Kate Fletcher on Fashion & Sustainability

Kate Fletcher on Fashion & Sustainability

Kate Fletcher is a researcher, writer, and design activist in the field of fashion and sustainability. She consults with fashion businesses, educational institutions, nonprofits, and government. She is author of Sustainable Fashion and Textiles: Design Journeys (2008) and co-author with Lynda Grose of Fashion and Sustainability: Design for Change (2012). Kate works for the Centre for Sustainable Fashion, London College of Fashion, where her responsibilities span enterprise, education, and research.

You’ve been credited with the term “slow fashion.” What do you mean by that term, and how does slow fashion differ from fast fashion?

For me slow fashion is a break from the values and goals of fast, or consumerist, fashion. It is a vision of the fashion sector built from a different starting point, with different economic logic and business models, values, and processes. “Slow fashion” is often used to describe products that are in some way less fast; they are made to be durable, made using traditional production techniques, or based on design concepts that are seasonless. But that isn’t slow fashion. Instead, slow fashion challenges consumerist fashion’s obsession with mass production and globalized style and becomes a guardian of alternative ways of fashion provision and expression.

Where did the concept of slow fashion come from?

Slow fashion draws upon slow culture ideas and vocabulary that have proven so successful in food: small-scale production, traditional craft techniques, local materials and markets. But it also embraces new technology and novelty in fashion. All of these elements form part of a new prosperity in fashion that recognizes that we have to transform the economic logic that underpins the sector.

What by-products of fast fashion – environmental impacts, labor practices, etc. – are most troubling to you?

Perhaps the thing most troubling to me is the “lock-in” that the consumerist fashion mindset promotes: Dominant ways of thinking about the stories, images, language, and products of fashion limit our ideas about what fashion is. It is normal to engage with fashion primarily by exchanging money for product; it is expected that these same products will look dated and stylistically incongruous in six months; it is usual to discard rather than repair. Economics narrows the field of fashion activity deemed to be culturally attractive and practical.

A hundred years ago, the fashion industry was not such a factor in everyday life. How did we arrive at this place, where shopping is a leisure pursuit for many people and large walk-in closets are seen as necessities?

Our fashion expectations today are cut in the cloth of consumerism. Industrial production has made an idea of “more and cheaper” a reality; indeed the price of clothing has fallen by almost 25 percent in the United Kingdom over the last decade. This has coincided with the rise of the culture of comfort, where notions of sacrifice are abhorrent, as well as a growing emphasis on image and looking to others for approval. In contemporary culture, there is also a bias toward passivity and against taking action.

Your latest book, Fashion & Sustainability: Design for Change, presents a nuts-and-bolts vision of a global fashion “metabolism” organized around the principle of sustainability. If you could snap your fingers and transform the industry, what changes would you most like to see?

I would want to see a high-level discussion about the rules and goals of fashion industry – about whom it is for and who benefits.

I would also like to see the application of imagination to processes of sustainability in the fashion sector. To date we’ve mainly been preoccupied by tweaks to our current setup: substituting fibers, making supply chains more efficient.

Also essential would be the voice of users – of people who wear clothes – and for this input to transform the design process. Today we know precious little about the post-purchase life of a garment: the deep inner space of the wardrobe. Yet this is widely acknowledged to be the biggest source of both customer satisfaction and environmental impact. Opening up this social context is more a political change than a technical one.

The profit motive is clearly an obstacle to transforming the industry. The glamour of celebrity culture and the red carpet may be another. What other barriers do you see?

A significant barrier is doubtless our dependency on the current system. Consumerist fashion is locked into a cycle of self-justification, creating the very conditions by which it becomes both dominant and credible. We see an ever more rapid cycle of new product introduced in stores (up to 12 seasons per year and moving toward a strategy of continuous replenishment), because retailers compete on novelty. We buy poor-quality items increasingly often because their inferior materials and construction means they fall apart quickly and need to be replaced. We grow our reliance on fashion that can be made into and traded as a commodity because the consumer society fails to value activities that can’t be marketed. In the consumer society we organize our ideas about fashion around commerce and consumerism and end up becoming reliant on them.

Collecting stories about clothing through your Local Wisdom project, you’ve encouraged people to become more aware of the clothing they already own. What is the value of that awareness?

The value is in promoting greater self-reliance – an ability to develop what has been called “clothing competence” or fashion-ability – that is a set of skills, a way of thinking and acting around fashion that is linked to but not dominated by consumerism. Here fashion can support growth in our character and self-knowledge in the company of others.

I also look forward to promoting satisfying ways to use garments through a combination of body, mind, habit, technique, stories, and the pieces themselves. The project will take place in three continents over the next two years to explore this more.

In the book you say fast fashion is about “image,” while slow fashion draws more on “sense of self.” Are you suggesting that, instead of taking cues from runway shows, people might view fashion as a deeper, more individualized avenue for self-expression?

Slow fashion is an attempt to infuse the system of fashion with different goals, such as resilience, diversity, and quality. What emerges may be runway shows that inspire people to reconnect with communities, their sense of self, or perhaps with nature.

What hopeful signs do you see, among designers, producers, sellers, and consumers of fashion?

I see more questions being raised than ever before. I see more appetite for change than ever before. But I also see more consumption than ever before, less social cohesion in communities, higher levels of atmospheric carbon concentrations, more degradation of natural environments, and more conflicts over land use and access to water.

In developing a comprehensive vision for a fashion industry built around sustainability, you’re sort of David to the industry’s Goliath. Do you think the ambitious transformation you’ve envisioned is possible in your lifetime?

In nature, some huge changes are incredibly rapid and others happen over millennia. I am ready for either or both!

Monica Moses is editor in chief of American Craft magazine.