Redefining sustainability for 2021: The new priorities

By guest author Rachel Cernansky from Vogue Business

Fashion’s fiercest critics say the industry has been going about sustainability all wrong. They claim its approach is elitist, and that efforts to improve have largely focused on the wrong priorities.

All captions courtesy by Vogue Business

That’s the argument made in the Open Source Fashion Cookbook, written by Angela Luna and Loulwa Al Saad, founders of Adiff, a design label that makes clothing and accessories from would-be waste materials and employs resettled refugees in its Greece factory to assemble them. Luna and Saad called on designers and thought leaders including Christopher Raeburn, BrownMill, Otto von Busch, Aditi Mayer and Sophia Li as contributors with goals to make sustainable fashion more accessible and to spark a dialogue about the fundamental changes needed in the fashion industry at large.

“For so long, a lot of fashion brands have approached sustainability and ethics [as concepts] to buy into. It seemed unfair to us that a large percentage of the population is disenfranchised from participating in sustainable fashion just because they can’t afford to,” says Luna. “Our main goal is to find a way to democratise sustainable fashion.”

Alarmed by the industry’s slow pace of change in the context of the accelerating climate crisis, sustainability experts are emphasising renewed focus on key issues: the industry produces too much; has promulgated sustainability by improving existing production practices, and paying for them by raising prices beyond reach for average consumers; and has focused on incremental shifts at the cost of — and perhaps in distraction from — the deeper, larger-scale change that’s necessary.

As fashion’s leading sustainability voices look to the year ahead, they expect to see the industry begin to recognise that reality. Acting on it will require creativity, to be sure — something the fashion industry, perhaps more than any other, should be able to excel at.

The Open Source Fashion Cookbook features a collection of open-sourced designs that anyone can make using upcycled materials.© Emanuel Hahn for Adif

“Mostly people dare only imagine ‘solutions’ that fit into the existing system and its values and goals: carbon capture, nuclear energy, etc.,” says Timo Rissanen, associate professor at the University of Technology Sydney and founding member of the Union of Concerned Researchers in Fashion. Rissanen also contributed an essay to the Open Source Fashion Cookbook. “We are much less capable of imagining what a life of abundance might look like with radical and rapid reduction in energy consumption and in other resource consumption, and yet that’s the work of imagination we must do urgently.”

The Open Source Fashion Cookbook features a collection of open-sourced designs that anyone can make using upcycled materials.© Emanuel Hahn for Adif

Reevaluating waste

For 2021, Luna and Al Saad have a pitch for brands: stop wasting so much.

Adiff, which is founded on the premise that waste materials should be used as a resource, rather than sending them to a landfill while new materials continue to be made, has collaborations in the works with some brands to help them turn excess stock into new items and expects to announce some publicly by the end of the year.

Luna says she hopes more brands will approach Adiff to explore similar opportunities, or to rethink on their own what they do with (and why they have) all of their excess materials and products.

Asking: Who is sustainability for?

Designing with waste has the potential to also lower the price point of sustainably made clothing — which is often higher than average to cover the costs of things like organic certification or a new dyeing process. (Many say it’s actually the lower prices that are the problem, as they’re artificially low.) For critics, the fact that many people are priced out of the fashion industry’s sustainability efforts is antithetical to why they are necessary.

“You cannot buy your way into sustainability. This idea that we can purchase a better world is the reason why we are in this predicament,” says Céline Semaan, CEO of the Slow Factory Foundation and another contributor to the book. Her essay argues that sustainability is a cultural movement, and not the ability to afford an ethically made $600 jumper; she also reimagines the definition of luxury to include respect for human rights and the planet. “Fast fashion groups are continuing to grow, expand and capitalise on the sustainable movement — not necessarily by slowing down, being more mindful or by investing in impact-driven initiatives but by increasing production of organic cotton and take-back programmes, which ultimately continue to encourage overproduction and overconsumption.”

People are also watching closely to see how fashion responds over time to the racial justice issues it was forced to acknowledge last year, and whether it is prioritising diversity and inclusion or just talking about them — changes that Al Saad says are integral to the larger overhaul that will be necessary for fashion to achieve true sustainability.

Adapting relationships with consumers

In the months and years ahead, critics want to see fashion not just repurposing waste, but adapting their entire business models.

One of the first steps, says Luna, could be a shift in the relationship between brands and consumers.

An open-source bucket tutorial from the Open Source Fashion Cookbook. 
© Emanuel Hahn for Adiff

“Maybe you have brands working with the consumer beyond when they check out,” she says — ultimately to take greater responsibility for what happens to clothes when people are done with them. “I feel like it needs to be a deeper relationship with the consumer, not only in the sense of being more open and transparent with their supply chain but also building relationships with the consumer outside of just purchasing their product.”

Diversifying business models

To truly combat overproduction and the other root causes of fashion’s biggest impacts, businesses also have to figure out ways to thrive without selling more things.

Rissanen says we need to rethink some of the most basic principles on which our current world functions, including the prevailing but overly simplistic view of economics. “It may have served us in the 20th century (but did it, really?) but it certainly limits our imagination now,” he says. In fashion, he hopes to see a wider range of business models “to diversify from the dominant retail model”. That could include nonprofits or employee-owned models, and models based on rental and resale as well as swapping, he says.

“No amount of ‘circular economy’ or other techno-fixes will be able to sustain the current volumes without sustained damage to Earth’s systems,” he says. “The next years — maybe a decade, maybe less — will determine which brands fit into this new world in which we will produce and consume radically less.”