Friday 18 October 2019

sustainable fashion is so hot right now

For a long time the uptake of sustainable fashion could best be described as a slow burn. There was a constant increase in interest, but it moved at a snail's pace. Sustainable fashion designers struggled to make ends meet, with many working for the passion they felt as activists rather than for the money. And on a personal level, many people raised an eyebrow at my research and questioned whether it was really worth investigating.

Fast forward to 2019 and sustainability is trending, and it's making me worried.

Sustainability and climate change were key features at the recently-wrapped Fashion Weeks (including some fabulous disruption from Extinction Rebellion in London and New York), celebrity endorsements and labels are constantly popping up, the Duchess of Sussex wore Outland Denim and changed the face of sustainable fashion, The Iconic launched their ethical edit, 'Considered', and I feel like I'm seeing nearly as many Vejas as Stan Smiths these days.

Image via Instagram

In fact it was a Veja-spotting that inspired me to write today.

I was on the bus home from work this week, holding onto the swinging handle for dear life as the bus took a sharp turn, when I spotted a pair of Vejas on a young woman seated near me.  A quick scan and I saw she'd paired those white sneakers with some jeans, a Gucci crossbody handbag, a white Tommy Hilfiger tee and some lovely large gold hoop earrings. A few days later I saw another chic woman wearing Vejas with a long silk skirt and tee and a stunning oversized Dior tote. For all I know these designer additions were quality vintage or consignment pieces, but I'm going to make the assumption based on their pristine appearances that they were not.

I've read plenty of articles - scholarly and mass media - talking about sustainable fashion being a status symbol. And there is a lot of weight to the argument that sustainable fashion is primarily available for the upper middle class. These young women personified these criticisms in a way I hadn't yet seen in person.

I don't mean to point fingers at these ladies and blame them for the state of fashion today. However, seeing these bright young things wearing some of the world's most sustainable sneakers with trendy designer pieces demonstrated something I've been suspecting and fearing for awhile...we may be raising general awareness, but nothing is really changing.

Sure, sustainable fashion is so hot right now. More and more people actually know what it is. It's being written about in the pages of Vogue on a regular basis. There are podcasts, blogs, websites, online shops and sustainable stylists and designers all working to raise awareness of the issues and shed light on alternatives. But the fact that designer labels decided to adopt it for their latest runway shows makes me feel we are just swimming in circles, so does seeing a stylish woman who is matching sustainable sneakers with designer labels.

Fashion Editor Vanessa Friedman has an incredible critique in the New York Times about this current turn toward sustainability during the most recent Fashion Weeks. Of her many compelling arguments one that stood out to me was the fact that just last year the brands were addressing the repercussions from the #MeToo movement, and this year some models are reporting it's worse than ever.

In addition, fast fashion continues to pervail, despite some positive signs it was crumbling (like Forever21 filing for bankruptcy, mainly due to not being able to compete on style with H&M and Zara). Zara profits remain high and growing, with plans for worldwide online sales from next year. H&M recently announced its first increase in profits in two years and continue grow their store numbers to more than 5,000 around the world - it also has plans for further online reach in the years to come. More garments will be produced this year than last, and the same thing will happen next year again.

The fashion system is broken, and has been for a long time. It relies on constant renewal to survive, and it relies on us buying into new styles season after season, year after year, and so it injects billions of dollars into marketing to ensure that we make those purchases. In other words, just because people know about something - even the fast fashion companies themselves, which are making promises toward sustainable fabrics and transparent processes - doesn't mean the problem is solved. As long as clothes continue to be designed and produced at these fast rates in vast quantities, it cannot be sustainable. As long as labels want me to buy their new collection each season, or even each year, it cannot be sustainable. Until we can curtail this system that generates constant desire, it cannot be sustainable.

So there, I've said it. I've been thinking it for awhile, and there it is. For all the incredible work my fellow sustainable fashion activists have done over the past decade, particularly the past five or six years, the system remains firmly in tact. I know that progress has been made and I don't want sustainable fashion designers or activists to feel like their work has been for nothing, because it has undoubtedly shifted the conversation. But I feel an increased sense of urgency that just isn't being addressed but the launches of new sustainable fashion lines and the embrace of sustainability on major Fashion Week catwalks. It all feels like more greenwashing to me.

A few years ago, seeing two pair of Vejas in one week would have filled me with glee. Unfortunately, knowing what I know now, it fills me with dread. It appears they are being used as a status symbol, a recognisable and coveted name brand, that may even assuage guilt of some people about the dismal state of the climate and the planet.

So yeah, sustainable fashion is so hot right now. What will be so hot next year? (besides the planet, obvs).

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