of culture, which is the only economy that allows for unlimited growth.”
- Prof. Simonetta Carbonaro, University of Borås (Carbonaro & Votava, 2009, p. 44)
The hurdles to realizing a more sustainable future for fashion can often seem insurmountable, but the vision for what it could become has been quite clearly articulated by academics, activists, and those working from within the current system. In many ways, it involves fixing what is broken while maintaining or enhancing what is most vital about fashion. The paths to achieving the vision are numerous, but while some target the symptoms of the broken system, others attempt to address the deeper systemic roots of the problem. For now, this section will focus on outlining where the hopeful future might lead us.
From their powerful position within the fashion system, industry leaders could play a major role in transforming the industry for the better, but as has been previously highlighted, their resistance to change is high for many reasons.
For this to occur, a balance must be struck between the business imperative of making money and responsible business practices that respect the limits of the planet, the dignity of those making up the garment manufacturing supply chain, and the preferences of their customers. Given the current conditions of the industry, this could likely be a difficult transition, but especially so for those whose business models are in constant pursuit of lowering the bottom line. In these business models, there is simply not much room to manoeuvre, and yet, change may be forced upon them whether they are prepared for it or not.
Euromonitor International has predicted that one of the main challenges facing clothing companies in the future will be breaking the cycle of discounting and the resultant decreasing perception of value by customers, who have been trained to expect discounts (Global Apparel, 2014). Once a point of competitive advantage, they believe the decreasing cost of clothing, along with “fast fashion fatigue” is now negatively impacting the profitability of some companies.
At a deeper level, Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman has also found that western societies have begun to see a shift of aspirations from the pursuit of material wealth to an economy that strives to cultivate well-being and happiness (Carbonaro & Votava, 2009, p. 35). If the pursuit of low prices and unfettered consumption are losing their effectiveness, perhaps now is an opportunity to re-evaluate and begin shifting focus toward maximizing the qualitative values of both companies and customers instead of continuing to pursue monetary value at all costs.
Some companies have already begun to make this transition. While not perfect, athletic-wear company Nike has successfully transformed from “a perceived pariah of child-labour violations to a model for corporate responsibility” (Black [Ed.], 2013, p.112). Over a decade on, they have positioned themselves to profit through diversified sustainable innovation (like the waste-reducing Flyknit shoes) and data collection, and are more equipped to fund sustainable and socially responsible endeavours.
They have also begun to experiment with collaborative environments that aim to establish a more level playing field for sustainable business practices. For example, the GreenXchange was created as an online platform for “open innovation” where technologies and intellectual property not core to companies’ business practices could be shared via Creative Commons (CC) licensing. As noted by John Wilbanks, VP for Science at Creative Commons, “there is so much duplication of effort and wasted resources when it comes to sustainability. We need to make it easier for individuals, companies, academia, and researchers to collaborate and share best practices” (Tapscott, 2010). Nike personally shared over 400 of their patents through the platform.
Shifting the collective mindset from a competitive environment based on economic constraints to one based on ecological ones is quite obviously an enormous challenge, but efforts to level the playing field as the GreenXchange has attempted to do could help bring such a scenario closer to reality. As previously referenced, Princen, et al. believe it is the only context in which abiding by such rules makes competitive sense.
If the garment industry - and perhaps more importantly, the desires of society - were to shift away from commoditization and high material throughput, the hopeful future might also offer smaller players a more diverse environment in which to thrive. In fact, many are already finding ways to take advantage of their nimbleness as niche creators and suppliers of fashion (as well as expert exploiters of digital technologies and media) to push boundaries, reach their audiences and break open new avenues for post-industrial, sustainable futures (Carbonaro & Votava, 2009, p. 39).
These initiatives, like many of those documented in the Environmental Scan, signal a potential landscape where power has been redistributed through a shift in focus from economies of scale to economies of quality that focus on the growth of culture, art and community rather than production and consumption. Reversing expectation of low prices developed over decades in conjunction with the current system may prove difficult (and an increase in clothing prices does not automatically equate to sustainability), but a more diversified landscape of players could help break the single-minded outlook that currently dominates the industry and foster divergent views and ideas about what it means to be fashionable.
Finally, as envisioned by Professors Kate Fletcher and Lynda Grose, design could be re-imagined as a tool for shaping not just what is bought, but also “the policies and mechanisms that shape the very cultural logic of society” (Fletcher & Grose, 2012, p.173) – a role that arguably should be held by a wider range of people. Instead of being relegated to the narrow realm of material things, designers of the hopeful future could become active change-makers, empowered by their training and unique perspectives to imagine the world as those too tied to the status quo cannot.
Along with allowing individuals to play a more participatory role in the creative process of fashion, the hopeful future could also place more control (and therefore responsibility) for sustainability in their hands. The current system touts “consumer choice” as the main tool for individuals to influence its outcome, but as previously explained, the impact they can actually achieve within existing parameters is minimal. What if this weren’t the case? What if the use of clothing had just as much impact on sustainability – if not more – than its production?
This is a question currently being asked by the Local Wisdom project headed by Kate Fletcher, a preeminent researcher and sustainable fashion advocate. Sustainability efforts are often limited by companies’ predisposition to limit responsible behaviour to activities that bring benefit (and profit) to themselves; Fletcher believes that instead of looking solely to producers to solve fashion’s myriad problems, the ingenious “craft of use” exhibited by individuals has great potential to shape its future as well - stemming from "‘wisdoms’ of thrift, domestic provisioning, care of community, freedom of creative expression and connectedness to nature, among other things" (Fletcher, 2010, p.1411).
Local Wisdom outlines nine categories of use (see below), which embrace community and encourage individual agency over technology and efficiency-based solutions to sustainability. These forms of culturally embedded practices “privilege sensitivity to people’s lived experience rather than industrial or commercial ideas about what sustainability is or should be” (Fletcher, 2010, p.1412). Far from the passive role played today, perhaps in the hopeful future individuals could begin to reclaim fashion as a meaningful and authentic form of self-expression, and embody sustainability in ways that are deeply personal and long lasting.
The Local Wisdom project’s Nine Categories of Use
Are shared between people;
Have never been washed – and aren’t leather;
Have the character of a particular place in them;
Link you with the natural world;
Catch your attention each time you wear them;
Tell the story of how they’ve been used;
Are made up of separate pieces that can be interchanged;
Make you feel part of a community (but not a uniform);
Are enjoying a third, fourth or fifth life.
There are also many business models that could be inspired by Local Wisdom's categories of use. For example, 4 | Link you with the natural world could result in a clothing line designed with specific experiences in mind, like a jacket perfect for lying beneath the stars on a cool crisp night (made of material that’s water resistant, with warm, plush lining along the back of the jacket, fleecy pockets, and a padded “pillow” hood). 6 | Tell the story of how they’ve been used might take inspiration from Simon Heijdens Broken White ceramics, designed to appear plain at first, but grow deeper in character as time passes: “Through using the object, small crack lines appear in the skin of the ceramic... The nature of craquelé is that it is not a state, but a never-ending process. By opening up the static characteristics of ceramics and manipulating the start of this craquelé process, space is made for a nature to reveal itself, and trace the story of cup and user” (Broken White, n.d.).
In a similar way, techniques might be developed to slowly reveal a garment’s details over time, be it through low-energy wash techniques that catalyze dye to emerge, the slow but deliberate disintegration of worn areas to reveal new patterns underneath, or even the gradual build-up of dirt as a catalyst for new details. Instead of being viewed as a sign that clothing must be disposed, these techniques could help users strengthen their attachment to the pieces over time.
Finally, an idea for a location-based, curated swapping service could help clothing to enjoy a third, fourth or fifth life (9) by matching people with similar aesthetic preferences (and dress sizes) and facilitate the sharing and swapping of garments, creating curated “collective closets” that allows for change and renewal while limiting material resource requirements.
Can fashion simultaneously be new and beautiful, celebrate culture, reduce harm, support diverse livelihoods, and remain profitable? Many researchers, advocates and practitioners believe it can, but to achieve it we must broaden our understanding of what fashion and sustainability are, and more importantly, our vision for what they could become.