Can fashion be sustainable?

I started this label as I wanted to make beautiful clothes that were sustainable, because I love fashion but feel passionate about not succumbing to the “fast fashion” fix. I included a “Buy back” scheme to buy back and resell my own produced garments to promote circularity and longevity. But can fashion ever be truly sustainable? What is the role of utilising deadstock fabric in sustainability? And how can we think differently about our clothing choices?

As part of wanting to understand this better myself I am starting a new blog series where I pose these questions to sustainability experts from a diverse range of backgrounds and share their responses, hoping this will help me (and you) in our journey to make better, more sustainable choices.

The first person I have approached is Mike Barry, a leading sustainability consultant. He is considered a top 5 business leader in the topic globally and is currently working with 20 of the UKs biggest retailers to help them achieve a net zero CO2 ambition ahead of the UK deadline.  He’s known for helping M&S transform to a zero carbon business across its stores through his ‘plan A’ programme and has won numerous awards for his work over the last 20 years.

These are Mike’s answers to my questions:

1. Can fashion ever be sustainable? 

 I’ll answer the question in terms of what we need (clothing) and what we desire (fashion). The world’s 7.6 billion people clearly need clothing and yes this can be made sustainably from fibre to dye-house, factory to shop/website, through use to return and reuse/recycle. It’s a huge undertaking but we have most of the solutions we need, what we need is to scale them, fast. Now when we look through the lens of ‘fashion’ things get more complex. Fashion has redefined the basics of clothing the population functionally to one where we desire to look our best, to try new looks, to explore, to create, to better others. It’s emotional, it’s about desire and it’s fuelled much of growth in consumption of clothing from 80 billion garments per annum globally in 2000 to 130 billion in 2019 and a projected 200 billion in 2030 (at the pre-covid run rate). Fashion in and of itself is not a bad thing, it has brought delight and expression to hundreds of millions of people, but it has also fuelled the rise of fast, throwaway culture, #OOTD. Cheap clothing produced in appalling conditions, worn once and binned. As much as we need to face into the need to scale technical solutions to sustainable clothing we also need to face into the emotional and culturally impact of fashion. Now there is no clear point where ‘good’ clothing becomes ‘bad’ fashion but we need to frame the debate about both better technical solutions to producing clothing and a new mindset and relationship with fashion. And remember, I’m not saying ‘clothing’ cannot be beautiful and desirable but rather we need to challenge our fast fashion fixation.

2. How do you see the role of deadstock fabric in tackling the the planet’s climate and waste crisis? 

Deadstock is a crucial part of the sustainable clothing ‘jigsaw puzzle’. Clothing manufacture and retailing is very inefficient. The rise of artificial intelligence, big data and machine learning is providing the tools for us to predict and produce exactly what we need and can sell, better for planet and profit alike. But in the meantime finding outlets to reuse fibre, fabric and clothing that’s being wasted, damaged or unsold is crucial to our efforts to build a sustainable clothing system. Covid will leave billions of items unsold even after radical price cuts or holding stock into 2021 for sale. Finding not just functional ways (turning it into insulation) will be important but so much better if we can turn it into beautiful long lasting clothing.

3. What one piece of advice would you give a man or woman on the street when shopping for clothes? 

Think about what and why you buy. Buy quality that lasts. Buy beauty that’s timeless. Buy garments that give your wardrobe flexibility. Care for what you buy. Share it, re-sell it, donate it when you feel you’ve exhausted its use in your life.

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