(from ‘sustain’ and ‘ability’) is the process of change, in which the exploitation of resources, the direction of investments, the orientation of technological development and institutional change are all in harmony and enhance both current and future potential to meet human needs and aspirations’.
Sustainability is fast becoming the biggest single issue facing business and commerce around the globe. Whether one is sceptical of the science behind climate change or not, the impact of human industry on the environment is becoming more difficult to ignore. The depletion of fossil fuels and natural resources, the erosion of wild habitats and the depopulation of species cannot surely be a seen as in anyway beneficial to ourselves or our planet
Fashion may not be the first industry that springs to mind as a major contributor to environmental destruction but it has hardly been immune from the negative side-effects of intensive production methods and mass consumption culture. Its exponential growth in the last few hundred years, has left fashion with a very large carbon footprint indeed. A visit to the V&A’s ‘Fashioned from Nature’ exhibition provided a sobering insight into this often ecologically unsound history.
What began as a voyage of discovery, a fascination and desire to document, showcase and harness the visual aesthetics and the innate practical qualities of the natural world, is now a billion dollar industry that has turned rare, exotic specimens into high-fashion products. With that follows the consumption of vast amounts of water to produce even the most natural of fibres, not to mention the use of harmful chemical processes, which have all been created in the pursuit of cheaper, synthetic alternatives.
The promotion of mass consumption through the availability of cheaper and cheaper items has also given rise to an abundance of waste clothing and materials as well as sanctioning the unethical treatment of a number of its global workforce. In short, fashion is no small player when it comes to the imbalance between material gain vs. environmental cost.
From this assessment it would seem that the modern fashion industry is long overdue a rethink of its sourcing, production and manufacturing processes as well as the way in which it promotes buying culture. In some quarters, from independent labels to big name designers such as Stella McCartney, Vivienne Westwood and Christopher Raeburn, are making the utilisation of the latest technological advances, cutting waste, upcycling, recycling and supporting not-for-profit organisations and global charities the new-norm.
These practices are gradually becoming more common but in order to make them commonplace it will be up to the high-street companies and fast-fashion retailers to adopt a similar ethos up and down their supply chains.
Any root and branch overhaul of industry processes along with the standardisation of ecologically sound methods, while having a significant effect in cleaning up the industry, will no doubt require considerable investment. Despite the bulk of these costs being absorbed by the consumer, profit margins will inevitably be hit. In this regard full sustainability is an unattractive proposition for many large commercial fashion enterprises. As such token gestures, heavily promoted and disguised as corporate responsibility will run the danger of becoming insubstantial. Though the end-user is perhaps the most powerful proponent for industry change, they are currently finding themselves faced with a barrage of terms such as ‘conscious’, ‘ethically sourced’, ‘eco-friendly’ or ‘recycled’, with little information as to what they actually mean. Leading to fears that ‘sustainability fatigue’ will set in even amongst the most ethically aware and educated consumer.
What is the ratio of recycled material in each product? Has the ethically grown cotton t-shirt been stitched by an under-paid worker in order to bring the costs down? The complexity and multifaceted nature of the fashion production process and a lack of transparency at every level means that consumers can be left feeling that shopping truly ethically is an almost impossible task and therefore not worth the bother. Perhaps this is what the industry is relying on to stall the progress of sustainability, the reality of consumers voting with their wallets would offer little option but to follow a more sustainable business model and swing the pendulum vastly in sustainability’s favour.
In future, fashion may find itself with no choice other than to adopt wholesale sustainability. Government legislation, or in the worst case scenario, difficulty in obtaining and maintaining current resource requirements, may force the hand of it and other industries altogether.
For one that prides itself on its ability to be a forerunner of innovation and invention this would be a poor demonstration of its powers and as some designers are already proving, sustainability is achievable. The pre-emption and future-proofing of the industry for such events is not just financially prudent in the longer term but could ultimately prevent fashion finding itself on the endangered species list.