Creative Economy & Cultures of Production, Creativity & Cultural Labour

What does it mean to be sustainable?

Lindsay Parker

When asked what my PhD topis is, my usual response is “fashion and sustainability”. These are terms that are recognisable and used frequently however, their precise definitions (particularly when used within an academic context) are complex and contested. Part of my research is concerned with how different people give meaning to these terms within their everyday lives. 

Recently, when engaging with discussions about what being sustainable means in the context of fashion, what has become increasingly apparent is that while concerns for creating more sustainable systems (environmental, social and economic) are global, understanding of sustainability can be very local, contextual and even personal. Initiatives such as the UN’s sustainable development goals for example, can provide a framework but how such goals are implemented and understood may differ. Although the fashion system is increasingly global, local fashion practices differ and therefore require local definitions of sustainability, rather than a blanket application of Western or Eurocentric concepts (as seen for example in Rawan Malik’s research in Bahrain). A recurring theme of a recent “Decolonizing Sustainable Fashion” symposium, was that in fact, many local, traditional practices are inherently sustainable. 

That the production and consumption of ‘fast’ fashion has significant, negative impact both environmentally and socially has been widely documented. There is also increasing acknowledgement within the industry that alternative modes of production and consumption are needed. However, it can be argued that many of the proposed solutions do not go far enough in challenging the current system, still relying on consumption of “new products”. Fashion is frequently associated with rapid change. 

Initiatives such as Selfridge’s ‘Project Earth’ demonstrate the fashion industry’s growing engagement with notions of sustainability. ©Lindsay Parker

Kate Fletcher (2010) suggests that alternative approaches, such as slow fashion, require a shift in world view rather than a “tinkering” with existing systems. Not necessarily a literal change in production speed but in values and goals. Slow fashion, she argues, values quality over quantity, seeking to re-establish the value of clothing that has been lost within a throwaway fast fashion culture. However, the term is often misused to describe processes and approaches that are simply less fast. Understanding of sustainable practices and consumption is further complicated by such misuse of terms as well as by greenwashing when environmental concern becomes a marketing strategy to sell products.  

Proponents of collaborative consumption, or a sharing economy, posit that systems of access to rather than ownership of goods (this might include anything from AirBnB and Zipcar to community tool libraries) might be a means to lessen environmental impact. In my own research I am interested in the emerging practices of fashion rental, as an alternative to consumption as ownership, within the UK. Specifically, how the different actors engaging with these practices understand them in terms of sustainability. Rental companies potentially extend the lifetime of fashion garments by making them available to multiple wearers but exist within the field of fashion where, it is often the symbolic or qualitative value of a garment which wears out before the physical materials. In this context, it is perhaps not such much the durability of the physical garment that matters, but the durability of its status as a fashionable item. Through my research, I explore how sustainability is understood within this context, where newness is an enduring and established logic. 

Engaging with these debates encourages me to reflect on my own understanding of sustainability. Exploring other’s perceptions of the term, leads me to frequently question and re-evaluate my own and how this shapes my research. Sustainability is at the same time global, local and personal, understanding how meaning is given to the term in different contexts can be an important step towards developing new approaches to fashion consumption.