In an era of passive over-consumption, how might we shift the garment industry toward a future where fashion is reclaimed as a tool for meaningful self-expression and identity making?
The act (or some may say the art) of dressing is a deeply ingrained element of cultures around the world, and highly symbolic in nature. It has the power to tell deeply human stories about who we are and what we aspire to be, and by way of its intrinsically social nature, reflect both our desire to express ourselves and to belong - or not.
It has also led to a staggeringly profitable industry. With the aim of democratizing fashion and making high style clothing available to the masses, the emergence of ‘fast fashion’ retailers like Zara and H&M disrupted the garment industry at the turn of the 21st century. As will be shown, this shift toward low-cost, commoditized clothing has profoundly affected the entire industry, not just those who engage in fast fashion business practices. Euromonitor International has forecast the global apparel and footwear industry to be worth US$2 Trillion by 2018 (Global Apparel, 2014), but the immense profits accompanying this rise have unfortunately not come without consequences.
This project began as an exploration of one such consequence – waste – and how it could be minimized to move fashion toward more sustainable production. Research quickly made it clear, however, that waste is quite literally a by-product of a much larger issue. In the affluent West, clothing cycles have sped up to such remarkable rates that some retailers now offer new styles on a weekly basis – up to 52 ‘micro seasons’ per year. This has resulted in unprecedented levels of consumption and disposal, as well as myriad negative environmental and human impacts. It’s important to note, however, that the trends occurring within fashion commerce are situated within a larger paradigm of economic growth that has dominated political rhetoric and policy making for the past five decades. During this time the global economy has expanded at unprecedented rates, and has been tied to immense amounts of ecological degradation.
Focusing on the symptoms of fashion commerce, while important, does little to solve the deeply systemic issues impacting the industry. It could also result in missed opportunities for transformation.
If the ultimate goal is to catalyze meaningful and lasting change, understanding what’s causing the symptoms, and why, is an important first step. The research that follows aims to reveal important connections between elements in the garment industry, and the ripple effects they create within the system. These connections are rarely simple, and sometimes counterintuitive. It also aims to understand the deeper systems structures and mental models driving the garment industry, as they are essential to finding impactful leverage points for change (See The Iceberg Model, above).
Though it does delve into some problem solving, this project focuses much of its attention on in-depth problem finding and framing through the use of Andrew Curry and Anthony Hodgson’s Three Horizons framework as an analytical tool (explained in the Project Framework). It is hoped that by uncovering the complex and often invisible connections that exist within the system of fashion commerce, this project might contribute to the imagination of new solutions to the truly difficult problems that face the industry.