Considering the increasingly fast pace of fashion and its transient styles, the notion of sustainable fashion seems to be paradoxical—how can fashion ever be sustainable, with its focus on novelty and inbuilt obsolescence? The relationship between sustainability and fashion is highly complex and raises particular challenges for the industry and researchers due to its interdisciplinary nature. Sustainability is a concept with many definitions, and its application in fashion comprises diverse perspectives covering everything from environmental impact of materials, social justice, and issues concerning workers’ rights to the economics of the global fashion industry. A widely used definition of sustainable development, taken from the 1987 United Nations Bruntland report Our Common Future, defines it as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” In contrast, industrial ecologist John Ehrenfeld posits a simple-sounding statement based on the concept of “flourishing”: “Sustainability is the possibility that human and other forms of life will flourish on the planet forever.” Whatever the definition used, the concept of sustainability is vast and often daunting for individuals to contemplate, whether they are simply consumers of fashion, or professional designers, students, educators, or any other participant in fashion’s complicated production supply chain and retail sector. A burgeoning body of literature is available that directly addresses the issue of sustainable fashion, which increasingly acts as a design-led call to action for the fashion industry from academic researchers, educators, industry players, and activists from both outside and inside the sector. In contrast to many fields of academic research, there is an increasing sense of urgency to inform and enable positive action and have an impact on a major global business sector.
At the turn of the new millennium, a disturbing confluence of natural disasters and economic and political crises forced a reexamination of business cultures, questioning the ethical dimensions of business and creating a demand for greater transparency in the age of instant digital communication. In the first decade of the twenty-first century, a growing number of initiatives were developed by governments, academics, trade unions, campaign groups, fashion brands, retailers, and small, design-led fashion companies, often working in cross-sector collaboration, to tackle major environmental, social, and economic sustainability issues in practical ways. Key examples are the Sustainable Clothing Action Plan (2007), an initiative of the UK government, academics, and industry; the Nordic Initiative Clean and Ethical (2008), an industry-led group in Scandinavia; and the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (2011), a U.S.-based initiative comprising many global clothing brands and academics. Such groupings across industry and academia characterize the knowledge exchange and significant application of academic research to the real-world agenda of fashion and sustainability.
The business of fashion is full of contradictions: the craftsmanship of couture and bespoke set against high-volume cheap fashion; the luxury of New York’s Fifth Avenue, London’s Bond Street, or the Champs Elysées in Paris contrasted with the poverty of many producer communities; inherently wasteful cycles of seasonal change, which also sustain livelihoods and economic prosperity for producer countries; an obsession with the new coexisting with the valorization of vintage and reinvention of past styles. Sandy Black, a design academic, has termed these phenomena “the fashion paradox” and identifies strategies adopted by both large and small fashion companies attempting to reconcile fashion with sustainability within their businesses. When, in the mid-twentieth century, eco-consciousness was reawakened in developed countries, stimulated by seminal publications such as biologist Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962), and Designing for the Real World by industrial designer Victor Papanek (1971), such issues were largely ignored within the fashion and textile industries. There was little significant activity with regard to the environmental impact of textile manufacturing until the 1980s and 1990s. The historical context for the contemporary movement in sustainable fashion is explored by Jennifer Farley Gordon and Colleen Hill (2014) and its pioneers profiled by Sandy Black (2008).
In a UK government study of 2012, the volume of clothes dormant within the average UK household closet was shown in to be 30 percent, and this is testament to the over-consumption—and overproduction—of fashion and clothing now commonplace in the developed world. Given the context of heightened awareness of climate change and depletion of natural resources, since the new millennium, a growing consensus has emerged that over-consumption via faster and faster fashion cycles has to end. Sustainability is no longer a passing trend in fashion and a new body of literature that directly addresses sustainable fashion has grown out of a broader literature on sustainable design and industrial ecology, for example Papanek (1971), Chapman (2005), Walker (2006) and Ehrenfeld (2006). The titles discussed in this article provide a foundational library for research into fashion and sustainability, and also include texts in related areas of economics, to acknowledge the importance for developing new paradigms for business.
The theoretical differentiation between fashion and clothing, the fashion system, and related notions of desire, meaning, and temporality are discussed by authors including theorist Ingrid Loscheck (2009). Loschek posits a framework for understanding the fashion system and its communication through analysis of image, language, and spectacle, as perpetrated by high-end fashion designers in the 1990s, with clear acknowledgment to the relevance of business and commerce. In this article, the term “fashion” embraces its symbolic significance but is also used inclusively to refer to the wider industry operating across apparel, footwear, and accessories.
Fashion provides much more than simply clothing and protection for the naked body. Fashion is a powerful cultural construct with universal recognition, embedded in the collective psyche, contributing to an individual sense of identity and providing a means of personal or group expression. Sociologist Joanne Entwistle (2000) identified the connections that need to be made between the body, fashion, and dress, arguing for an account of fashion and dress as “situated bodily practice.” People have adorned their bodies since the earliest times to exert power and influence and create allure, and contemporary fashionable clothing continues this trajectory, conveying characteristics and meaning beyond classic notions of status and wealth. Fashion can perform many roles: as a social catalyst, or a communication medium; it functions in both personal and public realms, simultaneously inward and outward facing; expresses belonging or difference according to personal choice; and engenders well-being in many professional contexts, whereas inappropriate clothing can stigmatize.
The academic study of fashion as a sociocultural phenomenon has developed consistently since the 1990s, as testified by the growth in publications such as fashion historian Christopher Breward’s Culture of Fashion, Joanne Entwistle’s The Fashioned Body, and journals including Fashion Theory (first published in 1997) and Fashion Practice (published from 2009). Linda Welters and Abby Lillethun’s Fashion Reader, a compilation of prior published texts, gives an introduction to the historical, cultural, political, and economic aspects of the subject of fashion, but did not specifically address sustainable fashion until the second edition (2011), being originally published before the new wave of books on the subject (see below). Fashion studies has developed as an academic portfolio subject to embrace multidisciplinary approaches drawn from sociology, anthropology, art and design history, costume history, cultural studies, and material culture, and is increasingly informed by practitioners and designers from within a recognized fashion praxis. A comprehensive volume, The Handbook of Fashion Studies (2013), edited by a multidisciplinary team of Sandy Black and five scholars, reflects this shift with thematic analysis of contemporary research and methodologies utilized across the academic study of fashion including theoretical, historical, design-based ,and technologically mediated aspects. The section “Sustainable Fashion in a Globalized World” (pp. 517–575) includes chapters analyzing a spectrum of relationships between sustainability and fast fashion, globalization, human rights, small and large businesses, and design strategies.
The business of fashion was not traditionally the province of fashion theory, which primarily addresses cultural practice and meaning associated with dressing the body. However, the issues underlying sustainability serve as a unifying agenda in which interdisciplinary research, interfacing academia and industry, theory and practice, are learning from each other’s approaches and methods. The discourse of fashion has evolved to adopt the terminology of sustainability, encompassing the three pillars of sustainable thinking—ecology, economics, and social equity (also known as “people, planet, profit”). Current research directions indicate an immediate future for the practice of fashion in which sustainable fashion itself becomes a catalyst for change, stimulating awareness and even behavior change through its unfolding narratives.
Research in sustainable fashion examines relevant issues from perspectives including theoretical, cultural, social, design-led, industry-based, educational, economic, and psychological. For reasons that might be purely serendipitous, but indicating much underlying research activity, 2008 was a significant year for scholarly publications on sustainable fashion. Comprehensive texts by two UK design-based academics, theorist Kate Fletcher (2008) and practitioner Sandy Black (2008), articulate and address the sustainability issues inherent in the fashion life cycle, from fiber to finished garments, and illustrate these in case-study snapshots of diverse, design-led strategies used by small and large companies and individuals, such as “upcycling” waste materials, shortening the supply chain, and working toward closed-loop systems and materials. A U.S. perspective is compiled by academics Janet Hethorn and Connie Ulasewicz (2008) in a collection of essays addressing the need for sustainable practices across design (within and beyond education), product development, and consumption. A special edition of Fashion Theory on eco-fashion, edited by Regina Root, also appeared in the same year.
Sustainable design strategies include not only the post-manufacture and post-purchase doctrines of “reduce, reuse, and recycle,” but also pre-manufacture stages of design and production, all aiming for lower resource utilization and a lower consumption of higher-quality, longer-lasting goods. The slow food movement has inspired the concept of Slow Fashion, interpreted as an approach to fashion that celebrates local, small-scale, artisanal, and long-lasting clothing as discussed by design historian Hazel Clark (2008) and Kate Fletcher (2010). In contrast, new technology can be harnessed for sustainability in future fashion products, considered, for example, by curator Sarah Scaturro (2008). The new wave of publications on sustainable fashion has continued to grow, covering design, economics, and innovative strategies for sustainability and a revised fashion system, offering wider perspectives and critique. Sandy Black’s Sustainable Fashion Handbook (2012) questions whether fashion can ever be sustainable, providing a broad spectrum of first-person commentary, debate, and insight from high-end fashion designers, academics, activists, commentators, and global corporations, on topics from workers’ rights and genetically modified cotton to the circular economy. It features new technologies and processes that could provide radical alternatives for future fashion, plus a comprehensive resource listing.
Design holds a central position within the fashion product development process, where communication flows both upstream to sales and marketing and downstream to production areas. The implications of design and buying decisions can profoundly affect everyone throughout the fashion product supply chain, not least those subcontracted to manufacture products. Publications on sustainable design and fashion are increasingly design-led calls to action, capitalizing on this vital position of designers and promoting more radical solutions to enable systemic change through what industrial designer Alistair Fuad-Luke (2009) and others have termed “design activisim.” Kate Fletcher and Lynda Grose (2012) explore the transformation of the designer’s role and their potential to accelerate sustainable change through activism, communication, and entrepreneurship. They also examine the transformation of fashion products and the fashion system through new business models. Grose, a former fashion designer and sustainability pioneer in industry, working in academia in the U.S., brings an industry perspective to complement Fletcher’s more theoretical approach. A further edited Handbook of Sustainability and Fashion compiled by Kate Fletcher and design researcher Mathilda Tham (2015) takes a consciously interdisciplinary approach to addressing sustainability and fashion, presenting a set of positions on fashion, several authored by well-known theorists, activists, and practitioners from disciplines outside fashion, as well as from those within the fashion space. These collectively challenge the status quo and advocate a forward-thinking agenda that could lead to the fundamental changes required for long-lasting transformations in the fashion system.
The fashion and clothing industry (comprising everything from designer to basic clothing, footwear, and accessories) is complex and characterized by short production runs, fast turnover, and a highly diverse range of products channeled through a fragmented and frequently changing supply chain distributed over many global locations. Fashion garments are well-traveled items with very brief lives. The clothing, footwear, and textile sector is a significant global economic force, employing tens of millions worldwide across its manufacturing and retail arms. Fashion is big business, with exports of clothing worldwide worth $460 billion in 2013. In the mid-1990s, significant liberalization of international trading agreements and import/export quotas combined to open up global markets and manufacturing, notably in China, as outlined by economist Arthur Mead (2007).
This globalization of manufacturing and the drive to lower-cost production fueled a major acceleration of fashion cycles away from the traditional twice-yearly fashion “seasons”—a commercial infrastructure familiar since the mid-twentieth century—toward a new fashion landscape. Fashion seasons have fragmented into shorter and faster cycles, around twelve collections per year in the contemporary “fast fashion” mass market (for example, global brands such as Zara, Primark, H&M, and Forever 21), with new merchandise in store every week. From the early 2000s, high-profile collaborations between designer brands and high-street retailers, such as H&M, made designer fashion accessible to an ever wider public.
As a consequence of the globalization of trade, fashion manufacturing now accounts for a large proportion of many South Asian countries’ gross domestic product and export earnings. The production of clothing and footwear has become a vital source of employment for developing countries such as Vietnam and Bangladesh, contributing up to 80 percent of export income. But there has been a severe human and environmental cost to the rapid expansion of low-cost fashion, pressures felt most keenly by offshore manufacturers, garment workers, and subsistence farmers growing fibers such as cotton or cashmere. This has been tragically demonstrated in numerous incidents where lives have been lost in the pursuit of cheap fashion. Media coverage of apparel industry malpractices, high-profile campaigns, and exposés of the working practices of global brands by investigative journalists have raised the bar, including the significant publication No Logo by Naomi Klein in 2000, and others over a decade later by Lucy Siegle (2011) and Elizabeth Cline (2012). Most tragically, the Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh on 24 April 2013, in which 1,134 garment workers lost their lives, created a watershed for the global fashion industry’s accountability and transparency, setting an uncompromising agenda for action on workers’ conditions.
Knowledge is key to the sustainability movement in the textiles and clothing sector, to empower consumers, activists, academics, and future designers and actors throughout the fashion industry. A key investigation into the UK textile and clothing industry by Julian Allwood in 2006 reports on the life cycle of clothing and textile products, providing a visual and comparative case study analysis of material flows and environmental impact of everyday products, including a cotton T-shirt and viscose blouse. Comprehensive, technically oriented texts by academics Keith Slater (2003) and Richard Blackburn (2009) cover the detailed environmental impact and life cycle of textiles; however, books aimed at a more general audience have proliferated, giving consumers insight into the hidden parts of the value chain and fashion and clothing life cycle. In 2005, as trade quotas were changing and China was becoming a garment production powerhouse, economist Pietra Rivoli (2005) tracked the global journey of a single commodity, the ubiquitous T-shirt, from growing the cotton for its fabric to the T-shirt’s afterlife in the secondhand trade, all analyzed from a business perspective. British journalist and sustainability campaigner Lucy Siegle (2011) investigated and documented working practices behind several major brands throughout the international fashion and clothing trade; American fashion fan Elizabeth Cline (2012) followed a similar path to inform herself and her readers of the reality of the industry behind fast fashion.
Since the 1970s, economists such as E. F. Schumacher (1973) and Paul Hawken (1993) have set out their critiques of contemporary business and posited the need for dynamic changes in strategic economic models. Tim Jackson (2011), an economic advisor to the British government, challenges the notion of continuous growth as the only means to measure prosperity.
Responsibility is a major tenet of sustainability in fashion, which in a globalized system is shared between all actors within the value chain, and the governments and organizations regulating international and local trade. Beyond public statements of corporate social responsibility, fashion companies and retailers are now increasingly called to account by campaigners and the public for the provenance of the goods they are responsible for bringing to market, and their conditions of manufacture. Fashion theorist Efrat Tseëlon (2011) dedicated an issue of Critical Studies in Fashion and Beauty to fashion and ethics, and discusses its evolution, differentiating it from “ethical fashion” as it appeared in 2008–2009. Italian academics Francesca Romano Rinaldi and Salvo Testa (2014) gather information relevant to social and environmental responsibility from the perspective of the fashion business, with a case study of good practice in one Italian company. Sandy Black (2012) presents direct responses to questions of sustainability and responsibility from both major fashion brands/retailers and high-fashion designers.
From a business perspective, the notion of “sustainable,” “green,” or “eco” fashions continues to suffer from negative connotations, and the concept of sustainability was largely sidestepped by both the mainstream and luxury fashion industry, until the new millennium. The terminology used in the academic discussion of sustainability and fashion has evolved from “eco-fashion” toward greater use of the phrase “sustainable fashion”—more inclusive of key issues but much more complex. This often confusing lexicon has been discussed by academic Sue Thomas (2008), whereas researcher Nathaniel Beard (2008) examines the branding and marketing of “eco-fashion.”
The clothing life cycle currently concludes in one of three main ways: recycling/reuse, incineration, or buried in landfill. However, as previously noted, almost a third of clothing purchased may be hoarded and remain unused in closets for a considerable time. Academic studies of women’s wardrobes such as by Guy, Green, and Banim (2001) and Woodward (2007), reveal the complexities and ambivalences of contemporary consumption behavior around fashion, clothing, and identity—research that consolidated the method of “wardrobe studies.”
Globalization and the consequent reduction in retail clothing costs fueled a steep increase in consumption that has in turn rendered clothing more disposable. The increased consumption and volume of low-value clothes has greatly reduced the value of used clothing to the secondhand trade. The meaning and practices around secondhand clothing have evolved over time, as discussed by Heike Jenss (2010). Wearing used clothing has emerged from being a clear indicator of poverty to being rebranded as “vintage” and linked to notions of sustainability through extending the lifespan of garments. Kathryn Reiley and Marilyn Delong studied the way student consumers put together individual looks using secondhand clothing, and its potential for sustainable fashion practice. Curator Alexandra Palmer and fashion scholar Hazel Clark compiled wide-ranging research studies documenting the reuse and recycling of clothing in the context of global trade, a global connectedness summarized by anthropologist Karen Tranberg Hansen (2010), who studied the secondhand clothing trade in Zambia. Lucy Norris, an anthropologist, documented the journey of high volumes of discarded clothing from the U.K. across continents through the markets of India and edited a special issue of Textile on the secondhand clothing trade.
Awareness of the clothing life cycle has continued to grow in tandem with the acceptability of vintage fashion, and the increase in “upcycled” clothing practices and services. Many small fashion design businesses divert clothing and textiles from landfill by upcycling old clothing to make new clothes and extend the life of materials which are already in circulation. Examples are given in Black (2008, 2012), Fletcher (2008), Fletcher and Grose (2012), and Brown (2013); however, while valuable in the short term, these solutions can be criticized for simply postponing the disposal of resources, a temporary diversion from landfill, raising the difficult debate about truly sustainable solutions being more fundamental than merely “less unsustainable” ones.
Design for end of life and disposal or, better still, design for reuse, is part of a “cradle to cradle” approach popularized by industrial researchers McDonough and Braungart (2002), whereby waste becomes feedstock for other systems, either technological or biological. The notion of the circular economy, in which the reuse and remanufacturing of existing goods figures largely, has gained traction with governments and economists.
Consumer choices are intimately connected to success and failure within the fashion system, but influencing consumer behavior toward more sustainable goals is a quest still in its infancy. Studies such as by Annamma Joy (2012) repeatedly find that positive consumer intention with regard to sustainability actions does not translate to sustainable fashion consumption. Economic historian Avner Offer (2006) examines in detail the motivations and decision making of affluent consumer societies in the U.S. and UK since the 1950s, concluding that paradoxically, a rise in income (after basic needs are met) does not improve well-being.
The education of future generations of designers in understanding and addressing sustainability in the context of their design profession is urgently required, in order to help effect change for the sector from within. All publications on sustainable fashion support this goal, providing many resources for teaching, but those mentioned in this section are especially designed for use by educators and students.
Fashion academics Alison Gwilt and Timo Rissanen (2011) take a practical approach to fashioning sustainability, giving examples of various design methods, from zero-waste cutting to reuse of waste materials, to help readers understand a range of sustainable design strategies. A later textbook by Gwilt (2014) provides an accessible introduction to sustainable fashion and design practice for students from undergraduate level onward. Two key educational initiatives, Fashioning an Ethical Industry (in the UK), and Educators for Socially Responsible Apparel Business (in the U.S.), collaborated to produce Sustainable Fashion: A Handbook for Educators, edited by Liz Parker and Marsha Dickson (2009). This comprises specific teaching methods and suggested projects for introducing sustainability thinking and practice into the fashion curriculum. Volume 6, number 1 (2014) of Fashion Practice includes a number of articles reflecting on sustainability projects completed in universities, including Cosette Armstrong and Melody Lehew’s article on barriers to teaching sustainable fashion, plus case studies of design competition projects, each with a focus on the practical, studio-based context and learning by making, taking sustainability into the students’ activity-based research and development. Noël Palomo-Lovinski and Kim Hahn identify perceptions of sustainability among a group of professional fashion designers, reinforcing the need for a sustainability and fashion curriculum in the U.S.
Whether involved in the creation, production, communication, or representation of fashion or simply as consumers, everyone is implicated in the difficult issues inherent in this endemically unsustainable and complex system. However, holistic thinking and life cycle approaches to sustainability in fashion are providing impetus and growing momentum for fundamental systems change within the industry, comprising both local and global solutions. Research indicates that a sustainable fashion system requires an integrated and interdisciplinary approach to environmental, social, and economic issues together with a vital program of education for those working within the fashion system, its future actors, and for consumers in general, who can subsequently make more informed decisions and choices and raise a collective challenge to the status quo.
Through radical shifts in business culture across the fashion spectrum—retail companies and brands, buyers, manufacturers, and designers—to new understanding and modes of operation, the principles of sustainability can become increasingly embedded in fashion manufacturing processes and the retail offer. Sustainable fashion does not mean the end of fashion. Fashion provides delight at the same time as it provides livelihoods, and sustainable fashion must continue to balance both personal and symbolic needs with the economic and social benefits that fashion confers, while building new paradigms and narratives.
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