What is Sustainable Fashion? (Part I)


I recently attended a panel discussion on Sustainable Fashion in conjunction with the current exhibition “Ethics and Aesthetics: Sustainable Fashionat Manhattan’s Pratt Gallery. The moderators were exhibition curators Francesca Granata and Sarah Scaturro, and panelists included Julie Gilhart, Barney’s New York senior vice president and fashion director of Barneys, Mary Ping’s of “Slow and Steady Wins the Race,” and Uluru’s Caroline Priebe.

The question of fashion and sustainability is a huge one.  To begin with, there is so much confusion regarding what we are actually talking about when we speak of sustainable fashion – do we mean the use of organic fibers? Do we simply mean incorporating fair trade, cruelty-free practices into garment production? Or do we mean creating garments which are themselves meant to be sustainable and reusable?

And here’s another conceptual dilemma to add to the confusion – aren’t the words “sustainable” and “fashion” mutually exclusive? Isn’t the concept itself an oxymoron? Isn’t fashion by definition an endeavor that is designed to change, to chase novelty, to constantly present something new? For many, yes — seasonal runway shows and the constant cycle of trends are an inherent and unavoidable aspects of fashion — aspects of the industry that are perhaps contradictory to sustainability ideology.


Several particularly interesting points were highlighted through the discussion – especially concerning this issue of trying to define sustainable fashion.  The question arose regarding instituting some sort of certification process through which garments and manufacturers could be proven to incorporate sustainable methodologies into their clothing design and production. If such a certification were possible, then labels could be utilized guaranteeing a level of sustainability awareness and concern.

However, it is significant to note that Julie Gilhart admitted that Barney’s intentionally removes any labels indicating a garment’s organic or eco-centric origin. Perhaps it is the stigma still associated with such terms that Barney’s clients can’t bear. She said that most people still assume that an “organic” article of clothing should look like something that could be purchased at Whole Foods. Until there are clients who actually want to find and purchase ecologically-sound and sustainable clothing, it seems like the whole effort really is an up-hill battle. Eco-fashion does not equal a burlap sack, but the shopping public doesn’t necessarily know this.

An idea that goes hand in hand with sustainable fashion is “slow fashion.” The panelists discussed whether or not there exists a possibility for a slower production/consumption model in the fashion industry. One really good point that Gilhart mentioned in light of this question is that if we invest more history and memories into our clothing, in a sense investing more emotionally, then maybe we could effectively slow the tempo of the industry.

There was an overall sense among all the panelists of “Oh, we’re tired of fashion. We want a return to the ‘classics,’” “We just want good design.” But is that really true? Isn’t that just one side of the argument? I think it’s such an affectation to claim to be “tired of fashion” when you are smack in the middle of it.

The biggest message of the discussion is that the power to make a major switch towards sustainable fashion lies in the hands of the designers. Designers should not wait for the customers to ask for it. Designers need to be the ones to step up to the plate and begin shifting course.

Quality, craft, and individualism were words that echoed through the panel. Tailor-made custom designed clothes – these are the components of a new movement towards sustainable design. The panelists kept stressing that “people want what no one else has,” but I have to ask how honest that is. What about the regular woman in a regular town — the mom who shops at Old Navy? How much does she really care about originality? I wonder how much this whole move back towards craft and the quest for individual, unique items is really just another trend.

More tomorrow…

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  • Sarah Scaturro February 04, 2010 12.29 pm

    Hi Lucy,

    I really enjoyed reading your summary of the panel and the issues it raised – yours was one of the better summaries I’ve found on the panel, and I find your ending questions thoughtful and provocative. I look forward to reading your second part tomorrow. As one of the moderators, I was pleased that we were able to touch on so many topics (albeit briefly due to time limits). Of course, the issues surrounding sustainable fashion are numerous and never quite clear cut, so we were only able to scratch the surface on this immensely complicated topic. In fact, the more I research sustainable fashion, the more I feel that there is not a decisive way to achieve all the goals of a truly sustainable system. There are too many tensions inherent in the system, too many pulls that are trying to be reconciled. After all, as many scholars have pointed out, the phrase itself is an oxymoron.

    I’m curious as to what you think the “other side” of the discussion is, if the panel just raised “one side of the argument”? I also think that you were misreading any supposed “affectation” on the part of the panelists. They, more than any of us, have a right to acknowledge their frustrations about the system in which they contribute. What is so affected with saying one wants good, quality and fashionable design rather then the fast fashion being thrown at them from so many angles? I myself have grabbled with issue. As someone on a tight budget due to my current employment in the museum field, I have definitely felt the thrill of walking into a fast fashion retailer and seeing so much variety offered at such low prices. But then I try things on and they fit poorly. I inspect the construction, and I find it shoddy. I feel the fabrics, and they feel sleazy and I know they won’t survive a single washing. And then I walk away, disgusted. It pains me to have to pay a lot of money for just one simple, high quality dress, or a pair of shoes…but then I honestly do value those pieces that much more, and I do not think of them in any way disposable.

    I also think it’s a bit misguided to question the “honesty” of the panelists in stressing that people have the desire to have something a bit more original. The DIY and crafts movement has been happening for a long time now – and it is most definitely more a movement than a passing trend. Perhaps it’s not a movement that everyone is participating (much like the original Arts and Crafts movement) but it does, and will, have far-reaching and profound consequences for the design field. Even my friends and family back in Colorado have a desire for something special and unique. Many of them shop at fast fashion retailers since they are often the only place available to purchase clothing, but at the same time, almost all of them participate in and appreciate crafts in some form or another. How can we know that when given a choice between an Old Navy top and a thoughtfully crafted unique one, the mom shopping at Old Navy wouldn’t actually prefer the latter? You can’t dismiss something as a trend just because price and availability are hindering a more widespread acceptance of DIY/handcrafted goods.

  • glennis February 04, 2010 01.47 pm

    Not being of the fashion industry, or any industry for that matter, just a lowly sometimes consumer of everyday clothing-a couple of thoughts come to mind. First, I too am tired of looking for “something nice” and finding most clothing outlets in my price range offering what I would call “disposable clothing”. I am not a fashion plate but I do appreciate quality fabric and good construction having grown up sewing most of my own clothes during high school.
    Those days are pretty much gone, and along with it the more discerning consumer who might have the knowledge to tell the difference. So that being said, it is an uphill struggle to educate the consumer.
    In regards to whether or not “sustainable fashion” is an oxymoron, I think one has to more carefully define “fashion”. If you mean fashion in a commercial sense then yes, I would agree that it is an oxymoron. Fashion is a business and in the commercial paradigm in which it currently exists, getting the consumer to purchase, purchase, purchase is key to its survival. Clothing mfgs. rely on turning goods as do the retail outlets which they feed.
    I doubt that many are interested in sustainability. The ones I personally know are not.
    If you define fashion as a way of dressing or adorning with a certain sense of style without respect to commercial viability, then I think you have another paradigm. One in which “sustainable fashion” might actually not be an oxymoron. Maybe we have to start over- cleverly- from the ground up. Designers, consumers, first and slowly, then carefully small mfgs.
    I don’t know, maybe I am off the mark but I found this to be an interesting thread and shared my thoughts, naive though they may be.
    I came arrived here via a link posted on our “slow cloth” FB page posted by Elaine Lipson.

  • Francesca February 05, 2010 12.16 pm

    For anyone interested in the topic of sustainable fashion, I suggest reading Kate Flecther’s book “Sustainable Fashion and Textiles.” In a chapter titled “Speed,” she explains how there shouldn’t be a dichotomy between fast and slow, but rather certain garments SHOULD be fast fashion, as with eveningwear, which could be rented out instead of bought and underpants, which she proposes could be compostable.

    Her book and insights are quite provocative and briliant, I think.

  • Sunny February 05, 2010 01.29 pm

    I’ve never bought anything that could vaguely be considered ‘fashion’ but I do buy clothes. When I worked, I bought expensive clothes because they looked better, felt better when worn, and lasted. My budget is more limited now, and I shop at Old Navy — or even (gasp) Wal-Mart, but I still want quality. I want good clothes. If I could be certain that I wouldn’t have to replace the shirt I’m buying in a few months, I’d probably spend a few more dollars. I buy clothes (except for the omnipresent tee-shirts) with an eye to the future. When it’s beyond wearing, for any reason, can I cut it up and use the pieces for something? I quilt. Many old pairs of jeans and khakis have found t heir way into a quilt. Likewise cotton shirts and the random silk shirt. So that’s what the ‘mom shopping at Old Navy’ is thinking. Make good clothes that will last through more than one season of wear. Treat textile workers fairly and pay them a living wage. Don’t gouge me with the price of whatever it is you want to sell me. And, yes, please make the underpants compostable.

  • Worn Through » Teaching Fashion: Eco-Friendly Textiles Interview
    December 3, 2010 - 5:02 am

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