At the end of last month I went to a conference at the London College of Fashion who have a new department called the Centre For Sustainable Fashion. A day full of interesting folks and so much conversation I walked out in a zombified state with sustainability joy ethics adornment bamboo externalities and all sorts concepts clouding my mind for a few days. One thing was clear: people are keen. The other, that there were few people talking of real alternative solutions to our mass-market, globalised, cheap-oil production process. It's seems we are cleaning up our act, having a conscience. 'Systemic change' was muttered but not explored. I guess it's over-whelming.
First up was Colin McDowell of the Sunday Times amongst other activities too numerous to mention. Colin was most memorable to me later in the day for his firebrand damning of manufacturing under the aegis of corrupt governments and the impact this has on the industry. For some reason, such fervour came as a surprise to me from someone so exquisitely attired. We then had Michael McDonough, architect and green-thinker. His take was that sustainability (just when I was getting into sustainable over organic or ethical) was tired and that durable is the word. He spoke well, philosophically. I loved his affirmation that we are primarily driven by what we see and we constantly seek to look at the world in novel ways and therefore we adorn ourselves in a need to display. He spoke of disposability and the world of cheap oil.
Michael's mantra was "Be where you are and don't be afraid of technology". He viewed technology is an extension of nature. I find the respect for technology much higher with Americans. Yes, yes, I know it's a gross generalisation, but I keep noticing this. Us Brits are rather disdainful of science and technology at times. Bamboo seemed to be the solution. But bamboo, most of it is cultivated in China, has gentle alarm bells ringing for me.
We then heard from Sungjoo Kim. Sungjoo didn't speak about sustainability but I found her inspirational for her ethical perspective. She is primarily a luxury-brand supremo though she has trod her path and achieved her success largely due to her firm commitment to business ethics and charitable work. It seemed a little 'old school' in that there was no talk of the environment. However, I liked her belief in drawing energy from your inner self and having the confidence develop deep personal values, take a long term perspective and be faithful to this in all your practices. It is this that enables you to gain the trust of your consumers, your colleagues and your business partners. I find so often people think you have to compromise all of this to be successful or you're just a bit idealistic and dumb if you have values. In fact, she endorsed my view that these are key.
The next speaker was Anthony Klonthaus of the WWF deeper luxury report, which he co-wrote. I highly recommend this. I learnt about the term 'externalities' which is toxins, waste, pollution and all this other bad stuff that we generate when we produce. Seemingly that's where you get the profit. Why, though, are we doing all this if, as he reported, with an income above $13,000 we aren't any happier? What got us into this fix is that we are in this perpetual striving for growth. Apparently venerable economists and fathers of capitalism JM Keynes and Adam Smith did not believe that growth should be our sustaining economic principle. So, Klonthaus recommended we try and achieve a "steady state economy". I agree but hearing according to Robert Peston if we don't get 2-3% growth then we start getting unemployment. Hmm.
At an instinctual level I believe that when we go beyond a human-sized scale, this is when things start messing up. We start living beyond our means, lose the human dimension to our work and hence satisfaction and we start eating into our resources as we've lost a connection to them. Maybe I'm a neo-medievalist. We should be reducing our carbon emissions by 80% and a medieval approach to life is probably a good model for that. Plus in my not very humble opinion, it can be fun, especially if you read Tom Hodgkinson's How To Be Free
However romantic a medieval life is, it may be something to which we can aspire for the time being. In the interim, Klonthaus made these recommendations: a) avoid flights b) get more efficient vehicles c) use the car lless. And, if we are businesses we need to think in three ways:
1. innovation: doing things in different ways or using technology to reduce our impact.
2. choice editing: that's beginning to veto certain practises and brands.
3. choice influence: start to educate customers, consumers, business partners.
After this we broke out into groups. I joined one called Better Lives which was run by Kate Fletcher, who wrote the most excellent book Sustainable Fashion and Textile Design Journeys. Also organising our group was broadcaster Caryn Franklin who terrified us with trend frenzy and Lucy Shea from Futerra who encouraged us with positive solutions such as clothes swapping parties.
We looked at how people's lives are poor because we're beholden to the influence of magazines, media and retailers who push us stuff we feel we ought to have, made in dubious circumstances and how we've lost connection to it all. We appear to have lost an internal sense of contentment that the fashion industry seems to think it can replace. Instead, we pictured a world where there is more joy, creativity and a sense of empowerment. We can adorn ourselves without being a slave to a mass market which drives our employment choices so we can keep up, our eating habits so we can keep thin and our happiness. We want to foster an environment where people are educated to know when they are being manipulated by advertising, where they can re-skill to be able to produce or re-style clothes and where they go into shops and the sales staff are on their side and give them support rather than intimidate them with choice and trends. We want to return to a cottage industry and a community spirit in which there are millions of markets rather than markets of millions.
In the same way as Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall are trying to get the nation to learn how to cook and grow food, I feel we need to learn how to sew again. That way we'll have a connection to how clothes are made and we'll know why a £3 pair of jeans is unfair. We'll develop a healthier relationship with our clothes and at the same time maybe we'll develop the confidence to restyle our clothes and keep them alive longer. In the middle ages most people would make their own clothes. It doesn't mean we have to dress in handloom cloth and wear sacks, but, if we know how to make, mend, adjust and style ourselves creatively, at least we can take back some of that power.
My little sub-group came up with a manifesto - or a nice person called Natasha Freestone did - and I really liked it. Literary and conceptual but it worked for me as a way of looking at Better Lives. She quoted Henry James, on the subject of writing: "To be finely aware and richly responsible". Yes, this is how we can have better lives.
All through the day I kept feeling that the transition approach is so interesting but wasn't really a part of this debate when someone piped up and mentioned it as a model for how communities are doing something for themselves. It seems an industry-led approach is not the only way, and the systemic change will happen anyway and we need to envisage a brighter future both from a community perspective and an industry perspective at the same time.
Now, nearly a month since the conference, I can see a little more clearly. What I'm doing from my brand and product perspective are right for me. It's me pushing my product to the world, in a top-down approach. The place I want to move next is around 'local'. In line with my transition work. I want to work as much at a local level on sustainable fashion initiatives. That seems to be the missing link. So, more of this in my next post...