Sustainability Media Guide
In my fashion and sustainability course at Pratt, I spend the first quarter of the semester breaking down the many ways in which the fashion industry is not sustainable before turning to the variety of solutions emerging today; increasingly, I’ve thought about changing this ratio. Every organic cotton collection launched by mass-retailer H&M and every upcycled denim pop-up opening in SoHo compel critical examinations of the broader systems of production and consumption underlying these responses – a perspective endorsing systemic change either explicitly developed or implied in many of the sources below.
What remains unarticulated, however, is the need for systemic change to occur on not only a material level but a representational one as well. If you believe, as I do, that fashion is foremost about cultivating desire for the new at a speed unique to market goods (just think: would you want to buy toothbrushes, coffee mugs or cars with the same frequency as snagging another sweater at Uniqlo?), then we should critically regard how the fashion industry produces the image-worlds of aspirational glamour that we also consume with such apparent fervor. Some of the sources I’ve chosen to include thus address the question of fashion’s unsustainable visual economy.
Of the nine sources listed, more than half examine the fashion industry’s ills while the remainder offers some examples of what so-called “slow fashion” – an umbrella term for sustainable alternatives ranging from simply remembering what we already have in our closets to public and private investment in local manufacturing movements – looks like. My students tend to find the slow fashion movement more marketing ploy than systematically systemically effective, but that may be a question of seeing the glass as half empty versus half full, rather than an accurate judgment of reform efforts from within and outside the industry. I’ll leave that for you to decide.
1. The True Cost, dir. Andrew Morgan, 92 min (2015)
This documentary is worth the hype. Produced by celebrity green fashion advocate Livia Firth, who spearheaded Hollywood’s Green Carpet Challenge and runs the brand consultancy Eco-Age, The True Cost begins with the undeniable allure of ever-cheapening clothes and quickly dives into a multi-layered explanation of the phenomenon known as fast fashion. Morgan and his crew trail fast fashion’s supply chain across the world, from Herald Square to Bangladesh, the Caribbean and beyond.
2. Elizabeth Cline, Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion (2012)
The first book on fast fashion to garner major press attention, Overdressed is an accessible, journalistic take on the entire lifecycle of the $20 Zara dresses and $7 Kmart flats we buy – and toss – without a thought today. Beginning with her own overflowing closet, Cline provides a comprehensive account of the business models that drive the global fashion industry as well as the derivative market of used clothing.
3. Andrew Brooks, Clothing Poverty: The Hidden World of Fast Fashion and Second-hand Clothes (2015)
Development geographer Andrew Brooks explores the political economy of what he calls the fashion industry’s “shadow world” in this trenchant critique of fast fashion. Used clothes in first-world countries are shipped by the thousands of tons to sub-Saharan Africa, reinforcing structural inequalities in the global economy. The argument gets heavy-handed at times, but the point is well taken.
4. Girl Model, dirs. David Redmon & Ashley Sabin, 78 min (2011)
A chilling look at the labor conditions that enable the fashion industry’s glamorous visual economy, Girl Model is one of the most nuanced treatments of modeling work I’ve come across in my research. The award-winning directors accompany 13-year-old Nadya from an impoverished village in Siberia to the anonymous casting offices of Tokyo, a potential entry point for models hoping to land in the bigger European and American modeling markets.
5. Dana Thomas, Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster (2008)
The cover illustration tells it all: today, the luxury industry is built on branding and profits just like any other mass-market business. Journalist Dana Thomas lays bare the industry’s structural transformation from small, family-run businesses to corporate behemoths in the 1980s under the leadership of a certain Louis Vuitton Moet-Hennessy.
6. Michael Lavergne, Fixing Fashion: Rethinking the Way We Make, Market and Buy Our Clothes (2015)
Following careers in both corporate supply chain management and corporate auditing, Michael Lavergne offers valuable insight into the mechanics of each industry. The details may be tedious but stick it through and you’ll emerge with well-founded arguments on how to reform the current fashion system.
7. Emily Spivack, Worn Stories (2014)
Thank fast fashion for making this book read like a charming prehistory of clothes and closets. Culled from thousands of stories about a favorite T-shirt, pair of Converse or moth-bitten sweater collected over the course of three years on the author’s original “Worn Stories” blog, this New York Times bestseller is a poignant reminder of the value that clothes worn again and again possess in our lives. This is one kind of prehistory worth returning to, IMO.
8. Sass Brown, ReFashioned: Cutting-Edge Clothing from Upcycled Materials (2013)
Simply organized into two sections – “Designers Working With Used Materials” and “Designers Working With Unused Materials,” ReFashioned is a richly illustrated survey of the most innovative sustainable labels in the fashion industry today. Check out author and FIT Professor Sass Brown’s project, Eco Fashion Talk, for further inspiration.
9. The United Nation’s Ethical Fashion Initiative (EFI) (Visit here.)
Yes, the U.N. is behind sustainable fashion now! With partners that include major fashion labels, organizations such as the Fair Labor Association and a host of foreign ministries, the EFI is poised to become the gold standard in multi-lateral sustainable fashion initiatives. The program helps over 7,000 artisans worldwide grow their brands for the luxury fashion market.
Also be sure to check out Elena's review of Fixing Fashion: Rethinking the Way We Make, Market and Buy Our Clothes here in FSJ Issue No. 1!