If you’re into sustainable fashion you’ll have come across Clare Press, sustainability editor at large for Vogue Australia as well as the author of the books Wardrobe Crisis and Rise & Resist. I was super excited to have met her last year in London and we had a good old chinwag about what the way forward for sustainable fashion. Read on to hear all about it!
What does good look like for you?
Good fashion to me looks like connection. Connecting with how clothes are made, with the people who made them and taking the time to do that.Clare Press
It’s reigniting our passion for what clothes can mean and represent as well as what sort of impact they have had on the environment. I think we have reached the high point of being disconnected and consuming mindlessly, and we’re sick of that.
Is the high point real, or just because we are living in a sustainable fashion bubble?
The sustainable fashion bubble is real and it’s easy to believe things are happening if the people around you have the same types of views. But broadly speaking I think the cultural shift is happening, with people feeling like they have too much stuff, an awareness that we’re trashing the environment and generally feeling disconnected.
On the issue of trash in the environment, you can’t look away from it. Even at train stations there are posters and ads are about all about plastic. It’s just that it hasn’t happened as fast for fashion.
What about cultural shifts?
It takes time for culture change, and whilst I feel like we should be in a hurry, we can’t expect people to change their habits overnight which have been built up over 20 years. But fast fashion is relatively new – 20 years is pretty short – and I think fast fashion in its current form is on it’s way out. If you gave anyone a chance to give careful consideration to the issues around fast fashion, they would say that designing clothes to throw away is madness. And so is spending good money on buying clothes to throw them away.
More and more info being disseminated about fast fashion in all different kinds of media. Just think about the Burberry incineration issue in the media – that was a powerful image of burning fashion! Even if we already know that most brands incinerate and landfill textiles, it was surprising to a lot of people because of the lack of transparency in fashion.
There is more focus on fashion though. In the UK there’s the parliamentary group on textiles and fashion. (FYI – a new All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) was formed July 2019). Also the Environmental Audit Committee report on fashion. Really – since when has fashion been discussed in parliament?
What does good look like for brands?
Brands need to think about how they are sourcing as the cost of wastefulness goes up – the price of commodities has been decreasing for the last 100 years but it’s not going to stay that way.
Forward-thinking innovative brands are starting to imagine how they can still be in business but do it differently. It would be an exaggeration to say that any of the big brands are seriously talking about addressing overconsumption. But ideas like stepping up access over ownership, using circular fibres, and the rhetoric around buy less choose well make it last … this is powerful stuff.
Also, consumers starting to ask for higher quality. All the things are in place to make fashion change but we can’t expect it to happen overnight given fashion is a huge unwieldy system.
Recommerce as an area of growth
Recommerce is expected to eclipse fast fashion within 10 years. If brands can figure out how to make the second-hand economy work for them then it’s also an area of growth. We’re only at the beginning of the model of access over ownership for example and there is so much scope!
One of the secrets to making fashion circular/sustainable is recognising that different consumers are looking for different things. It would be ludicrous to imagine that everyone ought to become an op shop rummager. It’s not what most people like and they don’t have time, confidence, or inclination to do that. But sites like Vestaire Collective and smaller startups can offer some change.
It is common human urge to acquire stuff and keep up with the newness – we can be like bowerbirds looking for new and shiny things! This is so deeply embedded in us, so telling people to buy less doesn’t always work. Which is why I’m excited about concepts like access over ownership.
Let’s talk about regulation and taxes on fashion.
In my view we need robust legislation in the places we buy fast fashion. If we expect consumers to green fashion themselves it’s absolutely unrealistic. The Modern Slavery Act, for example, has been a good thing (even if it’s unenforceable and no penalties). Similar legislation has been introduced in Australia, but again there are no penalties. There just isn’t enough teeth in our regulation across the board.
Note: According to the 2018 Fashion Revolution consumer report, which surveyed 5000 people in the 5 biggest fashion consuming places, respondents expressed support for socially just garment production as being more important than any other topic surveyed (including environmental protection).
Fashion regulation is difficult to do though. We live in a deregulated global economy and we can’t expect only brands and consumers to lead the change. It needs to be all stakeholders including lawmakers to consider how they can do it.
One of my personal passion points is plastic. Governments need to immediately tax or ban plastic packaging and regulate to reduce it drastically. For fashion, one thing governments could do to help move fashion forward is regulating or incentivising recycled fibre and packaging content.
So what do we do now?
There needs to be a massive step up in engagement, consumers, media, and brands. All levels of society to be involved, from Instagram influencers to schoolchildren to bump up education.
The issues around fashion are so bewildering and unwieldy. There is new information and research reports every week. But sustainability is important for every single person on this planet and we need to make the message relevant and inclusive to everyone.
- For the individual consumer, it’s about finding what tugs at your heartstrings that you can connect with. Is it sewing? Mending? Begin vegan? It’s really up to you.
- Brands have to look at working conditions and sourcing more sustainably. It’s too easy to give up in the face of so much information.
Maybe we solve the climate question first. Maybe we throw all of our energies into that because it’s so pressing and we have such a short time to address that. If we don’t have a liveable climate then we what hope do we have for social justice?Cameron Russell (via Clare Press), social justice and diversity campaigner
Hope you enjoyed the whirlwind conversation with Clare. To learn more about how the wider fashion industry is grappling with sustainability, I’d recommend reading Clare’s books and listening to her podcast Wardrobe Crisis. Lots of chats with academics, industry professionals, and smaller fashion brands on sustainability! My favourites are the ones featuring people who work outside fashion – Dame Ellen MacArthur, polar explorer Tim Jarvis, scientist/conservationist Tim Flannery, and even Richard Denniss (an Australian economist discussing overconsumption and “affluenza” – I wrote about how it relates to fabric shopping here).