Sustainability : Being Fashionably Fashionable

If we think about human survival on the planet, then water, food, clothing and housing, are some of the basics humans tend to need to get through day. Of course there are whole lot of other things like transport, communications, ideas, social groups and love, that help us get around even better once the basics are catered for.
But I’ve been stepping back to consider what the world would look like if the industries around each of the basic needs were sustainable. Some of the Sustainable Business Network’s most inspiring members are making and distributing homegrown organic foods, and I know the building industry has 500-year project to build the perfect zero-energy civilisation, but this month I’ve been thinking about our clothes.
I love clothes, and I love fashion. I’ve been to the catwalk shows of SBN members like Miranda Brown, and enjoy the high glamour and the dramatic spectacle of all those air kisses. But what does sustainable fashion industry look like? I mean isn’t the term ‘fashion’ antithetical to any sense of long-term resource use?
Even as I love the new garments I hate the idea that even the best designers dispose of clothes as ‘last season’s’… The catwalks are so high turnaround! One moment puff skirts are chic, the next they’re regarded as tragic… The idea that they might either re-use or recycle is an anathema to the darlings of the catwalks. This means real waste of fabrics, garments and ideas.
The issue with cheap clothing is also of major concern. In search of pyjamas for my children I went to major bulk-clothing outlet and discovered I could buy two pairs for $13. When I see this kind of pricing I know that someone, probably the offshore machinists, and the land where the cotton is grown, is being diddled.
In New Zealand I was recently heartened by small group of passionate and immensely well-styled designers who got together in an event run by FINZ (Fashion Industry New Zealand). We talked about ‘traceability’ of products, that being able to trace the journey of our clothes from the land where the fabrics are grown and milled, through to design concept, manufacturing and into the customer’s wardrobe, then some being recycled onto the next loving owner is the way forward. It’s big ask, especially when our manufacturing sector is under such stress from the cheap labour model offshore.
Laurie Foon of Starfish is one of our most passionate advocates for more sustainable industry. She’s not fan of fast fashion. She loves it when she sees dress she designed years ago out in the street. Great design should last long time, and to prove it, one of her best sellers, the Hot Cross Cammie, has been available for 14 years. Now Laurie is really keen to know the answers to big questions from her fabric suppliers: Where was this cotton/linen/silk grown? Who grew it? Who cut it? Who milled it? How old were they and how much were they paid?
She has warning for any supplier who comes to her without having even thought of tracing the source of their wares: don’t bother. She’s hot under the collar about the fact that the fashion industry in Europe and the US has increasing access to new, sustainably grown fabrics. But again, the tyranny of distance has vastly disadvantaged New Zealand.
What’s exciting about fashion is that change is constant. And Laurie gives me hope when she says that all the rules are going to change. United Kingdom fashion doyenne Stella McCartney has just said that she’s reusing fabrics in her workroom, which apparently would have been unheard of six months ago. London Fashion Week now has regular show called Estethica, focused on sustainable fashion, where labels such as Monsoon, Katharine Hamnett, and shoe manufacturers Terra Plana and Veja can strut their eco-conscious designs. In the traceability vein, there’s label called ‘From Somewhere’ which makes some gorgeous frocks from fabrics left over by manufacturers.
So where to for New Zealand fashion? The storyboard hasn’t been written yet. It makes more sense to be producing locally, but clearly the local manufacturing sector is in dire straights. new logo ‘100% New Zealand Design and Manufacture’ launched in August will go some way to informing consumers about the origins of their clothing.
Consumer education and universal basic wage would help this, but that’s another column.

Rachel Brown is CEO of the Sustainable Business Network. For more information go to or email [email protected]

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