Sustainable fashion – it’s a buzzword that has gained prominence in recent years, but why is it important for us to pay attention to this new way of operating in an industry that has become increasingly damaging?
In her role as Head of Fashion at the Australian College of the Arts (Collarts), Dr Rachel Matthews is faced with this question on a daily basis.
She believes sustainability in fashion is an important shift as people look for ways to continue enjoying fashion while moving away from having a devastating impact on the environment.
“There’s an increasing awareness amongst everybody, including very passionate fashion consumers, of the negative impacts the fashion industry has had, due to over production and over consumption,” Dr Matthews said.
“Sustainability in fashion is becoming the way forward for people who still want to engage with fashion but don’t want to cause more problems for the planet.”
Dr Matthews defines sustainability in fashion as creating clothing that “has purposefully avoided either depleting or damaging natural resources in its production”.
"Sustainability in fashion is becoming the way forward for people who still want to engage with fashion." - Dr Rachel Matthews.
While there are some issues around green washing and a lack of clarity around terms like eco-fashion, as well as distinguishing the difference between ethical and sustainable fashion, Dr Matthews believes there’s an important role for education to play in helping consumers better understand what they are buying.
Some of the shifts we have seen with fashion brands becoming more sustainable include take-back schemes, where customers can return old garments that can be recycled or reused instead of ending up in landfill.
Fashion rental businesses that allow consumers to borrow clothing for a fee are also growing in popularity because they give people the ability to enjoy fashion while embracing the ‘sharing economy’ model.
Dr Matthews said there is also a growing role for the personal stylist who can help a consumer to find new looks from an existing wardrobe or to identify that they only need to buy one new piece to create four or five new looks that complement their existing wardrobe.
“There are a number of fashion stylists that see this as a way forward rather than going on huge shopping trips with their clients,” Dr Matthews said.
Even though we’ve already seen a positive shift towards more sustainable fashion, Dr Matthews admits there is a still a long way to go.
One of the biggest challenges fashion brands face is sourcing sustainable fabrics, she said.
“It’s possible on a smaller, slower scale but once you start to talk about mainstream fashion and quantities and scaling up… they [companies] are the ones that really need to change, and they are going to be slow to change.
“I’m not dismissing that any step towards a more sustainable future is great, but… the way that mass-produced fashion is practiced, or the operations of mass-produced fashion, are way off.”
The power of the fashion consumer
Fashion brands are now recognising the need to demonstrate more transparency around their supply chain as a response to consumer demand for more sustainable options.
“Consumers are demanding it, and eventually I think the law will come in where they’ll have to be more transparent around who and where and how these products are being made,” Dr Matthews said.
This consumer demand is powerful, said Dr Matthews, and shouldn’t be underestimated in driving real change.
“The consumer needs to recognise that they’ve got quite a lot of power in this space. They’ve got power to shift the dial – if they ask the questions, if they push back and demand – and brands are responding.”
Dr Matthews encourages fashion consumers to do more research into the products they buy, akin to doing a price comparison before making a purchase.
She recommends using independent resources, such as the app Good On You, to quickly check a brand’s sustainability rating.
“Being more conscious and thoughtful, and not as impulsive about purchases, is the way to go. Think about your clothing purchases as an investment,” Dr Matthews said.
“I don’t want to be too damning on fashion brands that have made a start. Brands can’t turn it around overnight. But the more pressure consumers can keep up, the better, because that’ll make it much more compelling for those brands to get on with it.”
Looking to a sustainable future in fashion
There’s a huge role for educators to play when it comes to teaching the next generation about sustainable fashion.
Historically, fashion education has largely focused on how the product is made, but nowadays educators like Dr Matthews are also ensuring that students understand how the retail and business models support a sustainable fashion future.
“We’re not going to change the industry without changing how consumers behave, or how workers are paid, or how the business models around growth and profit are understood. That is something that is a core stream in the courses that we’ve got [at Collarts], to ensure students understand that creative and commercial side,” she said.
Dr Matthews said fashion design has also historically focused on simply thinking about styles, silhouettes, details and next season’s trends. At Collarts, fashion design is now taught as a problem-solving activity.
“There’s a shift in the way we understand fashion design and I think that’s a really important thing to emphasise. We are asking questions like: how can we design out some of the problems that exist in the fashion industry? How can we use this creative process of design to think about how this product could be more readily recycled? How could this product’s life be extended?”
Dr Matthews said the move towards a more sustainable future in fashion reflects the “generational shift” in people who want to work in the fashion industry.
“There is the real growing sense among fashion-savvy, young people that want to be able to have a future in fashion, but they don’t want it if it’s going to be doing bad things.”
Despite the negative media coverage and doom and gloom outlook, Dr Matthews is optimistic about the future of fashion.
“I’m heartened by the passion of our younger generation to make change, and I’m heartened by a certain sector of fashion-consuming public who are adopting different ways of still having a fashionable lifestyle but seeking out alternatives,” she said.
“I think fashion brings a lot of joy to people’s lives. There’s a lot of pleasure in putting together an outfit … and we don’t need to give up on fashion. Let’s continue to enjoy it, let’s just be more thoughtful and responsible about how we do it.”