I’m staring at a digital photo by Michelangelo Pistoletto and shake my head in near-hilarity. A concrete-moulded garden-centre Venus in front of a pile of rags. A cheapened version of classical antiquity (naturally a nude one) meets the cheap-comes-cheaply throwaway culture of our times. What the Italian artist sensed in 1967 couldn’t be truer today – if ‘true’ can be said to have a comparative. The garment pile is an image we all know, have grown accustomed, perhaps even immune, to. And while we are pointing the finger at the fashion industry and shake our heads, the pile is growing with supersonic speed and it doesn’t seem to want to halt. In 2017, the UK alone sent a staggering 235 million items to the landfill. How have we got here? Or better, when did the concern about unsustainable fashion ‘start’?
Hip, Punk and Deconstructed: Alternative Roots
There is no easy-to-identify start date, hence the quotation marks. The obvious answer is: not in 1967 – or at least not because of people like Pistoletto worrying about the negative impact of the fashion and textile industry. His was an oeuvre about juxtapositions and institutional politics (rags in a museum setting? And in front of a Venus who points her back to the viewer?), not a direct fashion commentary.
The more pertinent answer from a first-generation hippie perspective is: in 1967, or more generally from the mid-1960s onwards, when DIY fashion became en vogue, T-shirts were Rit-dyed at home into soulful creations, and being pro-environment was a thing, if not an entire movement. In contrast to the free-spirited boho style, Vivienne Westwood then planted the totally sustainable punk idea that rags can serve as garb and avant-garde labels from the Comme des Garçons crowd started repurposing and deconstructing stuff, and quite literally so. Maison Margiela, for example, came up with a waistcoat made of porcelain shards for A/W89 and remodelled a Harvard Sweatshirt into a tote bag with a sleeve shoulder strap in 1999. Two years later sustainable fashion pioneer Stella McCartney launched her eponymous label that, by now, has made vegetarian leather boots cool, and recycled fabrics and organic cotton a priority.
At each of these incision points (they’re by no means intended to be comprehensive), sustainable practices were a by-product of a rebellious fashion aesthetics. They were a marker of idiosyncrasies, a marriage between meeting needs and astute design innovation. ‘Is the tie-dye sustainable?’, was not yet a question. But then again, the Fast Fashion machinery as we understand it today was still in its infancy. We wouldn’t have needed to worry about the impact of a home-dyed hoodie in the first place. Nowadays, the dye wastewater that’s released into rivers makes fashion one of the most (some say the second most) water-polluting industries.
The Dilemma of Origins
So, once again, my question: when did the problem surrounding unsustainable fashion start?
It started in 2009 when the Copenhagen Fashion Summit was launched ‘to make sustainability a strategic priority’, as per Global Fashion Agenda CEO Eva Kruse. It started in the mid-2010s when concerns about the immense water stress of the cotton production in India were voiced. When people started worrying about micro plastic being washed out of synthetic clothing and polluting the ocean. It started in 2018 when Burberry got the red tag for burning bags, clothes and perfume worth nearly £30 million and when the industry noticed Bethany Williams. The London-based Wunderkind committed herself to a more holistically sustainable approach – think recycled slow fashion with streetwear vibes, made by an Italian drug rehabilitation community and a group of UK-based disabled people.
Fashion has repeatedly proposed, or been called upon, to do something differently sustainability-wise, and rightly so. But it’s a network. It’s an industry that is intrinsically part of various other fields such as agriculture, waste incineration and labour structures – which is the reason why it’s so difficult to pin down when unsustainable fashion started to cause a spark. And then, of course, comes 2019, and we reach a point of total confusion as to whether fashion can actually be sustainable in a holistic way (with Williams being one of notable exceptions, of course).
Fashion and the Planet in 2019
Sustainable fashion expert and Vogue journalist Tamsin Blanchard asks if 2019 is the year when fashion finally takes sustainability seriously, and there are some positive moves. Heavy hitter Farfetch teams up with eco-startup Good on You to promote sustainable brand awareness. Customers are increasingly embracing circular models such as pre-loved fashion – a promising once-niche market that is expected to grow and be worth $64 billion dollar by 2030 –, and Vestiaire Collective raises capital for its significant expansion plans.
On the flip side, other industry players are hailing the dawn of a fashion revolution without living by the example. Ganni aetheticises environmental issues in its controversial A/W19 show using National Geographic photographer Ami Vitale’s images as a backdrop. ‘Life on Earth’? Maybe a too exotic and idealised one. A too abstract one to worry about the 282 billion kg of CO2 which the polyester production exuded into the air in 2015. And the practical sustainability measures? Putting some more recycled fabrics onto the Ganni agenda, and that’s it. It’s fashion talk. We hear the buzzword ‘sustainable’ at each and every corner. It pervades our fashion lexicon and we like it. But we simply forgot what it means.
In retrospective, the real concern about sustainable fashion should have started in the 1990s when Zara’s first collection landed in New York and people started using the capital-letter term Fast Fashion. The New York Times coined it to explain Zara’s business mission: to get the garment designed and shipped to the store within 14 days. What the mission omits but inevitably implies is that the pieces are designed to land nearly as – if not equally – quickly on the landfill, Pistoletto’s artistic pile of rags or in the local charity shop. Fast Fashion and its more-than-modern incarnation Superfast Fashion (retailers like Missguided and Boohoo) are, by definition, unsustainable. To sustain literally means to hold from below. It is to offer the support and parameters for things to happen in the long run. How paradoxical is it, then, that a Fast Fashion company like H&M can actually have an alleged Conscious collection, unsold pieces of which may actually have been incinerated, at that?
For H&M and Ganni Girls, sustainability seems to have been a cool desire, for Williams a real concern. We need another incision point à la Williams, whereby sustainability becomes a core but also good-looking part of brand aesthetics, a tie-dyed sign of rebellion. ‘Don’t try to sell a brand as being sustainable or responsible – it needs to be about good design first,’ thus Christopher Raeburn, founder of yet another successful London-based eco label that puts re- and upcycling first. But the solution isn’t clicking on the buy button for heavily price-tagged eco fashion such as the £1,000 raw patchworked denim or Tesco-print joggers by Williams. So what is it?
On the side of the decision-makers, it involves putting up clear standards as to what really qualifies as sustainable and which procedures require imminent, yes imminent, restructuring. And it’s also about finally banning clothes incineration, amongst many bad practices in the industry. For the designers, it’s making sure the cost of slow fashion does not equal the unsustainable cost of speed. It’s making sure sustainable fashion does not become yet another Fast Fashion scenario, as has been the case with streetwear. (Christopher Morency has recently put streetwear’s unsustainability to the test.) And it’s about knowing how the supply chain really works and affects ‘life on earth’. As for the consumers, it’s passing by the local charity store or googling pre-owned A/W18 Chloé boots before buying new stuff. It’s caring about how we care about clothes and falling in love with the pieces more often than just before the purchase. It’s sending a message to the people who make our clothes and asking, ‘Why worry about a large pile of rags in the first place?’ In real life, I promise, the piles of rags don’t look as hilarious as Pistoletto’s.