Sunday, 14 March 2010

Sustainable definitions + fakes, by M.O.

A very interesting post/mini-discussion was started at the Uniform Project (which I already wrote about) about 'different ways that the term “sustainable” can be applied and mis-applied to fashion.' Three very general definitions are proposed:

- "heirloom sustainability": 'the luxury and couture designers claim it’s timeless design and quality that allow their designs to be handed down from generation to generation.' This is the stuff produced (we assume) from the best materials, that's why it costs a fortune, but it's so good and durable, you can buy one great expensive coat and wear it for years, instead of buying 30 shitty ones every half-season. However, 'luxury and couture designers' are just as much part of the trend machine, or as one commenter put it, 'the mass production – and mass advertising – of cheap fashion, along with an increasingly celebrity-focused culture, perpetuat[ing] the idea that you must have the latest look in order to be stylish'. It is also questionable whether the materials and manufacture of the timeless designs are, in fact, environmentally friendly. Stella McCartney is famous for never using fur or leather, but that's really only the very tip of the iceberg.

- “handmade/local production”: the idea that sustainability means 'low quantity production eschewing large machinery emissions', and the 'employment of skilled artisans'/crafters. But even Etsy and similar services are vaguely problematic according to this definition, because unless you only buy goods made in your area, the fact of their shipping, sometimes from the other side of the globe, defeats the whole local-hence-reduced-carbon-footprint argument. The Uniform Project recognizes a 'related approach' which ignores the literal geo factor, but instead focuses more on the ethical economic development argument: “sustainable communities”, ie. 'when humanitarian entrepreneurs team up with local craftspeople in war-torn or impoverished regions to form collectives to produce and sell regional crafts [presumably sell elsewhere in the world]. The profits, in turn, are used to build schools, teach skills, and acquire much needed resources.' This this last bit is what the Uniform Project are kinda doing themselves, as their primary objective is raising money for the education of kids in India, and only secondarily giving a chance to crafters and not big-deal designers [from all regions, presumably most not war-torn or impoverished] to promote their stuff to wider audiences.

- finally, the third category presented is obviously a joke: 'from a completely different perspective, the fast-fashion market has been known to play loose with semantics and claim that it’s an affordable price-point for customers that makes a brand “sustainable.” Guess we could call that “sustain-a-wallet.”' Lol.

I guess from a customer side, it's a little hard to accept you're doing something wrong when you consume what's shoved in your face, especially if it's shoved in very attractive packaging and at a superlow price. Not everyone will have the time and patience to make their own dress, while even the busiest person will have the time to pop in to a high street chain and '“consume” the latest look'. For most of us, it will also make a lot of sense to buy something that's cheaper and acceptable quality than splash out on stuff every time you need a new tshirt or pair of underwear (more on underwear: in a bit). The challenge we are all facing with making fashion sustainable in a bottom-up, grassroots way is to resist a fuckload of temptations, fuelled by press, advertising, friends, etc. The discussion generated by the Uniform Project post circles around this issue above any others: dealing with wanting to wear fantastic, beautiful outfits, and simultaneously a feeling that you have absolutely nothing in your wardrobe to achieve that effect. One of the commenters confesses to being 'a shopaholic and sucker for buying stuff ‘in vogue’', but like in a cheesy TV show, claims that UP has changed her outlook: 'I realised how l hated fitting in (read: blending) and being part of the ‘cookie-cutter’ culture'. Another commenter says: 'I've gotten back to my DIY roots, to spending money only for used items, and to shopping in my own closet and finding creative new ways to put things together. I approached fashion this way when I was younger out of financial necessity. Doing so now for environmental reasons has reminded me how much more fun it is to create something truly original.' Yet another points out that 'hello, this is how punk (in terms of fashion) came about.' It may all feel a bit banal, but it looks like real people's actual stories of how they changed their lifestyle and shopping patterns.

Eliza Starbuck, author of the post and the designer of the Uniform Project dress, also has a blog which 'reconciles ... two seemingly contradictory ways of life', ie. fashion and social awareness, conscience and glamour. On the particular topic of a wardrobe re-haul every few months, she gives sharp advice: 'When I worked in the industry, and needed to show “trend currency” (which in the fashion industry gets you more respect) I would check out all the runway shows, note my favorite looks and then head out to The Salvation Army and spend $100 on an entire wardrobe for the season. I can promise you that was a whole lot more full filling then spending the same $100 at Forever 21 or H&M. Not to mention the fact that vintage and second hand lasts a lot longer than the ill-fitted, synthetic junk you pick up on high street.' This is the bluntest way of putting it - buying cheap, disposable clothes sucks on all levels. Alluring and easy is the path of the Dark Side, but being unable to control production level sustainability, this is the least we can do - not support things that are outrageously non-sustainable, and only buying first hand when it makes sense (tying this back to the underwear issue in a minute.)

Jean Paul Gaultier, Fall 2010 RTW, aka wear a skirt over your head and many other layered items

Re: lost creativity as a remedy to overconsumption, Eliza recommends 'going through your closet start to finish, trying on your wardrobe to see what you can do to work with what you have: raising hemlines, styling, layering & wrapping in ways you hadn’t considered before.' You don't have to have magic sewing skills for that. Essentially, weird layering combos are what most fashion bloggers are doing, even if they're doing it with the free designer samples they got in the mail (count how many garments Susie Bubble uses in a 'week' of outfits). And even idiotic spring shopping spree columnists will tell you layering is the way to go, particularly in-between seasons.

A Matt Irving Delphi design 'fucked over' by H&M

A loosely connected aspect of sustainability/fashion ethics which I believe needs more discussion is the question of plagiarism. We all know buying fakes of the big brands is by many considered a total no-no, and by some the only affordable way of flashing logos, and both have their arguments to justify their positions. I don't mean to discuss whether it's ethical or sustainable to buy fake big brand designer goods. All massive companies have to deal with counterfeiters, plus a lot of the time buying real or buying fake probably sustains a sweatshop. Alright, I'm being a bit harsh. Of course you should never buy fakes. But it doesn't seem SUCH a big deal for LVMH to lose out on a couple of thousands/millions (?), because they'll earn their share anyway. Of course, they have all the right to get angry and worked up about it. And if you can't afford the real thing, buying into the brand and logo obsession with a fake is slightly humiliating - but that's my personal point of view. What is beyond personal opinions is legislation, and big brands have the means to make all sorts of efforts to protect their intellectual property. But what happens with cases of copying images/ideas of small, independent artists? Think about it: you are that small, independent artist, so you put your stuff up on the internet, because you don't have a gallery or an affair with a gallery owner, and you also want many people to see your work, not just the same hipsters hanging out in the mentioned non-existent gallery every day because they live upstairs. Then suddenly an image strikingly similar to your own pops up at a big store, and to you, there is no way it could be a case of great minds thinking alike. Problem is, who will believe you? So while you struggle to pay rent, a mass-producing chain happily earns more money on something that could have sold just as well from your online shop.

This is what happened to Hidden Eloise and Paperchase, but with a happy ending. Paperchase initially denied the copying allegations, but after a Twitter backlash and numerous emails, agreed to investigate further and finally owned up and pulled the entire stock from stores. That's probably one in a million stories which favour the underdog. Most independent artists don't get Neil Gaiman twittering to 1.4 million people about how their artwork, pattern, or whatever else was stolen by a big company who thinks they can do anything. There's two blogs (both American, but I'm sure there's British equivalents out there) that deal with this sort of crap: you thought we wouldn't notice, and Urban Counterfeiters (yup, UO are not so cool like that). Have a look.

The promised ethical underwear bit that I left for dessert: today's Observer column It's not easy being green says 'pants to the pesticides used in manufacturing cotton!'. Apparently not all cotton is good, as it 'soaks up 25% of all pesticides and herbicides', and so 'a single pair of cotton pants uses 10ml of pesticides.' Sounds bad. The harmful pesticide endosulfan is now banned in many countries, and its producer, the pharmaceutical giant Bayer, has pledged to phase it out completely by the end of 2010 after a hilarious campaign by, 'a leader in fairtrade cotton underwear, ... whereby protestors sent their worst pair of pants to Bayer'. Other recs are (zero-carbon pants from recycled sources) and (a workers' co-operative in Southampton employing women who have been granted asylum but find it difficult to get work). Also have a look at page 50 of the new N.E.E.T. magazine for some handmade underwear tips. That's sustainability at its best - combining work ethic, good material sourcing, and an occasional bit of humour (not to mention a great end product).

So... keep it MODO, people ;)