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Shaping Sustainable Fashion: Changing the Way We Make and Use Clothes

Mark Newton

23rd June, 2011

Alison Gwilt and Timo Rissanen’s attempt to define sustainability in a fashion context provides some fascinating insights but doesn’t show enough engagement in the wider environmental debate for Mark Newton

Much is written on the subject of sustainability with regard to food or energy, but Shaping Sustainable Fashion: Changing the Way We Make and Use Clothes offers analysis of a different sort in this wide ranging and thought-provoking collection of essays by several industry professionals on the environmental impact of clothing manufacture.

Though an academic book, aimed very much at those with an industry perspective, the editors have done a marvellous job in littering it with case studies that showcase cutting edge designers and projects around the world. Creativity, it seems, is well and truly on the case of looking for solutions to minimise environmental impact. It also forms an incredibly strong overview of the challenges the fashion industry faces. Immediately the book identifies the problems that the vagueness of the term ‘sustainability’ creates: the confusion it causes for both consumers and designers, and the resulting difficulty for companies attempting to engage in ‘best practice’. It also presents us with the environmental issues inherent to the fashion industry: the lifecycle of the product, the appetite of the British market, in particular, for cheap clothes and the fast turnover of trends, which has resulted in an enormous second hand market. This secondary market itself has issues, such as green waste in developing countries ‘eroding their local fashion industries and creating profit for those few agencies handling the waste’.

With the need for sustainable fashion firmly established, the book manages to cover a range of topics. Ultimately, its aim is to question how we make and use clothes. Split into four sections – Source, Make, Use and Last – it discusses the entire production process for the clothing industry, starting with materials, which are the key element in fashion. From natural to man-made fabrics, and hybrids of the two, it gives an overview of some remarkable materials being introduced and their value to the industry. There follows an examination of the role that the fashion designer plays in sustainability, questioning the role of the technologies at hand. The essays argue for transparency and for an examination of the ways in which we make and consume clothes, before outlining its own model - one that builds on organic and Fairtrade fibres  but that also seeks to ‘reduce waste and resource misuse’. This has the potential to slow down the design process,  thus ‘slowing the fashion system as a whole’. It’s a brilliant idea but you have to wonder whether the big high street retailers, with their margins to improve and shareholders to please, would buy into it. That said; Alison Gwilt and Timo Rissanen provide convincing arguments for slowing fashion by connecting the customer further with the products they wear, and questioning the relationships consumers have with their clothes.

Also examined are the themes of how consumers use and maintain their wardrobes, which can be aided by the design and manufacture process and an improvement in communicating with end users. The most potent ideas are at the very start and end of the book, however: textile recycling, green waste, second-hand exports to the developing world and the need to address the state of the industry. These are all areas where the environmental impact on society is more obvious.

In places it seems to focus too narrowly on the fashion industry. One notable example is where an essay puts hope in GM cotton produced by Monsanto, a company with a profound and consistently environmentally damaging track record in reducing water usage in agriculture. In placing such hope in GM cotton the author is perhaps a little too quick to embrace the corporate line, and the well-debated issues surrounding GM crops such as the patents on the seed involved or the contracts into which farmers would be locked are not acknowledged. Neither, in the same example, are the well-trialled methods of farming organic cotton explored with regard to water conservation.

Though not integral to the discussion, there is no full debate of the controversy surrounding the fur trade. Radio 4’s Costing the Earth programme recently discussed in depth the resurgence of the fur trade and the green-washing of the new-look industry. Likewise, the discussion of the industrial treatments used to create fake fur made for a fascinating debate, but wasn’t engaged head-on. Is this the place to do so? It seems as appropriate as any, though perhaps this highlights the problem the book brings up early on – what exactly is sustainability and what areas does it cover?

At times the writing was academic at the expense of accessibility and it could well be a little too dry for those hoping for a more casual examination of the environmental impacts of our purchases, such as in Fred Pearce’s Sins of an Eco Sinner. But that should not detract from what is a thorough and practical assessment of the mechanics of producing sustainable clothing and, for anyone with a eco-conscience wishing to work in the fashion industry, this is essential reading.

Shaping Sustainable Fashion: Changing the Way We Make and Use Clothes edited by Alison Gwilt and Timo Rissanen (£24.99, Earthscan) is available from Amazon

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