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Commentary & Critique – Sustainability in High-end Fashion

Sustainability means to sustain life, all life, human, animal, vegetable and planetary.  A self-sustaining system is a system that doesn’t take more from the environment than it gives back; it is not depleting, but sustains itself.  A pond or a forest is a sustainable system, because it doesn’t need anything to survive that it cannot reproduce or replace.  So what is sustainable design?  In clothing it means sourcing and production that do not pollute through the process of manufacture, that do not deplete non-renewable resources whether those are planetary or human, and which can be absorbed back into the environment when they have reached the end of their life.  Very few products, let alone garments, fulfill the concept of sustainability in its entirety.

A quiet revolution has been slowly growing in fashion since the outcry against sweatshop and underage labor in the nineties.  The systemic growth of multinational branding, the anti-globalization movement, the AIDS pandemic, the growing inequities between rich and poor and greater knowledge and communication of human rights abuses, global warming, CO2 emissions and Polar ice cap melt, explains the necessity many people feel that they must make a difference, in their life as well as in their work.  We, the ‘West” are five percent of the world’s population, and yet consume a full quarter of the earths energy.

“Business is the largest, wealthiest most pervasive institution on the Earth… and it’s responsible for most of the damage to the environment. We’re a major part of the problem, and unless we become part of the solution, it’s over…” Ray Anderson –CEO of Interface Inc.

The clothing and textile industry is one of the largest industries in the world, employing one sixth of the world’s population.  It uses more water than any other industry apart from agriculture.  It discharges toxic chemicals into the environment, uses huge amounts of energy, and is a major contributor to global warming.  As a design community we share the collective guilt of sweatshops, pollution of the environment and child labor.  As an industry we lag behind the rest of the art and design community, where a significant number of architects, interior designers and cosmetics and fragrance companies base their business practices in ethical design, while the fashion industry traditionally satisfies itself with high profile, red carpet events that raise enormous amounts of cash, and which allow us as a community to collectively wash our hands of our responsibility to society and the sustainability of our planet, on an annual basis.

The high profile exposure of the current ecological state of the planet, once so hotly debated and denied by governments and scientists world wide, is no longer in question, and the major reason that ecology and social outreach based fashion design companies now cover all areas of design, from the fringe market to the mainstream and high-end fashion arena. The current point of contention is not whether global warming is a reality, with twenty-one of the twenty-two hottest years on record occurring in the last twenty five years, but how quickly will water levels rise due to Polar ice cap melt.  Al Gore and others have estimated that to solve the problem of global warming we must reduce CO2 emissions by sixty to eighty percent by 2050.  Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Energy has calculated the world’s future energy needs as increasing by sixty percent by 2030.

This is the immediate message heard by millions worldwide, and the reason many individuals and companies, including high-fashion corporations, are rushing in to make a difference while governments are still measuring, researching and debating.  As with other social and political statements through commercial art, eco-fashion is a reaction to social and ecological conditions.  This is no longer a mess ‘our generation’ is leaving for the next, but one that necessitates immediate action by everyone, or we will all feel the ramifications.  Famine, wars, water shortages, disease and enforced migrations are all forecast as the result of global warming.  As Vivienne Westwood so eloquently said in an interview with Jonathan Ross, this is “a price just too steep to pay.”

The idea of the artist as an activist is not a new one.  Whether fine artists, musicians, writers, architects or designers; artists have always used their ‘art’ as a means of expression. Art and design have expressed political, cultural and social movements in all cultures across the centuries. Different cultures around the world have long indicated religious affiliations, as well as dynastic lineage and rank through use of color, fabric and style in clothing dress codes. The modification of the traditional Chinese Sun Yat-sen suit, adopted as China’s national dress by Mao Zedong, was an effort to assign revolutionary and patriotic significance to clothing. The Black Panthers adoption of the black leather jacket, beret and narrow leg pants was a political and social statement of Black solidarity and pride.  Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McClaren’s Sex Pistols made a social, or rather, an anti social statement through their clothing as much as their lyrics.  Katherine Hamnett’s “58% don’t want Pershing” T shirt, she so famously wore to Downing Street for her meeting with then British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, was a political statement. Fashion design as a political, social or ethical statement is not perhaps the most obvious form of expression, but as a fashion designer, it is your medium of choice.

The coming of age of ethical fashion has been a long time coming, and the road is littered with well intentioned monstrosities, plain and boring, and often downright ugly clothing, and only recently have fashion and ethics been able to coexist in the same sentence relatively comfortably.  Picking through the plethora of ethical labels, the good, the well fitting, the fashionable, are still few and far between, but nevertheless are growing in number and strength, to a stage where the best and the brightest have earned a place in the fashion constellation.  Noir, Linda Loudermilk, Geoffrey B Small, can all be judged against the best of the best, from purely an aesthetic perspective and not come up short.

The growth of eco friendly and socially conscious corporations is going to continue to proliferate, as well as move up market. The cool quotient associated with being earth friendly is also likely to increase as it becomes even more imperative to change the way we live and work for the very survival of our species. This will of course, encourage more marketing campaigns and hollow gestures by many corporations eager to capitalize on the trend, but the genuine efforts of those that truly wish to make a difference in the ecology of our planet as well as the sustainability in human development will also proliferate.

This book honors what groundbreakers are doing in the fashion industry to integrate their consciousness, lifestyle choices and concern for our planet and the people on it, into their business strategies.  The designers and labels featured in this book, overview a range of change in our industry from entirely new business models to recycle, reuse, redesign, sustainable fabrications, diversion of waste materials from landfill, fair trade and community development. This book is about good design that gives back.  Good design in its many guises from street fashion to couture, and everything else in between. It is not however about boring beige T-shirts or scratchy, drawstring pajama-style pants, but fun, playful, ethereal, cerebral, intelligent design, at various price points and for various markets.

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