Gone are the days when sustainable fashion meant hemp shirts and ropey shoes. As designer Stella McCartney has shown, fashion can still be luxurious, beautiful and desirable, without wrecking the environment or exploiting workers. Witness her platform shoes with sustainable wood heels or her fur-free coats – albeit not at high-street prices. “Every industry has to be pushed; the fashion industry is no different,” she said in the documentary on the clothing business The True Cost.
Since the collapse of the Bangladeshi factory Rana Plaza in 2013, which killed more than 1,000 workers and injured about 2,500, some consumers are beginning to reject “sweatshop” fashion, and a shift towards more ethical practice is ultimately inevitable, commentators believe – though slow to arrive. “When a designer makes a decision in New York, in a matter of hours that affects people in Bangladesh,” says Sue Thomas, associate professor in fashion at Heriot‑Watt University in Scotland.
Sustainability and ethics lend themselves to postgraduate-level education, says Kate Fletcher, author and professor of sustainability, design and fashion at the London College of Fashion (LCF). “But it’s complex stuff – non-linear – and not happening yet in great numbers.” Despite environmental innovations, we’re still consuming clothes faster and wiping out any gains, she says. “But I don’t think any job in the future will exist without some element of sustainability.”
She teaches at the Centre for Sustainable Fashion, where postgraduates can study for a master’s in fashion futures. This was set up by Prof Dilys Williams within LCF in 2008 in response to the need to raise the profile of ethical fashion and bring the industry on board. As a designer herself, Williams wasn’t trained in ethics, environment or the politics and social impact of fashion, but she wants the next generation to be more savvy. “I wanted to create a master’s course in which these vital elements were addressed.”
Her postgraduates, says Williams, are welcomed by some within the industry. Some fashion houses even create new roles to accommodate them, she says: her students work at Alexander McQueen and Levi’s, while others are social entrepreneurs – one has set up the east London collective Here Today Here Tomorrow, and another established an eco village in Brazil.
It was an escalating need for trained professionals that led Heriot-Watt University to launch a new MSc in ethics in fashion – a course hailed by Simone Cipriani, head of the UN-supported Ethical Fashion Initiative, as “exactly what was missing in fashion education”. Today, he says, all major players in the fashion industry accept the need for ethical practice. Students on the course consider thorny issues such as consequences of unethical practice, and the role of the consumer in fashion ethics, and supply chain issues. On the MA in fashion at Goldsmiths, University of London, students look at the social, cultural and environmental impact of fashion, and alternative practices.
Within the industry, there’s proof that taking into account the impact on the planet can benefit a business, sometimes with contrary results. When clothing company Patagonia ran its “don’t buy this jacket” campaign, to encourage consumers to consider the environmental costs of manufacturing it, sales of the item rose. But fashion graduates have founded new upcycling businesses, luxury brands have embraced ethical fashion, while new brand Tom Cridland promises its shirts will last 30 years. But all this takes place in the glare of the high street and online, where t-shirts cost a fiver, and turnover is relentless. As everyone agrees, there’s still much more to be done.
“There’s a squeeze from all sides,” says Williams. “But universities must be about transforming ourselves and the world. We have a moral obligation and an incredible opportunity – a space where ideas can be explored and tested, and experiments undertaken without the constraints of an existing business.”
The future of fashion
Fiona Fung worked in New York in pattern cutting and went on to study fashion design at Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts London (UAL). She graduated this year with an MA in fashion futures at the London College of Fashion, UAL.
“Everything you see in the news points to the way the fashion industry is changing. It’s so fast and often purely based on aesthetics: designers need to turn out four or more collections a year, with 30-50 ‘looks’; people consume too much and there’s never time to reflect on the materials or methods we use.
“This course taught me how to use imagination intelligently in design, while considering the environment. I chose it because I wanted the opportunity to explore new design research and the ethical implications. It made me look more at the design cycle – what about the afterlife of a garment?
“My final project looked at algae and how we could use this as a resource rather than petroleum-based products. Algae as a resource has many advantages – it “cleans” nitrogen and phosphorous in water, it removes CO2, it doesn’t use up arable land and it doesn’t overconsume resources in the way that other bioplastics or cotton do.
“There’s no doubt there are major challenges to introducing sustainability; the fashion industry has been the way it is for so long. Companies might not be interested in investing money and time into an area with no obvious commercial interest. It’s down to us to show people there are possibilities and then we can change mindsets – there’s a human side to the problem. As an industry, we have new challenges that require innovation.
“Design has an important role to play. Before the pace of fashion sped up, designers took time to consider and develop ideas before taking the product to market. We need to return to that, but it’s a topic some parts of the fashion industry are still keen to brush under the carpet.
“I do think it’s starting to change. We are in a sort of limbo at present: we are aware of the issues, but we don’t really know how to tackle the problems, as they’re so deep and complex.
“Ultimately, I’d like a role which allows me to look at design through an operational and material perspective, at how a can company improve the design process and how it can change operationally. I’m interested in the next steps for fashion.”
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010