Conversations to Redress a Fashion Disaster, part 2

Sandra Niessen, 4 October 2019

Here at the Van Eyck Academy in Maastricht, all roads are pointing to 4 November when the Collective will host its day-long event, Conversations to Redress a Fashion Disaster. My first task, as a resident of the Academy, is to situate the ideas of the RCDF in the discourse on fashion and climate urgency. We need to be clear about the link between decoloniality, fashion and climate change. Within the present, dominant discourse, this link is not obvious.

I looked up frameworks constructed by some prominent organizations to address fashion’s impact on climate change.  The ‘Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action’, a UN initiative to facilitate the fashion industry meeting the targets of the Paris Agreement, not surprisingly placed the emphasis on:

  • low-carbon solutions and eliminating coal,
  • reducing climate emissions from operations
  • more efficient resource use 

A different framework was constructed by Fashion for Good. This initiative was co-founded by William McDonough, famous for having conceived (together with Michael Braungart) the notion of ‘cradle-to-cradle‘, the core concept of the circular economy. He advocates “… an aspirational framework we can all use to work towards a world in which we do not simply take, make, waste, but rather take, make, renew, restore.” This framework involves five ‘goods’:

  • Good Materials – safe, healthy and designed for reuse and recycling
  • Good Economy – growing, circular, shared and benefiting everyone
  • Good Energy – renewable and clean
  • Good Water – clean and available to all
  • Good Lives – living and working conditions that are just, safe and dignified

Other activist fashion groups echo the two examples that I have presented here; the discourse appears to have gelled around a focus on materials, energy use and labour ethics.  A familiar image of centre and periphery emerges. The centre is ‘the fashion industry’; the periphery feeds it by supplying the raw materials and labour during production operations. The goal appears to be business as usual, radical only in encouraging more skilful treatment of material and ethical treatment of labour.

Once again, the people and their culture are left out. Naomi Klein, in a recent talk about climate, disparaged goals and strategies that were to enable “change without having to change at all”,  or “… a fix that is going to leave the status quo pretty much unchanged”. “Now, as these so-called solutions are advanced …. the people … seem to disappear …. This chronic forgetfulness about ‘inconvenient other people’ is the thread that unites so many fateful climate policies of recent years.” (12.54)

Her talk was about climate mitigation technologies but her insight applies to fashion mitigation strategies. In the entire history of fashion studies, fashion theorists have rigorously and consistently denied that ‘other’ people have their own fashion systems. It is logical and consistent, therefore, that in this time of deep climate crisis, the clothing systems of the labourers producing the Western fashions continue to be denied or forgotten.  Similarly the clothing systems of tribal peoples whose lands, forests and cultural systems are being destroyed by the rapacious use of raw materials are never mentioned. Why would there be attention, in a time of crisis, for something the existence of which has never yet been acknowledged by the industry? With sales estimated at $1.34 trillion in 2018, what is in their interest is overwhelmingly dominant.

Some organizations set up to ameliorate the ‘fashion problem,’ have gone a little further in their focus. Fashion Revolution, for example, acknowledges culture in point 4 of its Manifesto: “Fashion respects culture and heritage. It fosters, celebrates and rewards skills and craftsmanship. It recognises creativity as its strongest asset. Fashion never appropriates without giving due credit or steals without permission. Fashion honours the artisan.”

While there is mention here of culture, heritage and appropriation, the focus is nevertheless still the needs of the Western fashion system. Point 4 fails to go so far as to consider the existence of, let alone support for, alternative clothing/fashion systems and the very few remaining tribes which are not yet caught up in the globalized system.

This is the narcissistic discourse that the RCDF is trying to disrupt by shifting the floodlight to the periphery. The frameworks mentioned above are important for making the link between fashion and the environment, but there are still unaddressed disconnects relative to culture and the Other. This morning, I was inspired to write a ludic list of Do’s and Don’ts to bring attention to these disconnects in even the most sincere attempts to redress the deleterious effects of ‘the fashion system’.

Do’s and Don’ts (for Greenwashing your Clothing Purchases)

  • Do buy clothing that is made responsibly by workers who receive a fair wage, work no more than 48 hours a week, are not children, have negotiating rights, and are allowed to form a union. Don’t enquire further about what has compelled them to take up a factory job — whether they are migrants, widows, or forced off their land, whether they have small children at home, or are forced to bring them to the factory.
  • Don’t even think that they may be, or once were designers in their own right and have their own clothing system that they would rather be attending to if market forces were less oriented to the centre. Do tow the line and convince yourself that a job in ‘the’ fashion industry is a boon because ‘at least they have an income’.
  • Do buy clothing that involves low transportation costs because emissions from transportation, both by sea and air, are contributing alarmingly and increasingly to global warming.
  • Don’t even think about buying local. The price will be too high. Don’t think about local craft systems that are unsupported and disappearing because labour ‘is so much cheaper’ off-shore. Don’t think about alternative clothing systems that may be disappearing on this planet so that production for ‘the Western fashion system’ may thrive.
  • Do try to purchase clothing with pure and natural fibres as this will reduce the use of fibres made from hydrocarbons and facilitate recycling.
  • Don’t ask yourself who is growing the cotton/linen/hemp/silk/wool, where it is coming from and how its production fits into and influences their lives. Does it enhance or is it deleterious? In the first place you will have a hard time finding the answers; in the second place, it may take your focus away from “the look” and your humanity might mean that you reject a beautiful item of clothing just because you care about the well-being of other people.
  • Don’t bother your head about ecosystems that might have been transformed or destroyed to fit into the ‘supply chain’ of Western fashion.
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