What is sustainable fashion and why should we care about it?

Originally published February 23, 2011

The word fashion conjures many associations such as new, current, style, desire and innovation. The fashion system is built upon newness, the introduction of new styles, trends, colours, shapes and materials every season. So how exactly does sustainability come into all of this when fashion and sustainability paired together give rise to an oxymoron. How do we even start to define this new buzzword that has gained prevalence over the years? There is much confusion over this new term, trend, movement or anti-trend depending on your perception of it. Is it strictly an environmental issue? Do we include social aspects, such as fair trade and sweatshops? Economics? Agriculture? Consumer behaviour? Is it enough if a garment is made with organic fibres? Is natural better than synthetic? Believe it or not, recycled polyester actually has a smaller environmental impact than organic cotton, say whaaaat! Not only is there a problem in defining the term and a lack of an international consensus on the definitions out there but also that consumers don’t even know whom to trust anymore in this age of information. Scientists, newspapers, bloggers, magazines, newscast, podcast, twitter, the Internet and radio, everybody has an opinion and everybody’s an expert; whom do we trust and how do we make sense of all this information?

So who am I and what do I have to offer? Am I an expert? Getting there. I have been involved and championing for sustainable fashion for about 8 years now. I have a degree in Science and in Fashion Design. I have worked in the industry as a designer for a large retailer and for myself. Currently I am working on my MaSc. in environmental science where of course my area of focus is sustainable fashion apparel. So I think I’ve earned a little bit of street cred to be able to offer a thoughtful, educated and experienced opinion. I will not just blather about sustainability but will also showcase designers and anyone else doing amazing things in this industry.

The thing that I love about fashion and design is that it is challenging, innovative and you’re constantly moving forward but keeping an eye on the past. To me, achieving sustainability is the ultimate design challenge. Designing clothes in new ways that minimize waste or have zero waste through innovative pattern drafting. Re-designing the current supply chain management systems so that the use of non-renewable resources are minimized or better yet eliminated. Closing the loop so that our waste (clothes) can become food somewhere else. Imagine compostable clothes, where they can be broken down by organisms and provide nutrients to an ecological system. Some materials already can be composted but we lack the infrastructure to take advantage of them. Not to mention we haven’t yet figured out what to do with the buttons, zippers and other notions that are not biodegradable.

The burden is not just on the designers, retailers, factories and textile engineers but also on the consumer to support and engage in sustainable behaviours. But whose job is it to educate us, the consumer? Is it up to us or brands, retailers, media or government to provide us with the necessary information so we can make informed purchases?

Devils advocate: Is this taking the fun out of fashion and shopping? Does shopping really need to be bogged down and become more complicated by having to think about where it came from, who made it, is it bad, and what will I do with it when I’m done? It’s hard enough trying to decide what colour you want to buy or should you go for the beautiful drapey silk pleated trousers in that oh so right shade of salmon or for the same amount of money get two basic tees in a nice viscose/cotton blend and that scarf you’ve had your eye on? Keeping up with the up and coming is a job in itself never mind adding its impacts to the mix!

I think we often forget that our dollar is worth more than our political vote these days. We vote with our dollar. When we give our dollar over to a company, we are not only saying, I love what I just bought (or else why are we buying it?) but I approve of your business, subconscious or not.

Wow, I wasn’t anticipating that long of a sidetrack while trying to define sustainable fashion. So I won’t today but I will get around to defining it soon! To be continued.....

 

anika kozlowski