Issue 4, January 2007 | Jo Pickup

The Fashion of Our Sustainable Future

One could argue that Fashion as a concept for cultural consideration and query has been largely overlooked and disregarded as having hardly anything of substance to offer to critical debate. Characterised perhaps as the froth on one’s cappuccino, fashion critics and authors do experience difficulty in reaching an academic audience with their sociological ideas. The endless connotations fashion presents through  ideas of luxury, vanity and frivolity require us to be convinced that to venture more deeply beneath the surface of fashion is a worthwhile pursuit.

Fashion, while associated with these trivialities in life is also bound closely to the concept of change. Fashion is an ephemeral cycle and a supposedly ever evolving one. Whether its change is dependent on the workings of society at the grassroots level or whether the ‘designer as artist’ effectively pre-empts our values and tastes, dictating the way we should interact in society, is a critical and complex question.  It is obvious that  when analysing fashion this way we are faced with questions of social hierarchies and the way in which power manifests itself in society. It seems that historically Fashion has been a rather exclusive club reserved for upper echelons of society, thus distinguishing this group from that which is mainstream and common.

However in the 21st century, fashion cannot conceal the aforementioned relationship with its grassroots players. Rather than being presented with the ‘rules’ of dress from couturiers, as was the convention earlier in the 20th century, participants in the fashion system are increasingly playing artist themselves, perhaps taking instructions from the Parisian catwalks in one hand and grabbing from Pop culture and street-life looks with the other. The result becomes a bricolage effect, where ‘precise outfits’ are no longer valid and individual ‘found objects’ pieces are open to personal interpretation.

Perhaps reminiscent of the Dada movement, designers too are playing an active role in reacting to the suffocating nature of the prevailing commodity culture, collating its disparate elements together in their collections forming a playful critique. The notion of creating fashion through anti-fashion seems to have taken hold with many designers and consumers, with both groups taking advantage of this liberating climate of ‘anything goes.’ Thus one cannot help but feel confused by the fashion industry of today. Are we experiencing the great democratisation of fashion?, or the end of fashion altogether? Can we view these changes in the fashion system as indicators of the changing dynamics of the social order in our Western world? or is this a sign that the traditional and heirarchical social order is in fact crumbling away?

Clearly fashion, and  its ability to distinguish one as coming from a certain strata of society has, throughout history, been an invaluable tool in maintaining social order and propping up the fences between these different classes in society. Yet with such a fast paced and eclectic mix of styles, fads and trends as evidenced in the 21st century high fashion system, it becomes far less easy to discern these social boundaries.

However at this point one must ask the question - have we really escaped the monotonous cycle of fashion or are we actually perpetuating its virtues as never before? Is this apparent democratic system of fashion just a disguise for the same sociological patterns and immutable class hierarchies? However much consumers are free to choose which fashions they adopt or reject, are they still invariably aspiring to the same symbols of wealth and prestige as always? Those symbols that we all yearn for because they that make us feel so exclusive, so ahead of the pack. One must recognise also that this pervasive cycle of aspirational consumerism that fashion so fervently promotes is inevitably linked with the paralysis of unfulfilled desire and a general malaise detectable in society today.

So while this sense of rampant consumerism is not specific to the fashion industry, it is one of the industries defining and most obvious distinguishing features in today’s climate. This is an industry that feasts on the rapid turnover of the seasonal market with unprecedented aggression and does its best to promote only that which is shiny and new, (and so hot right now). It seems that as the fashion industry has opened its doors to the will of the consumer and the reaction of the avant garde, it has also stepped up its campaign to infiltrate our minds and pockets more insistently than ever before.

The cult of  the designer fashion ‘Brand’ initiated by the likes of American designer’s Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger in the 1980s have had a great deal to do with this phenomenon. Lauren and Hilfiger have proved to be masters in connecting High Fashion product with the mass market without ever losing their edgy and exclusive appeal. They have created the ultimate Fashion Corporations, creaming obscene amounts of profits off the back of their Brand images. They have engineered the market towards homogeny and mindless consumption disguised in glamorous gift wrapped packaging, proving far too seductive for even the most discerning in the fashion set.

It seems as if the sinister potential of fashion has been exposed in today’s market in which autonomous choice is promoted yet it is set against the most pervasive and domineering backdrop of corporate consumer culture. It really seems as if the opening of the fashion system to the mass market has led to a greater sense of entrapment for the consumer as opposed to a liberation through an increase in choice. However, one factor that remains unchanged even as the market evolves, is Fashion’s sharp focus on the glossy edges of the present day and its ability to deliver this polished package to an ever applauding audience. 

It’s fashion’s ability to seize on present day phenomena, appropriating it, stitching it up and selling it back to us as a perfect reflection of ourselves and our exclusive value system that ensures its influence and domination. As exclusive as fashion appears to be, it is in fact feeding on the mainstream consciousness, simultaneously filtering out the minutiae of everyday life and scrupulously magnifying the glossy bits.

Looking specifically at our present climate here in Australia, (and indeed in many other parts of the Western world) an idea that has gained a great deal of this sort of glossy mainstream currency is the idea of Sustainability and Sustainable Development. The detrimental effect of our lifestyles on our natural environment and on the widening poverty gap across the globe is causing great consternation in mainstream society; it has indeed created a decidedly audible buzz. In Australia, as in the United States and other First World countries, we are beginning to assess with increasing concern the damage we are inflicting on our environment and the disastrous implications of our lifestyle choices for future generations. Being environmentally aware has permeated through our communities and seems more palatable than ever.

It is obvious to many of us that action is needed. We desperately need to reassess our lifestyle choices in order to prolong our existence on earth. Selfish as it may seem, the intensity of the Sustainability movement is quite possibly a reflection of the impending doom we all feel about our future on planet earth. We really must embrace these environmental problems and be proactive about a solution. Besides, everyone who’s anyone is talking about it.

Thus it seems clear that the Sustainability message is one of the most significant topics being discussed in the mainstream media lately. News and current affairs reports instil fear in us all, analysing changing weather patterns and dwelling on natural disasters. The call for action against this trend of environmental damage is being shouted from rooftops by everyone from Al Gore to Ani Di Franco.

Even at the government level, alternatives to fossil fuels are being called for more strongly than ever and who would have thought they’d see the day that Prime Minister John Howard stood up and openly encouraged fossil fuel alternatives and  announces financial support for new solar power technology in Victoria. This is a positive sign that more Australian voters are changing their views and realising the need for environmental policy changes in this country. The message is that we must change our ways and those in society who are responsible for ignorance and environmental waste should start being held accountable.

Interestingly, when analysing the environmental effects of the Fashion and Textile industry, particularly in its new guise of the ‘Fashion Corporation’, it appears that this is an industry which should most definitely be in the firing line! Globally, the Fashion and Textile industry employs around 1 billion people, that’s 1 in 6 people worldwide associated in some way with the industry. The industry is vast and also heavily reliant on the finite energy resources of the planet. From the agricultural end of production right through to the end use, it is a very sorry picture that the Fashion industry paints in relation to the natural environment. 

To illustrate this difficult situation more clearly it is helpful to think about the life cycle of a simple cotton t-shirt, charting its development from the growth of the cotton bulb right through to its final use in the form of the well-worn casualwear favourite found in so many wardrobes across the globe. And one would certainly hope that the cotton t-shirt was in fact very well worn and treasured by its wearer after taking a closer look at the environmental problems associated with its manufacture!

To look at the life cycle of cotton grown on a plantation in Mali, West Africa for example, we can see that this product is grown by farmers who rely solely on its production for their livelihood. Unfortunately in recent years these farmers have been getting a measly price for their produce while farmers such as those in the US are being heavily subsidised by their government and are effectively dictating these unfair market conditions. A similar situation faces cotton farmers in places such as Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Uzbekistan, where farmers are struggling to make a profit from the prices they are forced to sell their cotton at to compete in the global market.

As well as not being able to sell their cotton effectively, places like Africa are actually having US cotton dumped into their own domestic markets because the speed at which the US is producing cotton has caused a significant glut. And never mind this unsustainable economic practice, the environmental practices in place on the cotton farms are in fact just as dire.

According to the Pesticide Action Network’s research into cotton farming methods, ‘conventionally grown cotton uses more insecticides than any other single crop and epitomizes the worst effects of chemically dependent agriculture. They report that each year cotton producers around the world use nearly $2.6 billion worth of pesticides -- more than 10% of the world's pesticides and nearly 25% of the world's insecticides.

Cotton growers typically use many of the most hazardous pesticides on the market including aldicarb, phorate, and endosulfan. These pesticides, even when used according to instructions, harm people, wildlife and the natural environment. They can poison farm workers, drift into neighbouring communities, contaminate ground and surface water and disrupt the natural balance of their surrounding eco systems. It is a fact that around 20 000 farmers die each year from accidental poisonings related specifically to cotton agriculture. It seems that particularly in Third World countries, pesticide use is not closely monitored or regulated, (however its increased use is of course being actively encouraged by chemical companies keen to build their profits in these areas).

If there is to be real progress made to stop the damage being done by these hazardous chemicals, the entire system has to be overturned and an organic system of agriculture needs to be implemented. Evidently there is a move towards change of this kind and there are several organic farms already in Africa. But as yet, there is no fundamental or government change to ensure that more agriculture moves this way. It is even the case that many African farmers need to verify their commitment to chemical pesticide use to even get a loan from their banks to start agricultural production. With these kinds of systems in place it seems organic farming is seen as an ‘alternative’ method and more widespread progress is still a long way off.

However, to now move along the life cycle chain of the cotton t-shirt somewhat to the manufacture stage, a similar pattern of exploitation is discernable. A 1997 report by economist John Singleton into the workings of the Global Textile Industry recognises that cotton could be grown in Africa, then spun and woven in Germany, made into a t-shirt in Honduras and then sold to a consumer in Holland. The German firm may own or have a cooperation agreement with the garment manufacturer in Honduras; it may also have close ties with the Dutch retailer. This is just one example of the disparate nature of manufacture so characteristic of the fashion industry.

The heavy price of this unsustainable structure of industry is a burden not only on the environment, (through the industry’s non renewable energy use,) but also on the labourers employed in these corporately owned factories around the world. As many high fashion labels of today are adopted  into global corporations, it is easy to see how their production systems rely on the exploits of Third World labour to produce as much product possible for as low a possible price. Gone are the days where small, exclusive production runs by locally owned small businesses are terribly viable for designers. Today it is more a case of contracting the work out to a manufacturing company in China, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Mexico, Taiwan, The Philippines or Honduras. These are the countries listed as having the highest percentage of Textile manufacture globally. This is not to say that garment manufacture does not take place in Australia, however more recently it is becoming a less and less viable option for many Australian designers, who recognise it is important to move their production overseas in order to stay competitive.

In today’s world 65% of all apparel produced globally is made by workers that are paid between $1 and $2 an hour, working 100 hours per week1. This works out to be a 14 hour working day in a 7 day working week. The factory workers are most often women between the ages of 16-25. They are often teenage girls who travel from the regional parts of their countries to live and work in the factories in order to support the rest of their families.

In a particular case that was investigated by the director of the New York based National Labour Committee Charles Kernegen, it was found that women in a clothing factory in Honduras worked from 8am to 10pm seven days a week for a wage of around 10 cents an hour. They were squatting in cardboard huts just outside the factories where the sewerage threatened to run right through when it rained. He found it very difficult to make any significant contact with the women workers as the factory was relentlessly surrounded by armed guards.

Kernegan also came upon some equally horrifying stories at a similar factory producing clothing for Nike in The Dominican Republic. He discovered by accident some official Nike documents that revealed the pricing models they used in this clothing manufacturing operation. To his utter disgust and dismay he found that Nike was not measuring the time and efficiency of manufacture by the hour, minute, not even by the second. Staggeringly, he found that the manufacture was priced by the 10 thousandth of a second. Nike had calculated that it took 6.6 minutes to make a shirt and at a rate of 70 cents per hour this works out to cost Nike 8c a shirt, which is 3/10 of 1% of the retail price.

These patterns of globalised production are not uncommon in the Fashion industry and the rate of this sort of manufacture is increasing. For example in China there is a 10% projected growth per annum of industry relating to clothing and Textiles, as opposed to our 1.3% population growth rate2.

Suddenly the reality of our industrial exploits and indulgent patterns of consumption and waste aren’t looking pretty and make that frothy double skinny soy decaf cappuccino taste far less sweet than before! And as noted previously, this bitter aftertaste, (as evidenced by the shades of green peppering mainstream consciousness) is being experienced not just by the cutting edge cool makers in the fashion business but also by wider society.

Therefore, in the sort of knee jerk reaction one can expect from any faction well versed in techniques of damage control, the fashion industry has started ‘doing their bit’ for our fading environment. And this isn’t to say that newly environmentally aware companies deciding to take a more holistic approach to their business structures should be condemned. In fact any player in the Fashion industry should be tackling these environmental issues and attempting to integrate more responsible practises into their business models.

However, somewhere along the lines, these new ‘sustainable’ initiatives have been construed and manipulated by the industry somewhat in a brilliant and uncanny manoeuvre which actually banishes the fundamental values of Sustainability to the back shelf and out of sight and mind, (just to be sure that it doesn’t upstage the fabulous new season halter tops and polo shirts). For example, the fact the in today’s market Nike can boast incessantly about its commitment to transparency to decent wages and protection for workers, ensuring their exploits in The Dominican Republic are forgotten and consumers feel safe that their purchases are ethically responsible and are even part of the solution. Far from offering long term suggestions as to how to integrate organic farming across the globe, or even to help governments outlaw tax free ‘Export Processing Zones’, (where many of the dirty deals of the Fashion industry take place) Nike are intent on manufacturing more of the same product, in largely the same conditions, under the same business models but now their product comes with a warm and fuzzy message that makes the purchase feel even better.

The destructive pattern of consumer behaviour is not being broken at all as the Sustainability message is, (just as any other hot topic is at risk of being) co-opted by the Fashion system and sold back to us as progressive, hip and relevant. Thus begins the intertwining of the environmentally conscious with fashion conscious, materialising in the forms of new ‘ethical’ and ‘organic’ lines of clothing and Fashion brands insistent on being associated with Aid organisations such as the recent ‘Make Poverty History’ campaign.

Even Live Aid and Live 8 organiser Bob Geldof recognises the inherent paradox observing that ‘All I did - was make fashion fashionable.’ And herein lays the rather sinister symbiotic relationship between the fashion industry and the environmental movement. Both camps are dependent in some way on the other and both are managing to utilise each others attributes to their own end, yet emanate these very attributes in the ugliest possible way.

A classic example of this misguided action has come to light recently as U2 front man Bono launched his not for profit organisation (RED). RED Manifesto reads, ‘’All things being equal. They are not. As First World consumers we have tremendous power. What we collectively choose to buy or not to buy can change the course of life and history on this planet.”3 These sentiments which are of course valid go on to promote new collections of products that are being made by various corporations that promise to give ‘some’ of their profits to the ‘Global Fund’. The Global Fund is a non for profit organisation set up to help deliver anti retro viral medicine to those who need it in Africa. The important part to recognise is the fact that it is some of the profits that will go to the Global Fund, rather than all of the money raised being donated directly to the cause.

This situation becomes complex to analyse as one could argue awareness is half the battle for Aid organisations, and this campaign is certainly high profile and media friendly. However it is also blatant to see that such a venture provides corporations with a greater license to produce and sell even more product, increasing their hold on the market, (and by the way they are donating to charity as well). Consumers also feel empowered, wearing a (RED) product as a badge of honour and as a signal of their ethical and responsible value system.

It therefore seems evident that the virtues of both the fashion and sustainability ‘industries’ remain insignificant as we clamour head over heel for a new wardrobe of the latest eco–green variety, leaving last season’s organic offering to fester in landfill, while the long lasting ideals of sustainability are wiped off our radars as quickly as last month’s editorial in Vogue is rewritten and the old issue is (hopefully) recycled. It is also a shame that the grass roots work being attempted by committed fashion designers trying to restructure production systems for the long term and calling for government change is being drowned out beneath the Kum Bay Yah-like chants of Bono types and the pervasive image building mantras of giant clothing corporations.

Evidently, the ‘fashion conscious’ mentality pervades all corners of society. We seem to be wired to passing fads and trends in all areas of life and it is these fleeting allegiances that stunt progress and work against meaningful enduring change. It is for this reason that there is a strong case pointing to more damage than good being done by recent ‘Sustainability’ campaigns, for as long as these campaigns are reliant on the fact that being eco-friendly is considered the latest trendy moral dilemma. Sadly, in the end, it seems we are all Fashion Victims. But don’t worry; apparently retail therapy does wonders to numb the pain.

  1. Achbar, M. The Corporation. Big Picture Media Corporation.Ontario. 2003
  2. Singletion John. The World Textile Industry. Routledge. England. 1997