The fashion industry has reached a critical point in its history, where it is one of the largest polluting industries. The “fast fashion” business model is the root cause of our sustainability challenges. People have begun to understand that if we continue to produce cheap clothing and consume it at an excessive rate, things won’t end well. Thanks to organizations like UK’s Fashion Revolution and select designers, the conversation has begun. We need to make an effort towards sustainability and to place value on the clothing we wear.
What Fashion Means Now
“Fashion is the style of clothing popular with the masses at a given time period, and is influenced by many factors, including cultural identity, politics, and religion.”
This is a classic definition of fashion. Today, fashion is the production and marketing of the new or latest styles of clothing. Designers are influenced by what is happening in the world around them, determining the how and why they come up these new fashion styles.
Prior to the 1990s, designers and manufacturers produced only two or three collections a year, and not the massive numbers made today. Clothing was made better in the past with higher quality materials. The average person was concerned with making their clothing last as long as possible. Early in fashion’s history the wealthy could only afford “fashion” or the best that designers had to offer. People who couldn’t afford to purchase “fashion” would save their money to own something precious, and they knew how to repair and up-cycle clothing. There was an appreciation for the beauty of fabric, details, and classic clothing.
“Fast fashion describes cheaply made, current fashion trends, and the quick movement of them from the runway to the stores.”
The introduction of the fast fashion business model around 2000, is the point at which we see the rise of fast, disposable fashion. This speedy delivery of fashion into the stores, and the marketing of it incites us to constantly consume. We’ve developed an insatiable appetite for cheap goods. The internet has contributed to the design process being faster than ever, and the means by which we share information.
Style segments on popular television talk shows focus on low price points, bombarding us with the message that we are one shop away from fashion nirvana. You can look like a “celebrity” at a low price point. The ease in copying high fashion has given the masses a pass to have anyone’s lifestyle. Fashion has become a cheap commodity.
Sustainability and Fashion
“Sustainability is the means to maintain change in a balanced environment without compromising future needs. It’s a combination of social, economic, and environmental needs.”
Sustainability is not a new concept, and there are many examples from the past of people applying principles of sustainability. Massive amounts of clothing were not produced prior to the 1990s, and people were more adept at making things last as long as possible. Part of the reason they did so is because clothing was well-made, and they had the skills to repair, up-cycle, and recycle their garments.
The very nature of fast fashion limits its ability to be truly sustainable. The production of fast fashion isn’t about cutting out waste, paying workers enough money, or making the environment healthy. H&M is only green-washing when they give you a coupon for new purchases, after you have brought a bag full of unwanted clothing to their recycle bin.
To be sustainable, good fashion design should be about maintaining a balance between a designer’s expression, and respecting consumer needs, industry workers, and the other elements involved in the design and manufacturing process. It’s a tall order, and one will never achieve a perfect balance; but there is still much designers and manufacturers can do to make change. The goal should be to produce beautiful, accessible, high quality ready-to-wear fashion.
A great start would be to target fashion design students. Program curriculums should include studying textile science, where the potential lies for innovative fabrications. They need to learn how to design with minimal waste, to see the importance of high quality materials and construction methods, and how to use recycled materials. It’s possible to run a sustainable business making beautiful, comfortable clothing that’s made to last, and meets our fashion wants.
For the individual, it’s about balance between a love for fashion and an interest in saving the planet. We need to take a breath, and be conscious of our consumption by asking questions like “Do I really need this?” and “How often will I wear this?” We’ve spent so much time in purchase mode, that we’ve lost an appreciation for the beauty of textiles and classic clothing. It’s important to remember that there is meaning to the clothing we wear every day. Clothing is valuable.
Companies need to take responsibility and produce better clothing for a sustainable and better future for the fashion industry. It’s our responsibility to show more respect and care of our clothing, and to be conscious of what we’re buying. We can no longer undervalue fashion.