Friday, December 2, 2011

Academic Break: Fashion and Sustainability

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'Tis the season for getting, giving, and giving back. The last action is the one that I want to discuss today - in this rather scholarly sounding but nonetheless compelling blog post - with regards to the fashion industry. and how this industry is giving back to the environment by adopting sustainable practices that are less damaging to the planet.  While the basic notion underlying fashion is that it is inherently unsustainable - in the sense that each season consumers are encouraged to dispose of their last season duds in favour of new, trendier clothes - I found an interesting article on the Business of Fashion published by the Guardian which reconciles the link between luxury fashion and sustainability. Essentially, one of the necessary factors for an item to be considered "luxury" - namely high quality leading to high durability - entails that the item will last for a very long time, leading one to buy better quality and buy less (which is how the French purchase clothing). So instead of buying 10 bags from Forever 21 that will fall apart in a years' time, it's better to save up for a Givenchy bag that will last a lifetime (this is the principle behind one of my favourite fashion concepts: investment pieces!)
Of course, this principle alone does not enhance the overall sustainability factor of the industry firstly because not everyone can afford luxury products no matter how long they save up - it's simply not accessible. Secondly, the principle is counterintuitive to one of the driving forces behind fashion, that being consumerism. Yes, fashion is an art form however if the primary goal is not to sell it, then the industry would not exist. Thus, there has been in shift in recent years towards using materials that are eco-friendly, organic, and have a low environmental impact. Stella McCartney was one of the pioneers of the eco-fashion movement by building her brand on planet-friendly practices such as using natural and renewable materials in her pieces. On the lower-end is H&M, who launched their conscious collection this year which uses sustainable materials such as organic cotton and recycled polyester.**
The problem is that shifting to sustainable practices can compromise the desirability factor of the clothes (desirability being another one of the fashion industry's driving forces). The Business of Fashion has an article which, among other things, discuss the tenuous link between sustainability and desirability and contains a quote from the former Barneys fashion director Julie Gilhart who commented, “At Barneys, when we explicitly labeled Stella McCartney’s organic line with the word ‘organic’ its perceived value actually went down in the eyes of the consumer, even though it was actually more expensive to produce.”Gilhart is an advocate for enhancing sustainbility of the industry and she has stated, " the best way to make an impact on the fashion industry is to “attack the big guys” like H&M, Nike, Wal-Mart and the Gap ,Those are the people who are really impacting the planet from an environmental point-of-view”. 
All this to say, what can we do as consumers? While I'm all for saving up for Givenchy bags clearly the choice to buy solely luxury goods is not viable for many (myself included). What is viable is making conscious purchases of clothing and being aware of the impact a particular item might have on the environment.

So that concludes my academic commentary for the week. Now let's dance, because it's Friday!

** While there are a myriad of eco-friendly clothing brands out there - and while their efforts need to be applauded - I am just focussing on the efforts of the large scale fashion labels and companies as they are the ones that have the capacity to take the niche movement and turn it into the status quo

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