'Sustainable fashion' and binary thinking

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

I realised something recently. It's pretty simple, but seems rather important.

This realisation emerged from a comment someone made about my work on homemade clothes and sustainability. They challenged the whole idea of 'sustainable fashion', arguing that too often people assume that sustainable fashion is 'better' than mass-produced fashion - when strategies such as making our own clothes at home might bring their own challenges and limitations.

In response, I explained that I don't think homemade clothes are automatically more sustainable than mass-produced clothes (though they certainly have the potential to be) - in fact, that's the central point of my whole thesis - so, effectively, I agreed with the point they were making.

However, I quietly sidestepped the larger issue they raised. I could only think: well, of course I think sustainable fashion aims to be 'better'! That's the goal, right? Seeking solutions to problems and new ways of doing things? That's what we're all working towards!

Over time, I've come to realise that my confusion over this comment indicates two totally different understandings of what 'sustainable fashion' means. The first is binary, while the other (my own) is aspirational.

The binary understanding sees 'sustainable fashion' and 'unsustainable fashion' as two distinct categories. From this perspective, 'normal' high street fashion falls within the 'unsustainable' category - while anything placed within the 'sustainable' category carries the implicit claim of 'betterness'. 

This binary view is certainly easy to understand: it efficiently splits the fashion world into baddies and goodies. It helps you to feel good as a consumer - having picked the virtuous option versus the negative one. It's also a logical perception: if designers and journalists talk about 'sustainable fashion' it implies a single, unified group which exists in opposition to its nemesis, 'unsustainable fashion'. 

However, given the complexity of the fashion system, the energy and resources consumed in creating and maintaining garments, and the many human and social factors involved in wearing clothes, no initiative can truly claim to be 100% sustainable. I learned early on that this is true of design for sustainability more generally - you will always be trading off advantages against disadvantages, and dealing with unexpected impacts. There are no easy wins! 

From the binary perspective, there is great scope for challenging those who describe their work as sustainable fashion - the critics need only point to the inevitable negative impacts of their initiatives to argue that they are (at best) naive idealists, who have not considered the implications of their well-intentioned efforts.

In contrast, my understanding of sustainable fashion is that it's an aspiration - something that, to be honest, we haven't yet achieved. As a fashion designer exploring alternative fashion systems with sustainability as a goal, I might describe my work as 'sustainable fashion' - but that's a shorthand for the aspirations I have sought to pursue, not for '100% goodie'.

And I'm not alone. I don't know of a single person working within the field of sustainable fashion who thinks in this binary way - that what they are doing is definitively 'better' than the norm. Instead, I see a lot of people pursuing different approaches - based on their own priorities, interests and talents - and trying to expose alternative, more sustainable, ways of delivering the benefits of fashion. They are highly aware of the negative impacts of the strategies they are developing, and the trade-offs they are making.

Meanwhile, many of these people are working with the 'baddies' of the high street fashion world, seeking to explore alternatives on an industrial scale through collaboration, rather than competition - challenging that binary view from another angle.

Simple, right? We were talking at cross purposes all along. Just a shame it took me so long to realise!

I guess we all need to get a bit better at explaining what we mean by 'sustainable fashion'.