In the face of both triumph and tragedy, fashion’s masked and intricate supply chain is becoming more transparent. So where is the industry headed in 2014?
I never ever dreamed I would find myself working in the fashion industry. But never say never right? And somewhere between scraping plates for food waste studies and being shoulder deep in a cow’s rumen for ecological restoration research, a lot changed.
Fashion was always an interest of mine, surely an influence from my Parisian mother and catty American high school upbringing, but I always saw the industry as vain–only meant for those that have too much time and money on their hands to care about anything else other than what they wore. For my future, I wanted to be part of something meaningful. So I turned my career efforts to the world of sustainable business. Yet eventually, my environmental blindness led me directly into a relationship I soon wouldn’t be able to untangle.
Unless you are a staunch nudist you consume fashion. As utopian as it might seem to some, few of us are nudists, and so it comes as no surprise that fashion stands as the third largest industry in the entire world, after only energy and food. And like the latter two, consumers want it cheap and fast.
But to churn out fast and cheap in a complicated global supply chain, means processes need to be slimmed, quality diminished and externalities bleeding out at all steps. For fashion, this manifests in thinner, less durable fabric, miniscule pay for workers and over-consumption by us. From growing and harvesting the fiber, to processing and dyeing the textiles, to designing, cutting and sewing the garment, endless resources–be it land or creativity–go into clothing. A lot more than a $5 price tag will ever tell you.
I recently heard ethical fashion pioneer, Elizabeth Cline, speak on her first eye opening experience, when she realized there was something amiss in the industry. In the introduction of her book, “Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion”, she remembers how she found herself in a Manhattan K-Mart buying seven pairs of the same shoes because they were marked down from $15 to $7. “What was so interesting about the psychology of that [moment],” says Cline, “is I owned more clothing than anything else, and I knew the least about it out of anything I buy. And I probably cared the least about it. I didn’t consider myself into fashion, yet I owned so much.”
We live in an era of conscious consumerism and yet at large a void still exits between an eco-lifestyle and the clothing we wear.
Our desire for cheap, fast clothing pushed manufacturing out of the United States fast and hard. The heartbreaking estimations that 80 percent of apparel manufacturing jobs were lost in the last twenty years is real and clearly seen in those communities with factories left. On top of the shift to overseas production for the race to the bottom dollar, cut throat, almost impossible deadlines place inhumane pressures on factory workers. So where do we go from here?
The word sustainability is thrown around a lot, and really turns some people off. And I don’t blame them. What is sustainability? No one really knows exactly what it is, or even if we can achieve it. But we know for certain what sustainability isn’t. Sustainability isn’t having more than we need. But how can we know when owning too much clothing is too much?
“Can we actually make sustainable clothing–I mean, really sustainable clothing?,” posed Rhett Godfrey, Sustainability Director of the progressive organic cotton clothing company Loomstate, at the Manufacture New York Sustainable Textile Summit this past November. “It’s one thing using dyes which don’t require water or saving energy or having fair trade and so forth. But at the and of the day are we being sustainable in terms of a systems-thinking, sustainability in term of true ecosystem–in terms of supporting peoples traditional skills and supporting cultures and communities.”
Appreciating the intricate and skilled process of making clothing is vital to make informed decision as wearers. It’s looking beyond a label or tactical marketing campaign. For example, looking beyond just buying organic cotton or made in the U.S.–although these are great clues to guide consumers on how to shop better–it’s a whole system approach, and not it’s individual parts. Aristotle and Wendell Berry know “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”
But there is no right or wrong way. Every designer and fashion house approaches the making process differently from the time an idea forms to the process of production. And it’s an ethical process we are seeking. It’s a spectrum of ethics and you need to decide yours to develop a more meaningful attachment to clothing again.
The heart of the issue is it’s about time we start building a fulfilling relationship again with our clothing. But can we really have a relationship with an inanimate object or is the relationship about the one with ourselves?
For all the tragedy which arose within the fashion industry in 2013, there was so much beauty that opened as well. 2013 saw some amazing steps for a more ethical fashion community. Like Nike’s Maker app geared toward designers that beautifully visualized the resource consumption of different textiles. Bib + Tuck, an online site to swap clothing. And Zady, an e-commerce platform dedicated to telling the story of the makers.
Fashion allows us to express our identity and put forth a sense of self. And through what I’ve seen, we are developing a new passion for clothing. Not one that is based on greed and vanity but one reflecting of values, quality and character–a new type of luxury. Clothing is damn hard to make and people are connecting with the beauty and craft of that process, just like we saw with food. “And that is what is so excited to me, clothing is amazing.. and the more you now about them, the more you know about how they are sourced, and the more fulfilling your relationship with them is,” says Cline.
What I had to realize about fashion, and where I think we are heading, is understanding the complexity of our clothing.
“It is about having personal relationships, it is about having transparency, and involvement of your supply chains,” says Godfrey.
So where is sustainable fashion heading in 2014? First, it is knowing there is no difference between sustainable fashion and fashion. In the end we are taking about clothing and expressing ourselves. Next, we are getting closer to a stronger relationship with the clothing we wear, and the story of how they are made.
Our loudest vote is our dollar. And 2014 will continue to shift the market as we put our money where our values lay. Nothing is perfect and everything is a process, but education is key to a brighter future. Ethical fashion champion Vivienne Westwood‘s words always ring in my mind “Buy Less. Buy Better. Make it Last.”
Here’s to 2014.
image: Juliette Donatelli
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Keep in touch with Juliette on twitter @spadesandsilk