Words That Liberate

What Journalism Has Been Getting Wrong About Sustainable Fashion

Two women protect themselves from the sun with newspapers, 1963.

‘THE LIMITS OF MY language are the limits of my world,’ wrote Ludwig Wittgenstein in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Likewise, there is a realm of sustainable fashion that remains undiscovered because nobody has figured out how to write about it.

Increasingly, designers and brands are proposing alternative ways to design, produce and sell clothes within an environmental and ethical philosophy. Fashion journalism however, is still struggling to translate these exciting changes to a larger audience. Granted, the advertising power of big corporations has limited the editorial coverage of independent design, but even the scarce writing that does exist on the topic is not doing the cause justice.

Sustainable fashion has procured a bad reputation and fashion writing has only contributed to this stigmatisation – it is tangible right from the first sentences of every sustainable fashion piece. These conventionally open with the unsuccessful reassurance that sustainable fashion is not bland, boring or hippy-esque. Sustainable fashion, so they claim, is ‘no longer confined to the wardrobes of hemp-wearing acolytes or those who favour a Birkenstock above all else,’1 and ‘the lumpy, itchy, hempy pieces of the past are gone.’2 Sarah Mower recently titled a Vogue interview with Stella McCartney with the cryptic ‘No Oatmeal-y Shirts!’3

Ironically, saying that a product is not worn by ‘hemp-wearing acolytes’ only adds to the suspicion that it could be, and shirts that are ‘definitely not oatmeal-y’ are rarely more attractive than their luxurious silk alternatives. In their well-intentioned effort to free sustainable fashion from a supposedly negative image, fashion journalists are doing the exact opposite. In fact, the average consumer knows very little about sustainable fashion, if they’ve even heard the term before.4 Writers are counterarguing a cliché no one knows about, and are thus confirming the very image they are battling.

When journalists do start describing the sustainable brand or designer, they do so with a vocabulary that has been handed to them from an outside source. Sustainability is an extremely complicated topic, and most writers are therefore convinced that sustainable fashion requires a specific lexicon, which they then borrow from environmentalism. This leads to an array of pseudo-scientific lingo and dry data. Expressions like ‘eco-conscious’, ‘environmentally friendly’ and ‘green style’ have invaded journalism, even if most readers have no idea what they mean and frankly do not care enough to find out.

The word ‘sustainability’ has come to serve as a linguistic umbrella for a wide array of problems and their solutions: raw material sourcing, local manufacturing, recycling, labour practises, energy efficiency, chemical pollution, support for small businesses. It simply isn’t possible for journalists to cover every technical aspect of sustainable fashion: the problem is that they try to. Faced with an unfamiliar topic, writers cling on to dry facts and lists of empty numbers, and they throw out any sense of style along the way. Did you know that one pair of jeans takes four thousand litres of water to produce or that the impact of the production of just one T-shirt is roughly equal to the carbon footprint of driving a car for ten miles?5 Maybe. Has it made you more excited to discover sustainable fashion? Probably not. It seems as though writers are compensating a lack of transparency in the fashion industry at large by listing every technical detail about those brands that do offer information about the production of their garments.

Whenever journalists attempt at writing something less dry and lifeless, they choose to focus on passionate and emotional stories, hoping to reach their audience by pulling on the heartstrings. It’s the story of a single garment worker who can’t afford to feed her children, or a farmer whose crops are polluted by a nearby dye factory. Clusters of these stories can be found on two occasions: Earth Day on April 22 – when journalists rely on pressing global warming issues and doom scenarios to talk about sustainable brands – and anytime a factory disaster happens.6 Of course, these stories need abundant coverage, and they are a great method to raise awareness, but this should not be the only way we relate to sustainable fashion.

While messages of disaster might grab readers’ attention, they come with the same problem as the technical/scientific writing. Both communicate through environmentalism, not creation. Sustainable fashion is perpetually presented differently from what is considered ‘normal’ fashion, so much even, that it has come to represent its opposite. It’s as if there are only two camps – either you write about hemp and trees and farmers, or you write about silk and champagne and popstars.

As a result, sustainable fashion has systematically been secluded to a separate space, if it receives any space at all. Green issues by Elle magazine, Eco Blogs on Vogue.com, separate writers to specialise on the topic – all well-intentioned attempts at tackling the issue, but ultimately unsuccessful, as they strengthen the idea that sustainable fashion isn’t regular, that there is a division between ‘real’ and ‘green’ fashion. This black-and-white view needs to be abandoned. Sustainable fashion deserves regular (and why not, light-hearted) coverage, and mentioning environmental issues can become a part of mainstream fashion writing. Journalists should not feel forced to choose between being a political activist or a silent bystander, but rather should consider sustainability every step of the way.

The reason fashion journalism feels obliged to choose in an either/or dilemma, is because sustainable fashion is frustratingly often depicted as an oxymoron. Vanessa Friedman opened her talk at the Copenhagen Fashion Summit by pointing this out: ‘Sustainable fashion doesn’t make any sense. It’s a contradiction in terms. On the one hand we have the pressure to be new; on the other, the imperative to maintain.’7 The idea stands at the core of every sustainable fashion piece, from the blogpost8 to the keynote speech9, and has become so formulaic nobody even considers wondering if it’s actually true.

According to this argument, sustainable fashion is an oxymoron because fashion is about the new, which is directly opposed to the sustainable. The argument is flawed on multiple levels. To begin with, it doesn’t differentiate between fashion as a form of applied art and fashion as an industry. When fashion insiders claim that fashion inherently stimulates a need for more product, they aim at the fashion industry as we know it today. Secondly, the argument confuses creating something new with producing more. Fashion celebrates innovation; our current fashion system promotes accumulation. The difference is subtle but crucial.

Parallel to this cliché, it has become de rigueur to critique the current fashion system and vaguely demand change.10 There is a problem. Fashion is not what it used to be. Original and authentic creation is a dying breed. Everyone seems to have a case of fashion fatigue, but very few are able to pinpoint the cause of the issue. Generally, big corporate groups are targeted for their relentless chase of profit which suffocates the creative genius they supposedly rely on. Everyone agrees: fashion is suffering from the fast pace of the system. However, a sustainable vision is rarely mentioned as a solution.

Fashion rhetoric got stuck in a paradoxical platitude where the speed of corporate businesses is hurting creativity yet sustainable fashion is an oxymoron. Won’t anyone dare to admit that the industry could actually benefit from a sustainable production system? Fashion has given sustainability such a bad reputation it can’t even recognise its benefits when the industry itself is suffering.

So, what options are there for the fashion journalist? First and foremost, fashion needs to be de-commodified, meaning we need to stop presenting trends solely as singular must-haves. There needs to be a space to write about fashion through ideas, concepts, zeitgeist, and not just through objects. This is a challenging intellectual exercise, but not an impossible one. Fashion is more than the colour of the season or the length of a skirt. Clearly, shopping pages will remain a fashion magazine staple, but they cannot be the only way we translate trends. If fashion writers continue to pretend fashion is nothing but the hottest, latest, must-have it-item, we give in to consumerism as the only way to experience the art form. Furthermore, the power of high-street bargain brands is that they can copy any design before the original even hits the store. They are fuelled by easy-to-copy, visual trends and right now fashion journalists are handing those to them on a plate.

Secondly, journalists need to work on restoring the consumers’ relationship with their product. A study from 2014 has proven ‘a need for producers to encourage consumers to establish a connection with their purchase by providing the origins of the product and education about disposal of post-consumer textile waste, in other terms completing the lifecycle loop.’11 However, providing this information doesn’t just mean studying farm policies and looking up cleaning guidelines. It means the product must be made valuable.

A journalist does this by telling stories. They reveal the craftsmen behind the product, talk to the designer about his techniques or describe the feeling those pieces will give to their wearers. There are so many different stories within sustainability, yet journalism has only managed to communicate one. It is crucial that more space is dedicated to in-depth and personal storytelling so journalists can engage and inspire readers to think and act differently.

Stories shouldn’t stop at ‘Genderfluidity is back! Shop our top gender-bending items,’ but always look at the way identity is expressed through garments, and what that means. Designers shouldn’t be solely asked about their inspiration, but also about the process behind the design and production of the clothes, and garment workers should become regular contributors to that conversation. Fashion magazines shouldn’t just offer ‘the five hottest summer shoes’ but also ‘the shoes that carried me through five hot summers and one broken heart.’

Right now, the priority is not offering the readers information or creating awareness of the issue, but more profoundly changing consumer behaviour. It’s not sustainable fashion that needs a make-over, it’s our relationship to fashion in general that needs readjustment. Our collective vision of fashion and garments – and the role they play in our lives – needs to transform, and nobody is more equipped for this role than journalists. If culture is language, then writers control the very tools that influence thought. Time to start using them.

Aya Noël is a fashion journalist and editor-at-large for 1 Granary.

  1. http://www.anothermag.com/fashion-beauty/8173/the-new-era-of-sustainable-fashion-brands 

  2. http://www.marieclaire.co.uk/news/fashion-news/the-best-ethical-fashion-brands-to-know-sustainable-fashion-84169#QomG3K7VQ9JaK5RY.99 

  3. http://www.vogue.com/article/stella-mccartney-kering-lecture-sustainability 

  4. http://www.triplepundit.com/special/sustainable-fashion-2014/green-new-black/

  5. https://i-d.vice.com/en_gb/article/lcf-head-challenges-fashion-to-save-the-planet

  6. See: http://www.dazeddigital.com/fashion/article/30786/1/why-we-need-a-fashion-revolution-now or http://www.marieclaire.co.uk/uncategorised/8-things-you-need-to-know-about-fashion-revolution-day-79888 

  7. https://vimeo.com/96064452 

  8. http://stylebubble.co.uk/style_bubble/2015/05/grappling-with-the-true-cost.html 

  9. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WXOd4qh3JKk&t=185s 

  10. See: http://wwd.com/fashion-news/fashion-features/fashion-designers-karl-lagerfeld-marc-jacobs-10269092/ or https://www.businessoffashion.com/articles/opinion/the-roundtable-fixing-the-fashion-system 

  11. http://www.triplepundit.com/special/sustainable-fashion-2014/green-new-black/