Who, besides me, is tired of sustainability?
“We're exploring new, more sustainable ways to make, transport and package our products.“
“We want you to feel confident that the products you buy from us are made both responsibly and sustainably.“
“We take wide-ranging measures to protect biodiversity, reduce our consumption of water, energy and other resources, avoid waste, and combat climate change.“
And the best: “We are a new sustainable brand that...“
We have heard it all. “Fashion is the second most polluting industry in the world. Almost 60% of clothing goes to waste within a year of being produced. It takes 2700 litres of water to make one cotton t-shirt.“ We have heard it all to the point that we are completely numbed to any feelings of disgust or remorse that these sentences aim to evoke.
Don’t get me wrong. Sustainability is crucial for our future, as it is for the future of the fashion industry. Decades of careless overproduction and overconsumption have created huge holes in the system that will take years, maybe decades, to repair. From design to production, supply chain, sale and subsequent care (or lack thereof) for clothing, unsustainable practices abound, impacting not only the environment, but also the workers and final consumers.
However, huge companies using their skyrocketing budgets to shove marketing bullshit down our throats is a bit too much, isn’t it? Greenwashing is as easy to come by as a corrupt politician and spreads as quickly as Covid-19. H&M claims planning to become fully circular and climate positive, but is also found burning part of its $4,3 billion pile of unsold inventory, according to The New York Times. Zara’s Join Life line, presumably more environmentally friendly, sits right next to the rest of their clothing. Thus, by definition, the rest of the clothes are not environmentally friendly? If there has ever been an oxymoron...
And while education about the quality of clothing, sustainability, and fair working conditions is on the rise, it is fair to say it has not reached the majority of the population yet. Those who can detect greenwashing and false marketing are mostly either people from the industry, or people who have interest in the matter (are WOKE, as the awful name suggests). Hence, the greenwashing practices, however unethical, work and fashion companies continue using them.
Furthermore, what can be equally problematic is the amount of new brands who are positioning themselves as sustainable. Now, we clearly need more brands with an environmentally responsible mindset. The likes of Gabriela Hearst or Stella McCartney, who are very transparent and try to implement sustainable practices in every part of their business, from the materials, to production, to packaging and hangers in the store. But these brands, with the likes of Marine Serre or Viktor & Rolf, have a life beyond sustainability. Yes, it is at the core of their operations, but they could easily live without it because they offer first and foremost a lifestyle, a way of thinking.
What is problematic are the brands who come out of nowhere claiming to be sustainable and... it ends there. You come upon a new brand and the first word they use to describe themselves is “sustainable“. Haven‘t we all agreed years ago that if you’re doing fashion, it’s not sustainable? Does it also make your adrenaline levels spike? Certainly, new, small, niche brands are great. But you have to give the public something more than sustainability. Even as a student, it is so frustrating, and at the same time eye roll inducing, when people work on projects for classes banging on about sustainability 24/7 when their idea lacks substance in the first place. In the 188th episode of the Business of Fashion podcast, French fashion editor Carine Roitfeld expressed her slight discontent when judging the LVMH Prize for young designers: “Each year, I meet the young competitors and I think they’re smarter and smarter and the clothes are better and better, and they learn. But they have a bit of the same discourse, the same talk, about [sustainability]. This is good, this is an obligation, no? [...] But I think this is not the only thing in fashion, you have to find other ideas. It’s not enough and I am a bit bored of always the same talk, to be honest.“
We are in 2020, sustainability should be a normal practice. It should have been since the beginning. It seems like common sense. But then money (aka growth of the bottom line) and common sense have never really been in the same meeting room. Until now. What is lacking is creativity and sustainability, combined with conscious consumption. You are not helping the planet by getting a sustainable white T-shirt if you already have three more of them in your closet. It is still consumption, is it not?
The most important thing a designer has to do today is work on how to translate his vision, his world, into clothing with a strong fashion statement while being environmentally responsible. It all goes together. As Imran Amed, founder of The Business of Fashion, says: “Where it [sustainability] works really well is where that mindset is being used to make the creativity more interesting.“
What is needed is using sustainability to push creativity further. It is not easy though, as IFA fashion design student Aya Ben Amor confirms: “As a fashion student, I try to be sustainable as much as I can, but without it stopping me from doing what I want, creatively speaking. I think it’s a little bit hard to be completely sustainable at the beginning, since you’re trying to deliver a certain story and a specific concept, and sometimes you can’t get all the sustainable resources to achieve what you have in mind.“ From another perspective, sustainability might be getting a bit tiresome, like another student, who prefers to remain anonymous, conveys: “I think we are getting numb about sustainability. For me, I have been “harassed” by the topic since I became seriously interested in fashion.“
Sustainanility may seem limiting, but the opposite can definitely be true. Beyond recycling, upcycling, and working with second-hand clothing, designers should think differently about materials. For one, biodegradable or lab-grown materials are an exciting area to explore. But there is also a lot to be found in multi-purpose garments. For the Fall-Winter 2000 season, Hussein Chalayan played with this idea by having models taking covers off of furniture and transforming them into perfectly wearable dresses, chairs becoming suitcases, with the most memorable finale of a model stepping inside a wooden table which transformed into a skirt. Although this idea might be extreme, the message of having your clothes transform and serve multiple uses is incredible, and remains largely unexplored.
Environmental consciousness is crucial, it needs to be repeated. But it needs to be approached differently. Designers need to focus on harnessing the new possibilities it offers to further enhance their creativity. At the end of the day, it is „the look“ that sells while the sustainable part is a cherry on top. We need a new look (no pun intended)! New blood to immerse us into their world. So what are your obsessions? Show us your weirdness, your quirky side, your human side... What is your story? Most importantly, how do you responsibly translate that into clothing?