In fashion, who is reaping the harvest and at what cost? What kind of future is being planted and, more importantly, for whom? The Conscious Closet author Elizabeth L. Cline asks the tough questions about a field in frenzy, while looking to those who are sowing the seeds of change.
“My first question to my students is: ‘What is it that you want to sustain?’” says Otto von Busch, a professor at Parsons, one of the world’s most prestigious fashion design schools. Students still arrive in New York starry-eyed and dreaming of creating beautiful clothes to be coveted and worn. But unlike earlier generations, they’re creating in the context of environmental destruction. Ready or not, they are launched straight into the paradox of being a maker of stuff in a world quite unsure about the future of a warming planet.
To get them thinking about fresh possibilities, in which fashion and the environment might coexist, von Busch, who teaches courses on fashion and social justice, shakes up his students’ ideas about what fashion could be. Maybe fashion is an energy or an emotion rather than an object. Perhaps a fashion designer of the future will be more like a therapist or a coach, he suggests, instead of a peddler of soon-to-be obsolete trends. With a change in perspective, the possibilities are endless. “We treat the current model of fashion as if we live in some sort of fashion utopia, and we just want to patch up a little of the environmental issues and a little of the labor issues,” says von Busch. “We’re not being visionary enough.”
Designers are not the only ones forced to confront their ideas about fashion in the age of climate change. According to research by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the clothing industry is estimated to spew more CO2 every year than all international flights. After increasing pressure from consumers and activists, major brands are rethinking operations in ways that were unimaginable a few years ago. A growing roster of apparel giants—including fast- fashion companies like UNIQLO, Zara, and H&M and luxury heavyweights like Gucci—are getting rid of single-use plastics and using more recycled, non-toxic, and organic fabrics. Dozens of brands have committed to cutting back carbon dioxide emissions in stores, headquarters, and their supply chains (where most emissions occur). More exciting developments are afoot, like clothes designed to be remade, recycling innovations that could drastically curb the need for raw materials, and the widespread embrace of secondhand clothes.
And yet, these top-down models of change don’t address Big Fashion’s need to grow and keep costs low. They only marginally change the idea that fashion should produce as much product per year as it can. As von Busch says, we aren’t being visionary enough. What keeps us from imagining more courageous alternatives? To start with, the fashion industry is expert at projecting the idea that the world would crumble without it. Last fall, H&M’s CEO Karl-Johan Persson shamed activists for calling fast fashion and rampant consumerism into question, saying that the clothing industry is necessary for economic growth and job creation and warning of “terrible social consequences” if we interrupt our cycles of buying. Western consumers are often told that we have an obligation to support an unjust system in the name of never-ending growth. If we can turn this lie on his head, it points to a far more promising way forward: The scant bit of social benefit created under the current fashion system should give way to an industry with social benefit at its core. Sustainable fashion should be the movement to accomplish this broader goal of economic justice.
There are numerous examples of bottom-up, socially driven models of sustainable fashion. One model is Custom Collaborative, a Harlem-based nonprofit that helps low-income and immigrant women learn the business of fashion design using sustainable materials. The idea for the project started out simply enough, says executive director Ngozi Okaro. “I wanted to help women access clothes that fit their bodies and that were made by women who needed the economic opportunity.” Graduates have gone on to start their own clothing lines and to work for other independent designers. Some have even formed a worker-owned cooperative that provides garment manufacturing for New York City makers. “If we can help foster a feeding ground for women to own their own businesses collectively, then we’ve really done our work,” says Okaro. Worker cooperatives can thrive anywhere (they’re “imminently scalable,” says Okaro) with proper support.
In Philadelphia, where one in four people lives below the poverty line, Mary Alice Duff is building a clothing brand around a similar ethos: making clothes for women ignored by mainstream fashion, while using sustainable materials and providing living-wage jobs. Duff’s made-to-order, size-inclusive clothing line, Alice Alexander, runs from size 0 up to a 30 (with special orders for any body type) and is crafted out of lower-impact fabrics like organic cotton, hemp, and Tencel, a type of eco-friendly rayon. Her clients and visuals feature women of color, plus-size women, and nonbinary people, as well as others who simply support her mission. “What we’re trying to do is create a more inclusive apparel industry from the people who make our clothes to the people who wear our clothes,” says Duff.
What would it take to see more business models like Alice Alexander and Custom Collaborative? Duff says we need better leaders. Political candidates tailor their messages to the illusive middle class, and often ignore the working poor. According to a 2019 survey by Bankrate, a personal finance website, 40 percent of Americans don’t have enough money in their savings account to cover a $1,000 emergency. “I want government incentivizing businesses that are actually going to create jobs and wealth in low-income communities,” explains Duff. “Small businesses also need easier access to low-interest loans and more grant money,” she adds. Likewise, Okaro says cities need to make bigger investments in ethical garment manufacturing. “With fashion being a foundational industry of New York City’s economy, past and present, I think that the investment needs to match that.” She imagines more money going toward skills training and more dedicated space for manufacturing, in addition to consumer education about why supporting local and ethical manufacturing matters.
More broadly, sustainable fashion needs a living-wage movement that rivals the momentum we have behind climate change. Such a movement is gaining steam. Last year, two Nashville-based sustainable clothing brands, ABLE and Nisolo, launched the Lowest Wage Challenge, calling for major fashion companies to publicly list the hourly wages of their lowest-paid garment workers (which, in most factories, is a poverty wage). These brands believe that wage transparency will help build a powerful consumer movement for garment worker justice, just as information about climate change has built a global movement to rein in the fossil fuel industry. What’s the connection between wages and sustainability? “We think that lowest wages are one of the most important pieces of information for consumers to have in order to impact the environment,” ABLE founder Barrett Ward told me last fall. Paying better wages will lead to buying less, but through economic justice instead of self-restraint.
It’s easy to forget the state of the industry, especially if you live, as I do, in a well-off city like New York, where fashion really does appear at a press of a button, with free same- day delivery to boot. But as it stands, making our clothes involves a steady flow of wealth and natural resources out of the places that need them and into the coffers and closets of already-rich nations and people. In Bangladesh, one of the world’s largest garment manufacturers, the industry causes deadly air and water pollution, degrading fisheries and agricultural land and threatening lives. In Indonesia, deforestation by the viscose rayon and palm oil industries are causing massive wildfires, displacing people and causing premature deaths due to air pollution. Meanwhile, in the US, economic development for the poor and working class stalled out decades ago, not coincidentally, when we outsourced the making of our stuff to more vulnerable populations. Recycled plastic outfits and LEED-certified textile mills won’t solve these inequities.
What’s more, food and clothing—the bedrocks of civilization—are far too cheap and, I think, too mechanized and controlled by too few players. As fashion historian Kate Sekules pointed out in an interview for my most recent book, The Conscious Closet, clothes were once the most valuable things that humans owned. Today, in the U.S., we spend a mere 3.2 percent of our income on what we wear. For many Americans, buying apparel falls somewhere between an afterthought and an addiction. If food and clothes were fairly priced, offered well-paying jobs to the greatest number of people, and were controlled democratically rather than by all-powerful companies, it could revolutionize our society. Our pace of life would slow, our communities could rebuild, consumption would taper off so that humans could strive for something other than individual fulfillment. True sustainability would feel less elusive.
That doesn’t mean there won’t be fashion. I can’t think of a single society on Earth that doesn’t express itself through clothing. Those who love fashion understand that through the power of dress, we can remake ourselves and control our own stories. Fashion can be a way to break with our past, to transcend class, and to fit into spaces where we’re told we don’t belong. The rising popularity of fashion around the world—even if it’s unsustainable in its current incarnation—portends good things for human society. In our era, we have come to think of our selfhood as a thing that can constantly morph and change. We are more culturally nimble, no longer fixed in the way things are or were. Hierarchy and traditional modes of thinking are falling away. And this stripping away of who we imagine ourselves to be will help us rethink our natural world and fashion’s place within it.
This brings us back to who sustainable fashion is for. Are we building sustainable fashion for future generations, to assuage guilt, or to prop up a system that many of us feel at odds with? I imagine most of us would accept a radically different fashion system as long as it maintained the creativity, beauty, and feeling of what von Busch calls “aliveness” and the social mobility that clothes can and do provide. “We need to invert many of these models of sustainable fashion and really think, What is the purpose of fashion? What is the pleasure of fashion? What does fashion do? And then, How do we make that possible for the populations that need it the most?” says von Busch. In short, we’re thinking about sustainability the wrong way. Our models are backward. Instead of thinking about sustainability in terms of how it should work for us, or for big business, we should think about what it can do and does for others.
MODEL Cree Barnett-Williams PHOTOGRAPHY ASSISTANT Mark Simpson STYLING ASSISTANTS Klara Pichler and Nicolas Navarro Rueda