After the recent Bangladesh's garment factory building collapse, it seems an urgent time to rethink fast-fashion production and consumption. Kate Fletcher, author, educator, and pioneer in the field of sustainable fashion, in her recent book “Fashion & Sustainability: Design for Change” charts the ways in which the landscape of fashion production, consumption and use could be re-tooled with the aims to improving both sustainable uses of materials, and better social and economic livelihood of those involved in the making of our garments. Her book covers a number of avenues to asses the current modalities of fashion making and buying, as well as proposals (and limitations) on how our habits as designers and consumers could factor in more socially and environmentally sound practices.
Q: What is your background?
Textiles and design for sustainability.
Q: What led to your interest in fashion & sustainability? Was there an “ah-ha” moment that told you “now” was the time to get involved in having a voice in this issue?
I’ve always loved clothes… and made many of them as a young woman and I’m from a family of community activists – pairing fashion with working for the common good is in my blood.
Q: How do you conduct your research? Do you engage in field work and conduct interviews, and how do these encounters shape your vision?
I use many different research methods: some are drawn from design process others methods like ethnography. My most recent research project uses ethnographic methods: object histories and photography to explore social practice.
Q: What was the most ecologically inspiring place you ever visited?
I am awe struck over and again in Nature. Though turning over my compost heap is both intellectually and physically a work of complete connectedness with natural systems.
Q: At present, what is the most problematic (environmentally and socially) place in the world where fashion is being produced, and why?
Every place has challenges and positive aspects.
1. FASHION PRODUCTS
Q: What materials should we be harnessing as consumers or designers to improve fashion’s toxic carbon footprints? There are many different classes of fibers described in your book: renewable fibers, biodegradable fibers, people-friendly fibers, low-chemical-use fibers, low-energy-use fibers, low-water-use fibers, predator-friendly fibers, can you quickly explain the difference, or propose the most ideal type of fiber we should be aiming for?
The ideal type is the one that best suits the purpose of your design intention.
Q: Much of the fibers that we use are subject to many kinds of chemical and rely heavily on water processes, which are quite corrosive to the environment. Can you describe some of the more toxic procedures (i.e. chemical bleaching and dying) so that our readers are more aware of them and explain why these processes are being used in the first place?
No fibre has ever been transformed from natural or synthetic polymer into a state that we would want to wear without substantial investment of resources. The processing of fibres variously draws down water, consumes energy and involves process chemicals… but to not subject fibre to these processes would make it unfit for purpose. And of course the environmental value of any product (including a ‘green’ product) is only realized upon its use. If it is not worn even if has a low energy intensity, resources are wasted.
Q: I was excited to read about the “minimum waste” initiatives of some designers. Can you explain what this is, and the important role that “waste” plays in tackling the betterment of fashion production?
Cutting waste is an important way to influence the resourcefulness of fashion. Some designers are using their pattern cutting skills to minimize cut loss as a garment is cut out and use every scrap of a fabric width – from selvedge to selvedge – in a garment’s design. This is leading to interesting new silhouettes and a visible response to sustainability concerns.
Q: Hardware, such as zippers, buttons, snaps etc. as well as all other non-textile add-ons to fashion (beads, plastic piping etc.) can really minimize the materials potential for re-use. What should we be doing about this? Wearing only draw-string pants with no hardware??
I think novel ways of holding garments on the body are important: and offer a potential source of innovation for designers looking to develop new ways to foster change.
Q: What is the best way to carbon offset our fashion consumption? Buying online? Locally? Second hand? Making our own? Sometimes the choice is not as clear as it seems!
Q: Is the best solution to minimize waste, other than, of course, buying less?
Disposal and production are two sides of the same coin: it is impossible to look at one without the other.
Q: What do you think of e-textiles and smart fashion? How can we move forward technologically in fashion, without risking not being, for example, able to recycle textiles because of embedded circuits, batteries, and heavy metals?
I think such technologies have potential; but I would ask who is benefiting from them? If it’s people – citizens – then I’m interested. If it’s commercial interests over people, then I would want to ask many more questions.
2. FASHION SYSTEMS
Q: What are some of the exciting modular-based systems in fashion that could be game changers? Do you have some of these in your wardrobe?
For me the most exciting ones are the pieces that help you develop skills to see the world differently.
Q: How can we optimize the lifetimes of garments? Is it more about quality, habits, or emotional attachment? What are some of the strategies that have best embodied this slowing down of consumption?
Q: What is low-impact use design? I.e. low-no-launder, stain-welcoming, pro-wrinkle clothes. And why would we want it?
We’d want it because it’s easier. Such pieces shine a light on the lunacy of our unconscious unnecessary habitual behaviours around garment laundering that have been fostered by, among others, the detergent industry.
Q: If the local is the new chic in gastronomy, how can make it so also in fashion? What are some good examples of local uses of materials and practices that could inspire the reader to make a difference at home?
Local designers fostering local skills and employment have an extremely positive impact. Search them out in your vicinity.
Q: What can we learn from nature in the process of re-thinking uses of natural resources?
Everything. Don’t pollute your nest. Don’t commute to work. Everything is a resource.
One Night Stands Disposable Shoes by Stephanie Sandstrom
Q: In your book you advocate for both new forms of slow and fast fashion, so clearly the solution is not only in pushing the deceleration button. Can we have our fast fashion fix and still be eco-minded? And how?
With a pursuit of quality made possible through the development of an industry not only predicated on selling more…
Q: What do you think of rapid prototyping and 3D printing? On the one hand, we can produce less and more locally which is good for the environment in terms of long-haul transportation of goods. On the other hand, 3D printing is mostly being done with plastic and chemical substrates that are not at present recyclable. And on the last hand (if we had 3 :)), is rapid prototyping just going to encourage more cheap, fast, and disposable production schemes?
I am all for a hybrid approach that recognizes the value of different processes for different contexts. We have become horribly reductionist in our thinking and prefer simple one-size-fits-all solutions. But fashion is not a one size fits all industry. We need a different approach. We need a more diverse approach.
Q: What is “fashion hacking” and how can it empower us?
One of the mantras I try to live by is that gleaned from hacking: if you can’t open it, you don’t own it. By this token if you want to truly engage with something and properly ‘own’ it you need to understand how it’s put together and how you could ‘mod’ it to improve it. It’s a shift in power away from the factory to the home.
FASHION DESIGN PRACTICES
Q: If there was one place from which we could begin to make a change as simple consumers, or as fashion designers, where and what would that be?
In our minds.
London-Montreal, May 2013