If we are to have a sustainable future we need to address a number of dilemmas at the heart of the fashion industry. Fashion designers and retailers have always had to tread the line between clothes with a signature style that their clients recognize and pressure to increase sales by developing new ones. Over recent years they have responded to increased consumption by emphasizing the new and the result has been a greater spread of collections with a faster turnaround. Pre-collections, cruise collections, capsule collections have been added to established couture and ready-to-wear autumn/winter and spring/summer collections. Every major city has, or is aspiring to, a fashion week, while the internet offers a plethora of new channels to market.
In this context talk of sustainable fashion is an oxy-moron as we change and discard for the new rather than valuing the clothes we have purchased over the years. The phrase, retail therapy, might have begun as a joke but has become bound up with our contemporary consumer existence and now justifies spending on many new items that never leave the carrier bag. Somehow we need to redress the balance.
Worth over $1 trillion worldwide annually,it should not be forgotten that fashion is a cornerstone for many world economies. The clothing industry is ranked the second biggest global economic activity for intensity of trade, employing some 26m people, many of whom are totally dependent on it for their livelihoods.
That said, growing numbers of consumers and the industry itself, concerned by resource depletion, GHG emissions, waste, chemical toxicity, pollution, child labour and sweatshop conditions are questioning how goods are produced. When we snap up a bargain, we avoid not just the damage to the environment but the impact on the lives of those who produced it. Factory workers can be paid as little as 7p an hour for an 80 hour week in horrendous conditions.
Increased coverage of ethical and environmental issues in both mainstream and fashion media, has improved consumer awareness. Market research shows that shoppers take ethical considerations into consideration when deciding what to buy; however, prima facie evidence from the high street suggests that price remains the key driver. As the Stern report on the economics of climate change pointed out, this failure to reflect the true costs of production in prices is the biggest market failure.
Success at Copenhagen in the form of new Government regulation may take a long time to trickle down, so the industry must take collective responsibility for creating a sustainable and ethical future. As the head of one of the largest education centres for fashion in the world, I am particularly aware of the need to equip our graduates so that they bring this about. We are debating how we can help shape the industry to minimize its effect on the environment; ensure it is built on great design; point to new ways of designing, manufacturing and disposing of fashion, yet keeping at its essence fashion’s ability to bring fun and joy to people’s lives. We have established the Centre for Sustainable Fashion. It connects research, education and business to support and create innovative approaches to fashion. We need radical results from Copenhagen that will not just tie governments in to carbon reductions but will transform clothes into precious items which are treasured and whose true costs of production are valued and recognised.