Photo of jeans stacked on retail store shelf.

Sustainable fashion is a topic that is increasingly becoming front and centre for consumers globally. For mainstream and luxury fashion brands looking to digitally transform through innovations in technology, manufacturing processes and marketing operations; it is vitally important for them to consider the role that digital transformation will play in helping to embrace a sustainable fashion system. 

In this insightful article written by smoothmind contributors ‘Doris Domoszlai-Lantner’ and ‘Sara Emilia Bernat’, co-founders of think tank Fashion Forward, they shared thoughts on the evolution and revolution of sustainable fashion…

The turning point in the (consumer) culture in which we live

The Rana Plaza garment factory collapsed in 2013, tragically ending 1,129 human lives. At about the same time, the fashion industry made it into international headlines as one of the world’s largest polluters, second only to oil. While recent advancements in digital technology have facilitated greatly broadened accessibility to fashion for many, these events are clear indicators that the dramatic rise of fast fashion and widely accessible disposable goods has come with a high price.

Estimated to be a $2.5 trillion global industry (JEC 2019), it was also apparent that it is unlikely to disappear. Consumerism has become core to our existence today; it is tied deeply to psychological and social behaviour, and so, the solution to the sociological and environmental threats it has caused lay within the same system in which it was created. In its present state, consumption culture results in detrimental consequences that must be sufficiently addressed and remedied.

Fashion, a major part of consumer culture, has long been a medium to develop and convey individual and social meaning. In consumerist welfare societies, people seek to engage in economic, political, and cultural discourse through branded fashion. Fashion helps us identify and convey who we are and how we want to be seen. In fact, even before actively introducing ourselves, we have already passively done so through the associations our garments conveyed. Material culture creates links between individuals and groups, but can also serve as the force that breaks them apart. Simply put, our clothes are some of the most complex and revealing vehicles through which we showcase and define our social existence. 

The rise of conspicuous production

To add a layer of complexity to this line of thought, in Western consumerist societies, brands— especially—fashion brands—serve as epicenters that convey meaning. Rather than solely being manufacturers of objects, they craft stories, engage consumers outside their regular consumption patterns, and build communities around their engagement.

Brands such as Goop, Nike, and Aritzia do not only sell commodities but the very aspiration to personal growth and success; they craft their imagery through carefully constructed brand messages and cultural expressions, utilising various consumer engagement platforms. Moreover, it is no longer uniquely the design of a garment that matters, but, with increased transparency, the method of manufacturing, labor, and relevant storytelling narratives that go into and with it. We seek to spend our money on items that seem to align our values, further advancing conspicuous production albeit through what we perceive as more ‘conscious’ means.

While in many ways it is difficult for an individual to find opportunities in daily life to create a platform of change, fashion provides a natural stage. While direct access to politics and legislation to reform the system may be limited to many, revisiting and revising our consumption patterns provides a more accessible outlet for us to generate change.

Tackling systematic change

Public discourse around this subject has made it increasingly clear that operations and supply chains need to adapt to more sustainable practices. Yet, consumption habits demonstrate that the solution lies not in a complete divorce from fashion, but rather the reimagination of the concept. A holistic answer is slowly making its way into the consumerist culture, where consumption is being embraced and merged with critical thought, effectively marrying fashion with sustainability.

Responding to this growing desire to consume more responsibly, more and more brands have begun to improve the fashion system by amplifying previously unheard voices, pioneering ways to improve environmental sustainability, and implementing policies and procedures to meet consumers’ expectations. This is visible on the whole spectrum, from fast-fashion giant H&M’s Conscious Collection to Stella McCartney’s never-ending quest to revolutionise the fashion system, tapping into every touchpoint of the operational chain.

Video – Click to Play | Stella McCartney’s World of Sustainability

Outdated notions of diversity and access (or lack thereof) and labor are just some of the concepts that are being questioned, providing new and improved opportunities for makers and artisans, and consumers alike. While this is a great first step, these initiatives need to be guided with critical thinking.

Right now, we are faced with countless opportunities to reimagine and rework the inherently flawed system that is so ingrained in our culture. However, to do so, sustainable literacy needs to be addressed, and frameworks must be altered from design to production through post-consumption to assure that systematic and critical modifications are added to operations processes. We need to critically assess every link in the chain to understand its consequences, its impact, and what kind of harm it may create and towards whom. Only once those steps have been conducted can we expect the systemic change that is needed for a holistic fashion revolution to take place. 

Fashion revolution through conspicuous production and sustainability literacy

Although the concept of sustainable fashion is not new, it is a fast-growing and quickly changing segment of consumer society. There is a pressing need to spark the kind of crucial conversation and awareness that will successfully transition the current fashion system into a responsible, circular one. MUD Jeans, for example, uses organic and recyclable materials to make all their products, and does not consider their job finished when a consumer makes a purchase.

They are heavily invested in renting programs, as well as garment repair services that extend the lives of their garments and their role in the system beyond the point of sale. Although MUD has successfully implemented environment and social justice-oriented programs into their operations, the majority of other designers and brands have not. Structural change that includes such initiatives and more can only be achieved if diverse players from all corners of the world are brought together to trigger a global movement aimed towards empowerment and change.

Fashion is highly reflective of culture and society. As a result, community engagements must be centred around ideas where social and cultural improvement needs to take place both in their content and participant base. Digital initiatives, including webinars, symposiums, and other collaborative platforms are more vital than ever. They generate not only business partnerships but creative and research collaborations as well. Industry-related trends and innovations that go hand in hand can be viewed and discussed, but under the lens of anthropological meaning, as they have the potential to create an opportunity for cultural exchange and trigger modification in existing supply chains and operations. The flow of information may affect economic regulation, coordination, and investment in sustainable fashion, leading to long-term, systemic change.

When considering their role in sustainable development and the digital pathways they take to reach them, fashion brands need to ask:

  1. What do I do to effectively reduce harm throughout the operational chain?
  2. How do I assure that the garments I offer have a long-lifetime?
  3. What can I do to guide my consumers effectively into sustainable fashion consumption?
  4. How can my digital presence not only showcase, but also help meaningfully advance my sustainability goals?