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Fashion industry

NZFW conversations. Sustainability is the most urgent issue facing fashion

Photography by Tracey Creed
Words by Tracey Creed

Published October 1 2019

Understanding what sustainable fashion means is complex. It's more of an umbrella term that's much too complicated to define succinctly. However, people are beginning to understand there is an issue — that although highly profitable, cheap, exploitative fast fashion raises a plethora of ethical and environmental issues. It is not possible to buy a tee shirt for ten dollars. People need to understand that there are problems with the way that tee shirt has been made. We need to accept there are problems with how that t-shirt was made.

Fashion Revolution Week held annually in remembrance of the 2013 Rana Plaza factory collapse, has been an important global campaign pushing for greater respect and accountability. As is that of Clare Press, author of 'Wardrobe Crisis, How We Went From Sunday Best to Fast Fashion' and 'Rise and Resist, How to Change the World' and Vogue Australia's sustainability editor, utilising education and grassroots activism as tools to create cultural change. And as such ethical conduct and environmental impact have begun to matter more in fashion.

What is sustainable fashion?

Acknowledging that the term ‘sustainable fashion’ is subjective and influenced by one’s values is fundamental in approaching re-education, encouraging people to engage in more considered purchasing behaviour. On Saturday, August 31st, Amandine and I attended, 'Sustainability Conversation: Can Fashion Save the World?' presented by New Zealand Fashion Week in partnership with Showroom 22, which brought together Maggie Hewitt, founder Maggie Marilyn, Marilou Dadat, Head Designer, Kowtow, Kiri Nathan, co-founder and designer at Kiri Nathan and Peri Drysdale MBE, founder and CEO of Snowy Peak and Untouched World. Conversations focused on topics exploring the role of design in sustainability and discussed the responsibility of engaging and educating people on confronting issues such as labour and resource exploitation within the industry. The industry and those who engage with it are beginning to realise systemic change is required to transform the industry.

Inevitably, sustainability is about everything. It’s not just about the materials, the design process or the manufacturing process, or any other part of the supply chain — it’s a philosophy. And it’s on the agenda of the designers. ‘Sustainable fashion is about how you treat people and the environment. We start with the raw material, which is organic and biodegradable, the way it is made — ethically. ‘Organic because it does not pollute the planet or the people who grow it.’ says Dadat. In the words of Hewitt, ‘To create the best product with the least impact. It is giving back to the planet what you are taking away. We need a regenerative system.’ This statement resonates strongly with a general consensus that the system right now is utterly broken, designed around the exploitation of both labour and resources.

It would seem fairly impossible that fast fashion businesses could drive positive change in the garment industry without radically transforming their business models. Bryanboy, acutely aware of such issues stated in a tweet, ‘There’s nothing sustainable about creating something new en masse. Just stop. Please. You wanna know what’s sustainable? Wearing your old damn clothes, that’s what. Bye.’ We also need to create a circular infrastructure that considers product lifecycle — extending the lifecycle of product through repair and resale. So yes, wearing your old damn clothes. Or someone else’s.

Transforming today’s linear system to a circular economy is the key challenge

Many people don’t understand that you can’t throw garments away. They don’t get recycled — 73 per cent of garments are landfilled or burned, and less than 1% is recycled. At the same time, production has doubled in the last 15 years, and that clothing is being worn less. In Aotearoa, we import over 380,000 tonnes of textile products, and half of that ends up landfilled. Scion’s recent data confirmed that our clothing is a major source of microplastic pollution, in that 87% of the microplastics polluting Tāmaki Makaurau waterways came from synthetic textiles.

For Hewitt, ‘There are enough garments in the system already. Circularity is the goal.’ In a circular system, materials and garments are designed for longevity and with end-of-use in mind. They are repaired throughout ownership and then repurposed to prevent waste and reduce inputs. Hewitt explained how circularity would inform her future collections, with 50 per cent of garments manufactured from recyclable materials — 20 per cent utilising fibres repurposed from within the system and 30 per cent recycled consumer waste or recycled fabrics by 2020. Fast, disposable fashion has already produced so much waste and unhealthy fibres that are challenging to recycle. ‘With synthetic materials, you are putting something into the world that will never degrade’, states Dadat. However, sourcing recyclable fibre requires innovative collection and recycling and re-use technologies and industry and government policy support if we are to create closed-loop products.

We all engage with the fashion industry and, as such, must take responsibility

This false economy we have created, perpetuated by Instagram 'influencer commerce' media and industry where we feel richer for being able to own more, is a vicious consumerist model. Once you have conditioned people to expect clothing to cost so little, re-education is particularly challenging. What's required is a new narrative around consumption. 'We need better materials and garments that last longer, but we also need to buy less. That instead of buying five tee shirts, instead buy one,' states Dadat.

What's required is a more considered approach, so we're not filling a void with consumerist purchases. Hewitt advocates for 'Buying things you love'. This approach also provides us with an opportunity to make the important distinction between materialism, the love of things and consumerism, the love of purchasing things. 'And challenge the brands you love and buy from,' adds Hewitt. Dadat stresses, 'It is our responsibility as a brand to educate, to share knowledge and offer desirable fashion. The more education we can give them to demand change, the faster the industry will change.'

Taking the time to identify what you care about inevitably leads to improving your impact

‘Prepare a list of questions, such as who made this, what is the material and so on’ adds Dadat. Ask more questions and demand credible answers. And spend enough time to research directories such as good on you, which lists thousands of brands, can make this task easier. That said, sustainable fashion doesn’t necessarily mean buying from niche brands, either. It is also about keeping your clothes for as long as possible, buying secondhand, renting, and clothing swaps — all viable options. Re-examining how we think about seasonality and trends is also vital in confronting the issue. Purchasing in consideration of how that garment will complement your personal uniform offers a non-consumerist alternative to fast fashion. “We are all selling clothes, but we want to make less, make durable clothes that are kept in the wardrobe forever,’ as in the words of Dadat. Today, the short-lived usage of most products is unsustainable. And we simply cannot apply the notion of ‘make do and mend’ to products with built-in obsolescence.

Purchase garments which feature high durability and longevity; that are made sustainably and ethically — when we use resources, we should do so with care. We need to buy less and care more for our garments. And ‘Opt for natural fibres, blends cannot be recycled. That all goes to landfill,’ advises Drysdale. ‘We are not going to stop wearing clothes. We (Maggie Marilyn) want to be the better alternative,’ explains Hewitt. This also comes from understanding not everyone wants to be a minimalist. That and you cannot create change within the industry if you are not a part of it. But if we are honest, we cannot continue using valuable finite resources in order to produce poor-quality garments. Where and with what frequency we choose to spend our money has the power to push the fashion industry to produce better products. Collectively we must redefine the system.

These photographs were taken at Matt Nash in Whangārei. Inspired by 1980s workwear, utilitarian designer Matt Nash began producing uniforms in 2014. Redefining the way we look at the uniform, all pieces are custom-made in Aotearoa.

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