I enjoy being informed — that’s code for: I am a nerd who takes life way too seriously — but until about two years ago, I knew little to nothing about sustainability in fashion. Now, I know how clothes get made, from individual designers to mass retailers to luxury conglomerates. I get how the rise of athleisure and streetwear homogenised global style, and closed the space tailoring and craft claims in global manufacturing. I understand the supply chain and its problems, and have long said that redesigning it around ethical African youth labour and infrastructure development with clean fuel is fashion’s best shot at starting over and getting it right — you know, people, planet, profit.
Any perspective on fashion that excludes an understanding of sustainability is soon to be doomed to irrelevance anyway. I hacked away at it: I researched new brands, practices, and perspectives. I read articles to understand what it would take to keep the Rana Plaza tragedy in Bangladesh from happening again. I looked at what I was buying and from whom; at how and why, and late last year, I went to a pretty interesting event.
The Future of Fashion, a full-day symposium at Victoria Yards organised by textile recycling company Rewoven, has been the most significant engagement I’ve had with fashion’s sustainability problem to date. While I’m excited to have made some real progress in understanding it all (especially from the South African perspective), I’m left floored, not just by the size of the problem but by its complexity too. Knowing what I know now, I can’t believe a whole generation of millennial entrepreneurs managed to disrupt fast food with an explosion of delivery apps and turn personal branding into an industry, yet no one has fixed the way we make, distribute, sell, and dispose clothes. But to be honest, I can believe it. No one can fix a problem they can’t see. It’s only once you see it that you can fix it.
You understand that there’s a problem when, in a presentation by textile sustainability expert Marcus Bergman, you’re shown how much it costs the planet to cultivate merino wool in Australia, where the rearing process’ burden on water sources is alarming. You’re also shown that Australia is still the world’s main producer (and thus, main shipper, which is a whole different mess). You see how little key players in fashion’s supply chain actually know about each other and how much falls through the cracks as a result.
After African fashion researcher Dr Erica De Greef’s presentation, you question the industry’s imagery after realising how it obscures the truth and promotes the status quo. After hearing her quote, decolonialism researcher Rolando Vazquez’ work, you look at emerging sustainability practices with suspicion. You see the ways that the western idea of sustainability and fashion upholds outdated Eurocentric codes of belonging, beauty, aesthetic aspiration and other powerful aspects of fashion’s influence on popular culture.
If this is all sounding like a spiraling wave of existential dread, that’s because it kind of is.
Like anyone who has faced that dread, the fashion industry is realising there is no straightforward answer — nothing has ever been, or will ever be black or white. Yet, much like during standard identity crises, asking existential questions is worthwhile. How much responsibility do we bear for the current state of affairs? Is fashion itself the bad guy? These types of questions get us to refocus on what’s really important. It’s not what I expected to learn at a sustainability symposium. I thought I’d learn better ways to scan rails of clothing and read between the lines of care labels, or leave knowing how to identify greenwashing, with a few new terms added to my circular economy vocabulary. Instead, I left with knowledge that will help me ask better questions.
That’s what crises do for us: Reflection and introspection will always improve perspective if we let them, and perspective shapes what we do. Our current systems were imagined, and they can be reimagined from a different point of view. Stakeholders throughout the ecosystem need to decide that things can be different and decide to do the work. Crucially, we need to tick the only box that matters: Tangible, visible, measurable change.
Images: Thabo Matsepane @thabo_lens (in the below image columnist Modupe chats to designer Lukhanyo Mdingi)