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Does the Fashion Industry have a Sustainable Future?

Sustainability is a core part of fashion’s future and in the last decade, ecological and ethical concerns have moved from the fringes of the fashion and textile industry towards its heart.

Climate change, workers rights and pollution effects have been propelled into the boardroom, design studio and high street and as a result, over 20 major brands and 1200 smaller ones are selling organic fibre products and consumer spending on ‘ethical’ clothing has doubled in the last two years. The bottom line is that sustainability is boosting interest in a new type of fashion activity.

However, traditional views of sustainable fashion focus almost exclusively on choice and provenance of materials, but this is only part of the picture. A more complete, forward-looking and creative view of sustainable fashion embraces both these materials-based or technical innovations and social change. It champions a wealth of lower impact fibre types, fairer employment models, more efficient processing techniques, empowering community projects, restorative design concepts, new ways to consume and alternative visions of how to clothe ourselves.

It is only in innovating to develop a diverse range of solutions that the sector will begin to experience more sustainable change. While some of these solutions are already being practised on the high street – for example Marks & Spencer, Britain’s biggest clothing retailer, has mainstreamed Fairtrade label cotton and introduced lines of organic linen and wool – others look less to material origins and more to new models of social innovation and consumer behaviour. They usher in a new future for sustainable fashion and textiles where a material and a product is connected to a lifecycle and the community that makes it, where fabrics are created to involve the skill of the user and where garments are designed to address both the scale of conspicuous fashion consumption and its root causes.

In my new book Sustainable Fashion and Textiles: Design Journeys I attempt to provide an antidote to the patchy data, narrow definitions and preconceived ideas that have characterised popular understandings of what sustainability means for fashion and textiles. Instead my motivation was to define a broader, more pluralistic and sustainable future vision for fashion and textiles.

Many sustainability themes in fashion and textiles are complex and dynamic. In recent years my experience of them has formed into a more definite shape – a shape I felt would work well as a book that would capture sustainability’s complexity and the power and creativity of design. These themes help define sustainable fashion and textiles in a new way and help open up new creative opportunities for the sector.

The goal of sustainable fashion, and that of the designers, global brands and not-for-profits who are working to make it happen, is to make unsustainable fashion a thing of the past. It is an enormous task, with effects that stretch far beyond the traditional boundaries of fashion companies and touch on things as diverse as agriculture, laundering behaviour and patterns of consumption. It will only succeed if consumers, producers, retailers, designers, community groups and international corporations connect together and jointly recognize their influence in promoting change.

Dan Harding | alfa
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