“Once a revered commodity, fashion is now all too often considered disposable.” (p. xvi)
Jennifer Farley Gordon and Colleen Hill’s Sustainable Fashion: Past, Present and Future is a book that delivers to fashion-loving consumers everywhere a clearly written, concise, and well-researched reminder that our current system of clothing production and consumption is dangerously broken. Sustainable Fashion makes abundantly clear, chapter after chapter, that there are no easy answers or quick fixes to the dominant fashion system that demands rapid, high-volume manufacturing, intensely sped-up cycles of seasonal new styles, and quick delivery of those styles to thousands of stores worldwide. Caught up in these frenetic demands are the lives of human beings who cut, sew, and finish the clothing for meager compensation, as well as the lives of animals whose bodies become the foundation of many of these items. Scores of these rapidly produced clothes and accessories will end up in landfills, a good proportion taking hundreds of years to biodegrade. The manufacturing waste involved in the harvesting, processing or creation of fabrics and raw materials ends up in our water systems or the air we breathe. What is needed is “an enormous shift of focus” (p. 59) in how we create and how we consume, and the responsibility lies with corporations, creators, and the buying public.
The book Sustainable Fashion was borne out of the Fashion Institute of Technology’s 2010 exhibition, Eco-Fashion: Going Green, and much of the book’s discussions and illustrations of eco and not-so-eco practice are taken from this exhibition and FIT’s collection (Farley Gordon and Hill were the co-curators). The authors also saw an opportunity to fill a gap in the study of sustainability-minded fashion, which generally tends to begin in the 1960s with the emergence of the environmental movement. Farley Gordon and Hill aim to deepen the contextual foundation of these studies to show that both positive and negative practices such as recycling, exploitation of workers and animals, and relentless and rapid textile and clothing manufacturing have their roots beginning at least two centuries ago.
Examples of recycling practices and recycled items (here defined as “reprocessed and converted into new materials”) are traced back to the late 18th century, when garments were reused, repurposed, or remade for reasons of “thrift, economic necessity, [or] appreciation of well-made materials” (p. 1). Another reason for recycling and remaking clothing–which cannot be stressed enough–is that the price of clothing was once very high. Clothing prices have truly plummeted in the last 40 or so years, along with increased consumption of tens to hundreds of garments per year per person.
As this study makes evident, the march towards fast fashion has been a slow and steady one, beginning with mechanization of fabric manufacture and fiber processing in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries and the rise of ready-made clothing in the 20th, century. As early as the 1920s, fashion editorials remarked on the sacrifice of “quality and beauty” in ready-to-wear garments (p. 42). Today, fast fashion has all but eroded our understanding or any memory of how clothing “was manufactured, sold, and cared for prior to the 1990s” (p. 31). Not so far in the distant past, manufacturing and sewing skills were valued and respected.
Before ready-to-wear, highly prized, beautiful clothing such as an 18th century man’s embroidered waistcoat or an 19th century Kashmir shawl were repurposed and remade into the reigning contemporary style. The authors make thoughtful use of images in the first chapter, tracing the different ways these two particular items were remade from the early 19th through to the mid-20th century. For example, evidence of restyling an 18th century man’s waistcoat ranges from an early 1800s reticule to a 1950s peplum vest from a couture collector’s closet. Also illustrated are late 20th and 21st century examples of recycling by innovative designers like XULY.Bët (Lamine Kouyaté), Rebecca Earley, FIN (Per Åge Sivertsen), and Martin Margiela.
Pre-worn or resold garments were simply a fact of the life for the ordinary person pre-1945, but this sort of repurposing or re-wearing fell out of favor post-WWII, when previously worn clothing became stigmatized. Once “vintage” clothing gained traction and cachet in the 1970s and garments were resold, remade, or completely refashioned from “deadstock” fabrics, this recycling practice was embraced by avant-garde designers in the 1980s and 1990s and continues to be a favored creative method for certain designers today. While the processing and sorting of post-consumer textile waste is both complex and expensive, the recycling of clothing and textiles “eliminates the need for newly manufactured goods” (p.20), and can be a good strategy with compelling visual advertising potential for retail companies, such as the recycling program at UK department store Marks & Spencer.
The longevity, quality, and investment value of couture or high-end ready-to-wear and “vintage”, discussed in the second chapter, has certainly inspired the “slow fashion” model today. While slow fashion is sometimes criticized for being “elitist” and “inaccessible”, it is a direct confrontation to “bargain culture” and the current consumer mindset (p. 50). But if there is anything that Sustainable Fashion drives home relentlessly in its examination, it is that any claim of “good” or “bad” is multifaceted and often very complicated. They raise the interesting point that mid-century couture, while valued for its quality and craftsmanship—and Christian Dior’s work in particular, largely responsible for reinvigorating couture and fashion post-WWII—prompted women to drastically change their wardrobe at a much quicker pace, from “make do and mend” of the 1930s and 1940s to something along the lines of: make to the shop and buy, buy, buy–and get in style. Sustainable Fashion goes on to highlight the practices of 20th and 21st designers that ignore or buck trends, creating designs are less likely to be discarded by restless consumers, or attract those that are looking for items that will be permanent or long-term fixtures in their closets.
The chapter on fabric, “Material Origins”, really zeroes in on the “good”/ “bad” dichotomy that can characterize discussion, and especially product promotion, of “eco” goods. “Natural” does not always mean “good”, and companies can certainly “greenwash” the truth behind materials and manufacturing. The amount of water or chemicals needed to process “natural” fabrics like cotton and wool all but takes away the goodness in the label “natural”. Even organic cotton, which uses no pesticides and less water during the harvesting process, undergoes cleaning with toxic chemicals post-harvest. Farley Gordon and Hill run through the pros and cons of cellulose and animal-derived fabrics, hybrid plant/manmade fabrics such as rayon and lyocell, and synthetics such as nylon and polyester.
The ultimate takeaway is that there is no “perfect” fabric—the advantages of harvesting, low water use, or ease of care of a fabric may be outweighed by factors such as toxic chemical processing or resistance to biodegradability. The investigation and experimentation with new fabrics and production methods holds the key to the salvation of fashion, and the industry is in great need of sustainable, non-toxic alternatives. This chapter is very informative and concise on the challenges to be addressed and some of the alternatives put forward, and will help the reader become a savvier consumer.
Another process that continues to wreak havoc on the health of human beings and the environment is textile dyeing. The authors pose the ultimate question as, “how do we mediate our desire for beautiful color with its potentially detrimental effect on the environment?” (p. 97). They briefly lay out the history of dye from the use of plant and insect-derived colors to the coal tar-based aniline dyes and poisonous, arsenic-filled dyes of the mid-1800s to the chemical variants of today. One of the major concerns of the current process is the dye effluent, or the liquid waste produced, which makes its way into water supplies and into groundwater, where the effects are not visible. Farley Gordon and Hill point to the difficulty in policing such waste and contamination. In the 1970s, the EPA worked with companies, but with outsourcing in recent decades processes are harder to monitor. A return to natural dyes is complicated by the choice of the mordant that affixes the dye, which historically have included toxic materials such as heavy metal chromium, also used in leather tanning. Some solutions include “dye liquor” reuse, or experimentation with methods of heat transfer dyeing. Interestingly, modern non-toxic and recyclable alternatives can be found in examples as early as 1917, such as a natural dye extracted from fallen leaves by Edith O’Neil McDonald, who lived in the Adirondacks and was profiled by The New York Times (p. 96).
Farley Gordon and Hill next turn their attention to textile and garment industry labor practices and the “cyclical nature” of its tragedies and injustices. Though most old enough today can recall the horrific collapse at Rana Plaza in Bangladesh in 2013, many are not aware of previous building collapses, fires, and human rights abuses in the textile and fashion industry throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. The authors recount the long hours and low wages of cotton mill workers—adults and very young children–and the extreme health hazards they endured such as cotton dust and dirty factory conditions that caused severe respiratory problems. Or tenement workers who sewed clothing in cramped, unsanitary conditions with zero health protections and little more compensation. Union representation at the beginning of the 20th century advocated for worker’s rights and government legislation such as the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 regulated wages and working conditions, but could not entirely eradicate bad labor practice in the U.S. Now exacerbated by outsourcing and subcontracting labor abroad to evade union representation and close monitoring–known as “the runaway shop”—foisted upon workers overseas are the same unsafe conditions and low wages once prevalent at sweatshops throughout the U.S., with tragedies repeating themselves 100 years later.
What are the solutions? The authors discuss different approaches taken since the 1960s, such as the establishment of cooperatives or collectives of artisans, establishing fair trade partnerships, and fighting for wages and conditions to be raised abroad. Organizations such as the Clean Clothes Campaign, the UNITE union, and designers and companies like Alabama Chanin and Edun are exploring and implementing these options that should in reality be anything but optional. Reviving the use of special labels to indicate that clothing is fairly and ethically made has been proposed. Though solutions are complex on many levels, ideas and actions advocating for positive change are far preferable to the status quo or “better than” argument (i.e., having paying work in a sweatshop is “better than” starving).
Next addressed is the treatment of animals in the fashion system. Farley Gordon and Hill chart the intersecting phenomena of near-extinction of many avian and mammal species with fashion trends, such as the craze for feathers in 19th and early 20th century millinery and the early 20th-century vogue for furs (which became more accessible, affordable–and disposable–including the promotion of “summer furs” in the 1920s). While the everyday wear of feathers (and headgear) has fallen from fashion, conflicting points of view endure between the fur industry, the fashion industry, and animal rights activists. Some designers make their views very clear. Stella McCartney is very vocal and active against the use of any animal products, while FIN’s Peter Ingwersen clearly states, “NOIR designs with leather and fur. We are not Mother Teresa and our focus sits with the cotton production, environmental concerns and socio ethics in the manufacturing. We cannot focus on all aspects of the supply chain” (Brügmann 2010). The search for sustainable leather alternatives remains a big challenge, as processing or waste products can be highly toxic, and materials like PVC can pose health hazards (and not to mention are the bane of many a curator’s or collection manager’s existence in museum collections).
While there are no immediate fixes, there are certainly a lot of ideas and determined advocates planning on improving the current crisis situation. Sustainable Fashion concludes with interviews with several New York City-based designers, entrepreneurs, educators, and companies that are currently working towards increasing the efficiency and volume of recycling, sustainable local manufacturing and retail management. This conclusion gives the reader hope that the situation is not, well, hopeless.
One thing is for sure–the habits of fashion-hungry shoppers worldwide will have to change. This book prompted me to take stock of my own complicity in this system and the fast fashion in my closet, and contemplate the mistakes–and surprising successes–that reside there. I am happy to say that there are many fast fashion purchases that I still own and wear over 10 years after purchase. Based on this cursory, personal appraisal, I feel that fast fashion can be slowed by waiting to buy trends or styles that you perennially love, and in doing so shop less and contribute to putting the breaks on our “normalized” pace of overconsumption. Fast fashion will not evaporate overnight, so if you do make a purchase, choose garments that you’ll return to again and again within your own closet, instead of returning to the store for more or for the latest trends. Also, launder sparingly and they will last.
Clothing will have to get more expensive for its manufacture to be safe for our environment and just for the people who create it. But sustainable, exciting, and ethical fashion should be within reach of all wage earners (another conversation entirely). I recall a quote from organic and sustainable food pioneer Alice Waters on the same subject, different material:
“When you eat fast food, you not only eat the food that is unhealthy for you, but you digest the values that comes with that food. And they’re really about fast, cheap and easy. It’s so important that we understand that things can be affordable, but they can never be cheap, because, if they’re cheap, somebody’s missing out.” (PBS NewsHour, 2015)
“Alice Waters teaches slow food values in a fast food world (23 July 2015). PBS News Hour, Accessed at: http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/alice-waters-teaches-slow-food-values-fast-food-world/
Sandja Brügmann (20 August 2010). NOIR: A Scandinavian Fashion Label Oozing Sexy Social Conscience. Ecosalon.com. Accessed at: http://ecosalon.com/noir-a-scandinavian-fashion-label-oozing-sexy-social-conscience/