Fashion And Sustainability: An impossible Combination?

 Pooja Gupta - image 2 680


Supported by seasonality and driven by the consumerist pattern of today society, fashion as an industry, amplifies the “symbolic articulation of lack.” (Baudrillard 1993, cited in Dant, 1999:51) People are led to hoard products only to keep in step with trends. It is as if items were bought, only to be discarded when the next big thing is launched. This pattern is closely linked to increased environmental concerns worldwide.

Beginning in the early 1990’s, globalization has spread like wild fire. Outsourcing of labor helped reduce manufacturing costs and in turn increase consumption and production. Major labels started to produce more than two collections a year. The growing middle class of consumers embraced those changes, creating havoc for the environment. Increased consumption led to shortened product lifespans, and shorter lifespans to fuller landfills.

Pooja Gupta - image 3 300The issue of sustainability is now championed by the who’s who of the industry. Slow fashion, a term coined by Kate Fletcher (Centre for Sustainable Fashion, UK, 2007) lies at the core of a movement dedicated to righteous ways of being fashionable. Slow fashion encompasses all initiatives taken towards using bio-degradable raw materials, recycled garments, buying from fair-trade organization and promoting slow consumption. Companies like Mud Jeans which are built on strong, alternative, circular economic patterns, allow leasing of jeans which can be returned to be recycled. HonestBy, which claims to be the first 100% transparent fashion company listing every small manufacturing detail for the customer to be aware of, is another example. Such explicit business models make a huge step towards ethical fashion.

Consider the bigger players in the market. H&M outsources 60% of its production to Asia and a loyal Zara customer knows that collections are replaced every four weeks. United Colors Of Benetton enlists initiatives like detox commitment, eco innovation, liquid wood hangers and recyclable packaging to address environmental concerns but also produces capsule collections and develop marketing strategies designed to accelerate sales. It is a challenge to recognize a mere ‘green-wash’ from a genuine attempt towards sustainability.

A sustainable fashion should not only have ecological concerns but also address aspects of material culture and consider “how understandings of human meaning affect design and how design can better incorporate issues of personal meaning” (Walker, 2011:back-cover). Is the fashion industry standing at the brink of a structural crisis? Do we really need an industry based on seasonal trends? And what will happen to the current “big thing” once the next season come along? It will be thrown out of our wardrobes. But how will it be thrown out of our planet?

In a consumer culture which thrives on product obsolescence and replacement with the next “IN thing”, it seems “the creation of new products is part of the problem rather than the solution” (Walker, 2011:43).

Pooja Gupta - image 1 300Fashion needs to turn towards theories which value material culture and people’s relationship with it in order to cultivate sustainable attitudes. Is it possible to imagine fashion weeks imparting lasting values towards clothing as material? Could we change radically our thinking patterns and suggest designer collections should be about promoting basic and classic clothing, which transcends seasonal collapse and encourages product longevity.

However revolutionary or anti-fashion that this might sound, the attitude towards product endurance can only be nurtured when consumers are not given the choice of having seasonal trends and fast fashion. From an economic point of view this means slowing down of the industry and stopping the forecast of short-lived trends. As of now, fashion looks like an industry thriving on the economic model of planned obsolescence (Lebow, 2011). A CNN article quotes crop tops, acid wash denims and wedge sneakers as some of the biggest fashion fads of 2013. My concern extends to the after-life of these fads, what happens to them once consumers have invested in them?

Instead I propose for fashion to develop products which “draw on a heritage of human values and understandings of meaning to take design beyond the often superficial and damaging characteristics it has developed over past decades; characteristics that successfully stimulate consumerism but with insufficient regard for consequences” (Walker, 2011:4). The joy of wearing your grandmother’s classic coat should not be overridden by the latest fashion fad.

Fashion deeply embedded in society must “recognize the ethical dilemmas of the profession”. We have to address sustainability “in our attitudes, thoughts and actions as individuals; in our being rather than our having.”

This article was written and submitted by Pooja Gupta for Round 1 of Modeconnect’s International Fashion Writing Competition. Pooja was invited to take part in Round 2. Read all the published submissions.


Dant, Tim. (1999) Material Culture in The Social World: Values Activities, Lifestyles. Buckingham and Philadelphia: Open University Press

Walker, Stuart. (2011) The Spirit Of Design. London, Washington DC: Earthscan

Victor Lebow, 20th century economist writing on consumer capitalism (2012)