Aditi writes for Ferragamo: Though we can buy more sustainably, we can’t buy sustainability. From biodiversity to consumer activism, here are four frameworks that can help foster the cognitive shifts required to achieve true sustainability.
But when it comes to fashion, it’s important to realize that the dominant fashion model is degenerative – from the extraction and exploitation of finite resources, from raw materials to human labor, as the means for “infinite” growth and success.
Sustainability demands reimagination of the system. Sustainability demands an interrogation of power. Sustainability demands we look at the impact of fashion not only as a product we see in stores, but also its beginnings: as a product of land and labor.
Though we can buy more sustainably, we can’t buy sustainability – for true sustainability requires a cognitive shift.
From biodiversity to consumer activism, here are four frameworks that can help foster the cognitive shifts required to achieve true sustainability.
01. FASHION AND BIODIVERSITY
As noted by Kamea Chayne, the sustainability movement often poses the question, “What is the most eco-friendly [fill in the blank]?” However, sustainability requires context, and to understand fashion, we can’t forget that clothing is a product of agriculture—unless it’s derived from synthetic materials like polyester, a byproduct of the fossil fuel industry. Instead of posing one-size-fits-all solutions that will lead to more homogeneity in fashion fibers, or looking at eco-friendly parameters through isolated metrics such as water intake, we need to ask more constructive questions: is this fiber indigenous to that region? What is the climate like? How can we use native fiber species and indigenous approaches to agriculture to support a biodiverse, sustainable future?
02. CULTURAL HEGEMONY
If agricultural biodiversity is key to a sustainable future, we must also question the cultural aesthetics of the fashion industry. Currently, a Western aesthetic is exported globally – from the growing retail presences of fast fashion giants after decades of sourcing from the country, or the steady stream of secondhand clothes being imported from the Global North to the Global South, often destabilizing local textile and manufacturing industries in favor of cheap, fast fashion goods. Would a return to regional, ethnically centric clothing revive a set of artisan practices that are inherently tied to indigenous forms of production? In many textile rich nations that were ravaged by colonialism, there is a movement to revive indigenous plant varieties needed for indigenous forms of production that were destroyed as a result of colonial systems of tariffs and excise duties that discriminated against indigenous producers. In India, many communities are searching for organic seeds of short-staple cottons that had over thousands of years, adapted to local microclimates in South Asia, making them naturally resistant to local pests and insects, and thrive with rainwater as their water source. In Bangladesh, there has been a recent resurrection of the phuti karpas plant, which grew along the Meghna river – and was essential to produce Dhaka muslin which was the most valuable fabric on the planet 200 years ago.
03. PRODUCTION BY THE MASSES > MASS PRODUCTION
In thinking about the diversity needed in sustainable production– from fibers to artisan practices, a decentralized approach to fashion is necessary. No longer are the answers to sustainability rooted solely in top down solutions from hegemonic power structures, but rather, geolocalized approaches centered on indigeneity and localized supply chains. What we ultimately need isn’t more mass production, but rather, production by the masses. And production by the masses doesn’t necessarily mean making our garments from scratch. It means democratizing how we can all engage in fashion: from learning how to sew to patch up holes or tailor our garments, to upcycle and downcycling pieces we already own– whether that’s dying a garment when want to change the look, or turning old t-shirts into cleaning rags. The key is to think about the ways we can embed longevity and circularity into the fashion model in order to opt out of a constant cycle of consumption.
04. INDIVIDUAL CHANGE MEETS SYSTEM CHANGE
The dominant fashion model has largely operated on the Global Race to The Bottom — the idea that brands scramble to produce as fast as they can, as much as they can, as cheap as they can. Although the sustainable and ethical fashion industries are incredibly important, they have remained niche alternatives, pointing to the normalization of exploitation as part of business as usual. There has been a rise of changing the narrative from one of “Voting with Your Dollar,” to questioning ways to take power from the top and build it from the bottom up. Movements like the #PayUp campaign addressed unpaid and cancelled orders at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, and helped unlock $15 billion of lost wages for garment workers who were left destitute in countries such as Bangladesh. In Los Angeles, the Garment Worker Center has championed the Garment Worker Protection Act, which would ensure garment workers are paid at least the minimum hourly wage, hold manufacturers and brands accountable for wage violations, and strengthen the authority of the Labor Commissioner to investigate wage violations. The power of the individual is often reduced to that of a consumer; however, the dominant fashion model can’t be addressed by simply buying our way into a new reality. How can we reposition the role of the individual buyer from conscious consumer to consumer activist—someone who can help push for policy changes and material reform?
This article originally appeared on Sustainable Thinking, Ferragamo’s new platform for critical dialogue on fashion and sustainability.