A#21

SUSTAIN

An essay by Prof. Dilys Williams

Photography by Olivier Kervern, Paris, 2020

The following text is an excerpt from the essay SUSTAIN written by Professor Dilys Williams FRSA, originally published inside A Magazine Curated By Lucie and Luke Meier, 2020. Williams is Director of Centre for Sustainable Fashion, a University of the Arts Research Centre, London. 

 

SUSTAIN

Fashion is a vital, creative expression of the self in the wider world. Our attire, in essence, is nature and human ingenuity combined. Through the skills of many hands and minds, nature is re-shaped and re-purposed through designing, making, wearing, styling, and caring for, transporting, exhibiting, selling, and buying fashion.

Everything in fashion comes from nature’s resources, drawn directly from the land or via manufacturing and other processes; nature provides the materials and gives us the power to make products. Nature also bears the consequences of these processes, through what fashion emits, squanders and what it chucks back at it.  We have become familiar with images of polluted rivers, their colours dependent on what is being dyed at the time and numbingly familiar with images of landfill sites filled with the colossal numbers of pieces that we discard. Based on current practices, the fashion industry will use up three times more natural resources by 2050, compared to what we used in 2000. This is a path of no return unless we turn sharply and soon.

Fashion is equivalent to the world’s seventh largest economy, when ranked alongside individual countries’ GDP, involving the livelihoods of many millions of people: who benefit and are exploited in starkly unequal measure. There are over 40 million people working in modern day slavery worldwide: fashion ranks in the top five global industries implicated in this 21st century gross injustice.

Fashion’s environmental, economic and social agendas intersect with each other and critically, with fashion’s cultural agenda. Our relationship with nature is made explicit through our choice in attire. We influence and are influenced by our communities, our geographic locations, religious or spiritual beliefs, our race and gender – what we stand up in says something about what we stand up for. Each decision we make about our clothed bodies is one that involves much more than aesthetic style, so we should ask: what are we actually saying through what we wear? How well represented are we?

 

Diagram by the Centre For Sustainable Fashion, University of the Arts, London.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, what has become clear through my work at the Centre for Sustainable Fashion at London College of Fashion is that collectively what we do care for and value is nature and each other, yet there is a disconnect between our values and our fashion choices. Through a lack of critical questioning, reflection, misinformation and transparency, it is difficult for citizens to navigate these issues. This is changing – but not as sharply or as quickly as is needed. There is a lot of focus on specific materials, finishes and products, but we need to open up the debate beyond this to consider the underlying question: what is it that we want to sustain? We know that business as usual with a few tweaks here and there is not going to keep us within the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) limit of 1.5 degrees of warming to avoid catastrophic climate change.

Asking ourselves what we want to sustain is not easy to answer – it goes beyond fashion but is made personal and very real through it.  The question asks us to consider what is at the heart of our lives: what’s more important – economic or ecological prosperity? In the words of David Suzuki, “The economy is a human construct, we invented it. We can change the rules of the economy. We can’t change the rules of ecology. Those are nature’s laws.” David is suggesting, quite rightly, that our relationship and willingness to serve the economy is unhealthy and off balance. He argues that our dealings with economy are violating the principles of sustainability. We know there is unequivocal scientific evidence that we have created a climate emergency, we also know that there are nine planetary boundaries, beyond which we tread at our peril; beyond which we step into fragility and uncertainty that will mean that life on earth, for humans, will become less hospitable. We’ve stepped over three of these already. And yet, the activities that have led to this remain socially, economically and politically acceptable.

Fashion brings these meta-considerations of earth’s boundaries, which seem out of our direct remit, back into human scale. Fashion has never had such a powerful opportunity as it has today. It has never had such challenges either, which is why so many people are holding on, seeking to sustain fashion’s economy through efficiencies, through reducing the effluent, managing the scraps – good ideas in the very short term, but ones with diminishing returns. Whilst the priority is economy over ecology, all that will be achieved is reducing risk, managing reputations and ensuring continuity of the supply of resources.

Understanding our relationship with nature differently, putting nature-first, then looking for ways to thrive economically, means rewriting the rules. Our debt to nature is being called in, and not in conventional or expected ways. There will be no letter to announce that it’s time to pay back, to paraphrase Gil Scott Heron, the Climate Emergency will not be televised, it will be no re-run, it will be live and those who pay most will not always be the ones that did the most borrowing.

Diagram by the Centre For Sustainable Fashion, University of the Arts, London.

Fashion is always political, but now maybe more than ever, we need to make it so. It’s up to us all. There is little incentive beyond personal ethics, for revising the rules of the game that continues to be revered, supported and endorsed. And for those who do want to play fair, re-setting the goals is something that no organization can do alone. Those who have learnt to play the game well by current rules, are not finding it easy to re-set them and then play by them.

That’s why those who approach each new collection, endeavour and idea in fashion as a rebellion against what has come before, as a critique of what’s going on around us, they are the ones who will create unprecedented opportunities for change. Rebellion has two elements: negation and affirmation. It is about the rejecting of what should no longer be accepted and the championing of what represents a new understanding of success.

In my role as a professor and researcher, I am committed to creating and living by a radical manifesto for change, whilst also recognising my own privilege and part in the system.  We work with creatives who are re-defining the role of the fashion designer and this is incredibly rewarding and inspiring. It gives me hope that the next generation will change the course of the industry from the inside out.  Through a project called Fostering Sustainable Practices, we are gathering an extensive evidence base of the designers who are balancing environmental, social, cultural and economic sustainability.

Designers within our programs are proving that it is possible to work differently within the current system.  Some work with and train those who would otherwise not be able to work or develop new skills, including women in shelters, or experiencing homelessness. Sourcing existing materials, they create collections and installations that challenge the accelerated pace of fashion by implementing ‘made to order’ production.  There is a movement to reject certain fashion industry norms that create inequality, all the while keeping the emphasis on creating pieces that are stunning in aesthetic and technical terms.

Others are producing garments through a localised fashion system, for example, producing pieces in factories in and around London and the UK. A spectacular level of detail is applied to ensuring value in every element that goes into the creation of a product. There are start-ups who have devised entirely new business models and practices for co-creation, ownership, and made-to-order fashion. They begin with an idea which is posted on an online forum, and in a democratic sense, online users can pursue, progress and develop their own product before it is manufactured. The final product is then owned by the online community who created it. Similarly, technical advancements in engineering are allowing designer to explore new methodologies for extending the lifespan of garments. They can now develop clothing which changes shape as required, expanding with children as they grow taller to challenge the ingrained notions of our throwaway culture.

The designers with whom we are working on this research are designing with nature in mind, and challenging outmoded ways of thinking about fashion. Although design plays a vital role in fashion and sustainability, designers are not the only ones with the ability to re-conceptualise our understanding of fashion. Students across London College of Fashion, from all disciplines, from journalism and photography to psychology and management are questioning all aspects of the industry. They are questioning why we have come to be defined by our consumerism, and why fashion has been commodified as product when in fact we are all citizens who are contributors to and recipients of fashion in economic, social, cultural and environmental contexts. We have normalised the fact that fashion exacerbates modern day slavery and ecological destruction, and consequently we are complicit in the system. Instead, we need to contribute to the creativity of design practices that recognise the interdependencies of fashion and recognise that every single element of fashion is a precious resource.

Words by Professor Dilys Williams FRSA

Illustration by Megan St Clair for the Centre For Sustainable Fashion, University of the Arts, London.

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