Renowned sociologist Anthony Giddens, in the introduction to his book “Modernity and Self- Identity “, highlights the risks facing our contemporary social and economic structures. He states that:
Modernity reduces the overall riskiness of certain areas and modes of life, yet at the same time introduces new risk parameters largely or completely unknown to previous eras. These parameters include high consequence risks: risks deriving from the globalised character of the social systems of modernity….Now that nature, as a phenomenon external to social life, has in a certain sense come to an end – as a result of its domination by human beings – the risks of ecological catastrophe form an inevitable part of our horizon of day-to-day life. Other high consequence risks, such as the collapse of global economic mechanisms, or the rise of totalitarian superstates, are an equally unavoidable part of our contemporary life.
First published in 1991, it is uncanny to see that in 2009 two of the three examples of global risk highlighted by Giddens have become a near reality. This combination of economic crisis and the reality of climate change present both challenges for the fashion industry and the opportunity to renew our commitment to tackling climate change. We must base our future economic growth on green technologies, green industries and a renewed commitment to an individual green lifestyle. But what does such a renewal mean to an industry such as fashion?
On a superficial level, commentators have discussed how hem lines mirror the rise and fall of the stock market – in the booms of the 20s and 60s hemlines got progressively shorter, and in the 30s, 40s and 70s they fell, reflecting the recessions that characterised those decades. However these crude measures do not bear close examination, for example, in the wartime years a time of great economic restrictions, hemlines were shorter than before or after the war. In fact, fashion reflects how we feel on an emotional level. For some fashion will provide an opportunity to escape during a recession, for others being escapist or ostentatious in the face of economic hardship will be an anathema with thrift, austerity and restraint the order of the day. In truth, less money will be available for clothes and accessories, so consumers will want a bargain, but that does not mean we have to compromise our green credentials as either consumers or producers.
For consumers with a limited budget, knowing their purchase is going to last beyond the first couple of washes will be critical. Fast, cheap fashion will not necessarily be the default option. Rather longevity, heritage and style will start to prevail and the idea that clothes are bought for the sake of a shopping experience will go. Unworn clothes will become a luxury no one can afford. Respect for clothes will re emerge along with renting bags or major items such as evening wear; vintage; swopping and restyling your wardrobe will be the key to a resourceful and green future.
Designers and retailers will have the chance not only to tackle economic pressures, but to use the green agenda to increase market positioning. Good design will not only focus on style and quality, whatever the price range; as value for money will be key. Addressing the green agendas and giving greater focus to reducing water, waste and energy will become a central part of the business agenda. Companies such as Unilever, H&M and M&S already have made steps along this road. Some of their initiatives have focused on building new business models. For example, charity shops are reporting a boom in sales of clothes, books and accessories, but the recession means that as people buy less on the high street so donations to charity shops run low. M&S’s campaign where if someone donates a labeled M&S item to an Oxfam shop they receive a £5 voucher, which gives them £5 when they spend £35 on clothing or home ware has boosted donations to Oxfam who have raised extra sales through their sale of M&S items. With increasing political focus on using the green agenda to form the basis of a Keynesian New Deal to escape recession, there is a real chance to build a green economic future based on a range of business models. As Giddens said: this is a global challenge unknown to previous eras, but the solutions are there if we have the collective will. For an industry such as fashion, where clothes express society’s ideas and identity, we have a chance to showcase our green commitments by ensuring clothes based on green criteria that do not compromise our fashionable credentials are the clothes that go down the catwalks of the future.