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Fashion is broken: where can it go from here?

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  • Circular economy
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It’s the end of London Fashion Week and 180 Strand has been abuzz with glamour. But all is not well. The fashion industry is having an existential crisis.

In 2015 Li Edelkoort, arguably the most famous trend forecaster, wrote a pamphlet entitled Anti-Fashion: Ten reasons why the fashion system is obsolete. It’s a scathing denunciation from someone who sits well within the industry elite.

It may not be obsolete, but fashion is certainly going through a confusing time: retail is suffering, except where it isn’t; consumers are demanding more ethical and sustainable production, except when they still want it cheap and fast; brands are being more responsible, except when they aren’t.

A snapshot of headlines in the Guardian’s fashion section say it all (not the world’s leading fashion mag, I know):

“Philip Green’s Topshop and Topman report £505m loss” – so, looks like the time is up for fast fashion

“Edie Campbell: Fashion has an environmental problem and I’m complicit– ah, models are now thinking about their responsibility for the impact of the industry

“Zara’s hit £40 polka-dot dress propels firm’s worldwide sales” – oh, so fast fashion isn’t on the way down after all

“Asymetric jeans: will you wear the style that is flared one side and straight the other?” – erm?

Edie Campbell is right. Fashion does have an environmental problem, and a social one. We are all complicit, and we are all confused. Businesses don’t know how to behave anymore, designers don’t know what to do and customers don’t know if they should even be customers anymore.

What is going on?

It’s not news that the way the fashion industry works causes environmental and social harm. The eighties and nineties saw the scandals of sweatshop and child labour; in the noughties the impacts on environmental health – water loss, soil degradation, pollution – from textile production were highlighted. In 2013 the Rana Plaza factory collapse was tragic evidence that the labour abuses in the industry were far from over. Indeed, critique goes back a lot further – garment manufacturing came under scrutiny from Marx and Engels, in his 1844 book ‘The Conditions of the Working Class in England’.

But for a long time, fashion has been the darling – beautiful, seductive and always one step ahead – elegantly side-stepping the challenges about its less attractive side. Fashion responded with philanthropic ventures (like Naomi Campbell’s Fashion for Relief fundraising party, held in London over the weekend), with organic cotton t-shirts and with voluntary industry commitments promising to do better. And we seemed satisfied.

But things haven’t got better; in fact, more and more issues are bubbling to the surface: what about the microfibres entering our oceans? Is fashion really going to use a quarter of the world’s carbon budget by 2050? How can this dress be so cheap if you are paying people properly?

Fashion is broken.

Old-fashioned

Sociologist Werner Sombart declared fashion to be capitalism’s favourite child, highlighting fashion’s ability to  as a commodity which loses value quickly  drive production beyond necessity. And herein lies the problem with fashion. The industry has developed on economic rules which are no longer fit for purpose. Fashion is by no means alone in this respect, but it is a prime example.

Our current fashion industry works on the premise that the materials and natural systems around us are resources to be exploited for economic gain, that increased consumption fuels those gains and that we can continue to consume resources endlessly.

We cannot. This model takes no account of the boundaries of the planet we live on, and the systemic failures this creates are increasingly evident. Small tweaks – a recycled polyester here, or a paper-not-plastic bag there  are not enough to address the inherent contradiction of driving increased consumption when we need to use less.  

What happens now?

We need new economic models which better reflect the relationship humans have with the natural world. A surprisingly simple ask you might think, but something that most economics students won’t see in their studies.

Try Kate Raworth’s recent doughnut model which builds on earlier work including Rokstrom’s Planetary Boundaries, Limits to Growth, and the circular economy models which acknowledge planetary boundaries and ask us to design systems of production, and use which allow resources to flow through and around the economy in a cyclical manner, rather than merely focusing on extraction and worrying about waste later. This thinking offers potential to significantly change the way we make and use things, including clothing.

As we look to new models, however, we must make sure that these ideas are not watered down and interpreted as yet more opportunities to tweak an existing system. If a touted ‘new’ fashion system looks very much like what we currently have, then we have got it wrong.

To ensure that this doesn’t happen we should fully explore the potential of circular economy models and continue to ask some of the questions that current thinking doesn’t fully address: how do we ensure wellbeing for people? How do we share benefits and power more equally in a new system?

This is what the RSA is doing, as we partner with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation on their Make Fashion Circular initiative to investigate the opportunities for design to help create new circular economy models in fashion; and as we further develop our thinking in this area.

To help, fashion must be radical

At its best, fashion is both art and design: it challenges and provokes; it senses changes in culture and reflects them back for us to question and make sense of, from New Look to punk to McQueen; and it solves problems, creating garments which protect us and enhance our lives.

As we face climate breakdown and the social challenges that come with it, fashion as design and as art could be a source of creativity, of innovation and of inspiration. But at present, fashion is far from the radical and problem-solving force it needs to be. 

For an industry which is supposed to be ahead of the times, fashion is looking rather tired. It’s time for a change; no more tweaks.

To find out more about how design can help change the fashion system, watch the livestream of our event 'Designing the Future of Fashion' at 6pm on Tuesday 24 September.

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