BY Hettie Judah in Opinion | 19 DEC 17
Featured in
Issue 192

Wardrobe Malfunction

Are recent innovations in sustainable fashion enough to save the planet? 

BY Hettie Judah in Opinion | 19 DEC 17

Fashion is inherently unsustainable. This is what separates it from mere clothing. Clothing you wear until it falls apart; fashion you wear until the next fashion comes along, at which point it becomes unfashionable. It transforms excessive, vulgar, destructive desire for material objects into something resembling necessity: an existential hurdle to the concept of sustainability.

The apparel industry globally consumes great quantities of water and energy; it employs toxic chemicals both as crop fertilizers and in the treatment of materials. On average, 23 kilograms of greenhouse gases are estimated to be generated for every kilo of fabric produced, while cotton is now responsible for 18 percent of pesticide and 25 percent of total insecticide use worldwide. The rise of ‘fast fashion’ has seen a boom in post-consumer waste, with some three fifths of garments disposed of in incinerators or landfill within a year of manufacture. Deforested land is still used in the production of cotton and leather, and exploitative labour practices remain widespread. None of these are new concerns but, between 2000 and 2014, global clothing output doubled as the fashion production cycle accelerated.

In 2008, The New York Times carried an article suggesting that ‘sustainable fashion’ was now a well-established concept. It described a runway show for which designers including Donna Karan, Rodarte and Donatella Versace were invited to produce garments using alternative, less polluting materials, such as pineapple leaves. It quoted Julie Gilhart, then fashion director of Barneys in New York: ‘Sustainable fashion has all the makings of a trend […] but we know now it’s a movement.’

Ten years later, there are NGOs, monitoring bodies, reports, conferences, pledges, trade fairs and celebrity-led initiatives dedicated to the subject of sustainable fashion. The exhibition ‘Fashioned from Nature’, which opens in April at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, will explore, among other things, fashion’s relationship to the environment and the role design might play in sustainability.

We are delivered regular reports of progress in the field. Since 2016, Adidas has been making trainers using yarns derived from ocean plastic as part of an ongoing collaboration with the Parley for the Oceans initiative. These sneakers are among a number of experimental initiatives by Adidas, including the use of biodegradable, protein-based Biosteel fibre, designs that make a virtue of undyed materials, and increasingly automated production techniques. (As of 2016, Adidas’s largest competitor, Nike, have also been using recyled polyester for the core yarns in all of its Flyknit shoes. According to the company, this has diverted hundreds of millions of plastic bottles from landfill.) Fibres made from Parley’s ocean plastic have also been used in designer Stella McCartney’s eponymous footwear and accessories line. Vegetarian since its foundation in 2001, the Stella McCartney brand has published annual Environmental Profit and Loss Reports for the past two years. In October 2017, Gucci announced that it would stop selling fur in 2018. (Some might argue that this is an issue of ethics rather than sustainability, but let’s take an interdependent view.) In the past, fast fashion retailer H&M was explicitly targeted over sustainability issues due to its sheer size and visibility as well as its business model. Now, however, it is seen as a leader in the field: one of the top five companies globally in the NGO-compiled Sustainable Cotton Ranking.

Yet, too many environmental good news stories seem either to be greenwash or exercises in positive stroking within an industry that is, at best, not changing fast enough and, at worst, barely changing at all. The Boston Consulting Group and Global Fashion Agenda published their dismaying Pulse of the Fashion Industry study to coincide with the Copenhagen Fashion Summit in May 2017. ‘As of today, the sustainability “pulse” of the industry is weak,’ wrote the authors. ‘The newly developed global Pulse Score, a health measure for the sector, is only 32 out of 100. The industry is not yet where it could and should be.’ 

A poll of 90 senior management figures conducted for Pulse of the Fashion Industry suggests an entrenched culture of buck-passing. Asked who was responsible for driving industry progress, respondents placed consumers in pole position, with shareholders, industry associations, government regulatory bodies and NGOs all seen to hold more responsibility than the brands and retailers themselves.

Stella McCartney, A/W Collection 2017. Courtesy: Victoria and Albert Museum, London © Stella McCartney

Pulse of the Fashion Industry only identified brands taking positive steps: the significant majority that had not engaged with sustainability in a measurable way remained anonymous. (This is unsurprising, perhaps, given that the report was commissioned by the apparel industry.) NGO-led studies tend to be less reticent in naming those who fail to step up to the mark. The 2017 Sustainable Cotton Ranking, put together by environmental charities including the World Wildlife Fund, cites the Arcadia Group (behind brands such as Topshop, Topman and Burton) as having policy in place, but scoring negligibly on implementation and transparency. Amazon and Giorgio Armani are among a number of companies listed that scored zero.

One complicating factor is how fast the understanding of issues related to sustainability is shifting. Fleece made from recycled PET bottles was seen as a triumph of sustainable practice a few years ago, but was recently revealed to release microplastics back into the water system when it was washed. Might we see a similar postconsumer issue with the clothes and sneakers made using ocean plastic? Much vegan leather is created from non-renewable petrochemicals: essentially another non-biodegradable plastic product.

The fashion industry as a whole is constructed on illusions: marketing, advertising, PR, positive spin, negative body image, storytelling, image-making, re-invention. Such slipperiness, in addition to the constantly evolving discourse around what actually constitutes sustainable practice, makes the due diligence now expected of environmentally conscious purchasers extremely difficult. Pressure from consumers can work. Gucci’s fur-free announcement came four months after the powerful online sales platform Net-a-Porter confirmed it would no longer offer fur products for sale in response to feedback from a survey of more than 25,000 clients.

Good agricultural practices, lower water usage, recycling, upcycling and ethical commitments are all laudable, but none addresses the underlying problem: fashion as a ‘total system’. Although discrete gestures are possible, rejecting the cycle of changing seasonal fashions around which the entire industry is structured cannot be accommodated. Currently, the fashion industry depends on generating an appetite for constant newness that, in turn, relies on debasing the recently un-new.

In recent years, commentators such as the academic Jana Melkumova-Reynolds have noted that fashion, as it was understood in the 20th century, is already over. We no longer see anything that can be identified as a distinctive seasonal trend in the way historians of dress can when dating photographs from the middle of the last century. Fashion has now accelerated and oversaturated to the point where it exists as a blurring vortex. In response, stores are left in constant flux between hyping, discounting and restocking, and journalists find their trend reports conforming to an ever-tightening repetitive cycle.

Could this, in itself, not offer us a new paradigm? A model for sustainability that approaches fashion not as a sequence of changes forcing the rejection of the immediate past, but as a gradual flux? In accepting that fashion seasons have already ceased to exist, the driving imperative to constant renewal could be removed, taking pressure off retailers, producers and consumers alike. The stress and frenzy of the current – blatantly unsustainable – model might be replaced by one in which fashion moves slowly ever on, a pleasurable evolving presence, to be engaged with as desire dictates.

Main image: Parley for the Oceans plastic interception operations in the Maldives. Courtesy: Parley for the Oceans, New York.

Hettie Judah is a writer based in London, UK.