Sustainability in Fashion: Is anything actually changing?

For this week's BRICKS Voices, we hear from sustainable womenswear designer Joshua James Small on this thoughts after London Fashion Week AW20.

As one month passes since the latest round of international fashion weeks drew to a close, BRICKS contributor Joshua James Small considers where the industry is in regards to sustainability.

This February was the first full season showcased at the beginning of this new decade of ‘woke’ consumerism and to be seen as a conscious counterpart has never been so desirable. Last year, according to Lyst’s Year in Fashion 2019 Report, searches of the term sustainability were at an average of 27,000 each month (up 75% year on year) but does that actually mean any integral change is happening?

Starting with basics; circular fashion. Not a new idea, and a system most high-end luxury brands run on, however, if it takes further enactment from the luxury sector, for the mass consumer to change, then so be it. For those not in the know, a circular fashion industry is defined as a regenerative system whereby garments are worn and re-worn for as long as their maximum value is retained.

We all know that the main polluters when it comes to fashion, are your high street chains, with shops such as Zara pumping out clothing on a two-week dissemination cycle, at a cost to the consumer that’s equivalent to your lunch order at Pret. This indicates that shifting the mindset of the average shopper is key to positive change. Re-wearing your favourite pair of jeans is not going to save the planet, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a step in the right direction. Take a look at Viv, she’s been banging on about ‘Buy less, choose well, make it last’ for years, and it seems that only now, as it’s become more admirable to be seen as sustainably aware, do people want to listen.

We might not all have access to a McQueen archive, like the attendees of this year’s BAFTAs, who re-wore luxury in a bid to make sustainable sartorial choices, but the idea behind all of this was to influence change from the top down. If we at the top tier of this industry can influence the behaviour of your average individual, in order to counter-balance this Lizzie McGuire notion of ‘outfit repeating’ as a crime against fashion, then is this not a shift in the right direction. Frankly extending the life of your wardrobe is neither radical or headline-worthy, but that doesn’t mean there’s no validity in doing so. 

Re-wearing your favourite pair of jeans is not going to save the planet, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a step in the right direction.

Joshua James Small

Now focusing on London, it’s evident that everyone does sustainability differently, which is both a blessing and a curse. Looking at the British Fashion Council’s Positive Fashion Exhibition, each and every designer is approaching sustainability from a different angle. From the perspective of the insider, this is fantastic, because it emphasises the drive for systemic change, and highlights the range of possible ways of making a considered output. From the outsider (and by outsider I’m referring to those with limited understanding, be that your buyers and consumers etc.) it can translate as a confusing intersect within the industry, whereby there’s no overarching clarification regarding the legitimacy and impact of said proposed methods of approach.

Ultimately to showcase under the BFC, each designer would have had to have deemed as pushing sustainable practice in some form. Moving forward, however, a BFC approved manifesto of sustainable practice could be a more streamlined way of translating the diverse work of the designers to a less-informed individual. But this isn’t to say that collated miscellaneous practice doesn’t work in its current state. Take for instance Orsola De Castro’s Fashion Revolution, or Phoebe English’s Fashion on Earth Conversation; these are prime examples of collections of creatives from all sects of the industry, pushing the conversation through inter-collaboratory discussion and exchange of diverse information.

What we have to remember is that concise and clear communication of industry initiatives is imperative, because confusion lies in miscommunication. You only needed to hear the Rt. Hon Oliver Dowden MP’s speech at 10 Downing Street’s reception for Fashion and Sustainability, to realise that the government doesn’t quite understand the shifting industry focus. With an emphasis on profit over planet, and closing his speech by wishing everyone a ‘safe flight’, it’s clear that a refined agenda is needed. Even if many attending were to leave and catch a flight to Milan, the sentiment seemed ill-placed a room full of individuals all too aware that the aviation industry contributes to over 2% of global carbon emissions. This aside though, London did showcase with a conscious focus, with more on schedule designers listed as producing Positive Fashion than any season previous.  

Positive Fashion Exhibition at London Fashion Week AW20

Taking a brief look at Milan, it’s worth noting that amidst a viral outbreak, considered choices don’t seem to be at the forefront of everyone’s minds. That said however, it’s worth looking at the way in which Bottega Veneta approached the wasteful nature of show sets for their AW2020 show, with Daniel Lee stating he wanted ‘a set that was recyclable and that didn’t leave a physical trace’.

As wonderful as that sounds, a blank canvas for a set and a projection on a wall, is something we’ve all seen time and time again from brands on a tight budget. What he discusses though in relation to one-use sets and props, is entirely relevant to the conversation surrounding the environmental impact of seasonal showcases. This doesn’t mean that all brands from now onwards need to adhere to a low budget normcore show aesthetic, but it means that designers must consider alternatives to the traditional show environment.

A prime example of this would be to look at the inclusion of VR headsets at designer Gerrit Jacob’s CSM graduate show, whereby an environment was created digitally, enhancing the show, but leaving no physical trace. The technology is there for designers to use modern alternatives such as VR, augmented reality and such-like, to enhance their shows, but it’s simply a case of who is willing to adopt this uncharted way of working a traditional show.

Overall, one thing we must remember is that no one producing clothing can ever be fully sustainable, because in a world where there is more than enough for the 7 billion inhabitants, there isn’t a necessity for new. That doesn’t mean that we can’t work responsibly though, in order to continue our craft. Admittedly as sustainable product becomes more economically valuable to a consumerist society, it will become more difficult to sift between those pushing for real progress and prime cases of greenwashing, however that’s not to say that positive change isn’t happening. At the end of the day, is it not better that we have an imperfect mass driving a more conscious industry, as opposed to the few doing it perfectly?

Follow Joshua James Small on Instagram here, read more on sustainability here.