“The apparel industry has one of the largest carbon footprints globally, and contributes to massive air and water pollution. Consumer behavior, in addition to industry practices, have contributed to what is now approaching a global crisis. Given the magnitude and urgency of the problem, efforts towards conscious consumption and responsible production will need to be more widely adopted and amplified.”
– Change Fashion, wechangefashion.org
Change Fashion was a thought leadership conference and immersive sustainability experience designed to educate people about the devastating environmental impact of the fashion industry. I had the opportunity to attend two of the panels and walk through the exhibition. Here’s what I learned:
Sustain Fashion Opening Panel
The opening panel featured Mara Hoffman (Mara Hoffman), Joel Towers (Parsons School of Design), and Linda Greer (Natural Resources Defense Council), and was moderated by Sara Kozlowski (Council of Fashion Designers of America). Donna Karan (Donna Karan) introduced the panel and spoke about the importance of fashion. People listen to fashion leaders as we are both dressing people and addressing them. We must focus on connecting the dots as we move toward a more sustainable future. We are all dots.
The panelists spoke about the current state of the fashion industry and the sustainability movement. The apparel industry has one of the largest carbon footprints globally and contributes to massive resource wastage, and air and water pollution. Today’s consumer has growing concerns about the social and environmental consequences of their purchases. Many companies and brands are beginning to implement more innovative policies and practices to reduce their environmental footprint. How is this helping and what more can be done?
Mara Hoffman, Mara Hoffman
I really enjoyed hearing Mara Hoffman speak. I didn’t realize her company was invested in sustainable practices until she spoke about them on stage. She spoke about how she hit a wall about 4 years ago, where she found an awareness and understanding of the dark side of the industry she was so willingly contributing to. Her consciousness began to outweigh her desire to design until she was faced with the decision to either shut down her company or change the way she did things. She started with her swimwear line, and began “sneaking in” sustainable practices in a way that did not disrupt the business. She introduced sustainable textiles and slowly began to rebuild her business with sustainability at its foundation.
Mara spoke about the importance of implementing sustainable practices into every aspect of your business, “from the seed up.” It is not enough to just use eco-friendly textiles. Sustainability must be present at every touchpoint, from designing to manufacturing to marketing. We must strive for transparency in every step we take and find a way to speak to customers that creates an emotional connection.
“We work in an aesthetically driven industry and that’s not going to change just because we are trying to sell more sustainable products.”
One of my favorite things she said was when she was speaking about the way we communicate with consumers, because it’s something that I’ve noticed too. Consumers want to have beautiful things. We work in an aesthetically driven industry and that’s not going to change just because we are trying to sell more sustainable products. Even though we want to open consumers’ eyes up to the ways in which their buying behaviors harm the environment, we need to keep them in the beauty of the experience. The sustainable products that brands produce need to be beautiful. They need to be sexy. We need to keep the joy and beauty in the consumption process because not many consumers will choose sustainability over beauty. Products need both.
Mara also mentioned that the sustainable movement and consumers’ choices need to stem from a compassion for all living things. We need to bring humans in and promote inclusivity across the board. It’s survival of the kindest. There needs to be a collective rise in human consciousness. But it’s not just up to consumers. Designers also need to be willing to share, becoming less of a competitor and more of a partner. We are all in this together.
“We must redefine what influencing means.”
Finally, we must shift how we relate to things. There is a gap in our understanding of our relationship to all things. If we can start a new love affair with the objects we own, we can direct our wanting toward greater energetic things rather than material things. We must ask ourselves who is speaking to our young women and what are they telling them. We must redefine what influencing means.
Linda Greer, NRDC
It was great hearing a more technical, scientific perspective in a discussion about fashion. Linda Greer is a Senior Scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council and launched NRDC’s Clean by Design program in 2009 to address the environmental impacts of the fashion industry.
Linda addressed the need for us to go from awareness to action. We must go back to the fundamentals and ensure that sustainable practices are implemented in every step of the production process. We are at a pivot moment right now due to the combination of awareness and urgency. It’s no longer “Do you believe in climate change?” it’s “Do you understand climate change?”
We must bring sustainability awareness to different departments in companies. Many times, the designers and sourcing departments know very little about sustainability, even though they are making the decisions that affect a product’s environmental impact the most.
“More people shop than vote.”
The tools are in place, what’s missing is the motivation and the drive to make sustainability a priority. More people shop than vote, so there is a lot of potential leverage and change that can come from commerce. We have an opportunity to develop a relationship with customers, but we must learn how to take about these issues in a way that makes sustainability a positive rather than something to brush under the rug. Right now, “eco-friendly” or “sustainable” evokes images of a hemp bag. How do we change that? Consumers should learn about sustainability through fashion rather than through less creative and less compelling channels.
As we think about a 5 year plan toward achieving more sustainable practices, we must keep in mind the 3 Ms: Measure, Motivate, and Mandate. We must map the supply chain, measure impacts, motivate companies and consumers, and mandate manufacturers to change the way they do things.
Joel Towers, Parsons School of Design
As there is an increase of awareness regarding the social and environmental consequences of the apparel industry, there needs to be a shift in the way people entering the industry are taught. At Parsons School of Design, a big curriculum shift took place to address the wicked problems that were not being addressed before. It is important that we teach students that their actions have the potential to drive change.
We must build new narrative around clothing and alter the narratives around what consumption looks like. Everyone is included. We must create open source projects and share innovation to create the change that is required.