What do you envision when you think of the most important fashion movement of the past decade? Hipster? Normcore? Athleisure?
We only need to look at what’s unfolding in the world around us to realise that the answer is without a doubt, sustainability. And it’s not just a trend.
One name in particular springs to mind when it comes to the topic of sustainable and ethical fashion in Australia—Clare Press. Clare is the presenter of the Wardrobe Crisis podcast (do yourself a favour and binge this immediately) and Australian VOGUE's Sustainability Editor-at-Large.
Clare’s 2016 book, Wardrobe Crisis, How We Went From Sunday Best to Fast Fashion was named one of the Best Books of 2016 by The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald and her latest book Rise & Resist, How to change the world explores creative and pragmatic approaches to global activism. She’s a passionate advocate for the circular economy and she is the industry’s go-to journalist and consultant on all things sustainability.
Sustainability is complex—and let’s be honest, often pretty overwhelming—so with Clare’s expertise, we’re going to explore some of the in-and-outs of sustainable fashion.
Clare Press by Carlotta Moye
It’s cool to care
The fashion game is changing, and if one thing is clear it’s that it’s officially cool to care. I’m not talking about caring about who the next big name is on the Parisian runways or ditching your current threads for a designer ensemble. It’s cool (and more than ever, essential) to care where our clothes come from, who makes them and what effect they’re having on the planet. The ‘cool to care’ sentiment is something Clare has been promoting for years, and finally it feels like it’s part of the mainstream.
“This is the message that I think we need to get across. It's actually really uncool to trash the planet. If you’re wearing something that could be toxic to your skin, has been toxic to the worker, and has tipped toxic chemicals into the ecosystem—that isn't cool,” says Clare.
The Role of Emerging Designers
An important element of creating a more positive fashion landscape is supporting the emerging labels that are innovating and shaking up the conventions of the fashion industry.
“I think it's often emerging designers or smaller designers that are really, genuinely driven by sustainability. They're the ones that get me excited. I do a lot of work looking at what students are producing and what the next generation of young designers are doing,” she explains.
“Some of it is really system-challenging, but it's not just saying, ‘We're going to use organic cotton,’ or, ‘We're going to switch out to a recycled alternative fibre.’ These emerging designers are saying, ‘How do we completely pull the whole thing down and start again? Should we be looking at access over ownership? Should we be changing the way that we produce completely? Should we be rejecting traditional seasons?’"
It would be easy to look at the issues that pervade the fashion industry and simply conclude that less brands equal less problems. However, Clare’s position isn’t grounded in the tearing down of the industry, rather the betterment of the systems and empowerment of those who operate within it. On the other side, consumers must reevaluate what they expect from labels to avoid falling into the trap of over-consumption.
“I would never say to someone who has a creative drive and wishes to make something special that they shouldn't do it because of consumption. I don't come from that place. I support young designers and the fashion industry in general,” she says.
“The big elephant in the room in the sustainability conversation is over-consumption. That's the bit that no one wants to talk about, that any brand big or small is looking at selling as much as they can in order to thrive. That's the economic system we live under. And that's just the way it is. So it takes a brave brand or designer to say, ‘I'm going to challenge that, produce less and re-think the seasons that everyone else operates along.’”
Buy Well, Buy Less, Buy Second-Hand
Desiring new and beautiful things is human nature, but we need more sustainable solutions to justify our consumption. This includes extending the life of clothes and ensuring where we can that these items have multiple owners. If we can increase the lifespan of our clothes, we can reduce their carbon, water and energy footprint quite drastically. We asked Clare for her top tips when it comes to consuming more sustainably:
“Look for op-shops in posh neighbourhoods! The quality of garments are often amazing. Don't be afraid of buying things that don't fit. Make a friend of your local tailor. If something is made with beautiful fabric and you love it, but it just doesn't fit around the waist or it's too long or too short, you can usually make that your own. And also when you alter something, you love it more.”
“I think that way you can still have all the wonderful clothes that you want, and you don't even have to spend money you haven't got, I don't want sustainable fashion to be elitist. I like the idea of offering solutions that are accessible to everyone.”
“There's something to say about just trying to start simple. And some of the easy, simple things that you can do without having to think too much about them are shop local, say no to plastic. Look for an online store that delivers your purchase in environmentally friendly packaging. Ask yourself if you really need it. Look at ways to access fashion without owning it, whether it be swapping or renting. It's not very hard, and it's fun.”
Consumer vs. Corporation
We’ve addressed some of what we as individual consumers can do, but what about those actually controlling the systems? Purchasing power is real, and makes sense on a simplified level. If we don’t give our money to fast fashion companies they can’t survive, right? Unfortunately it’s a bit more complicated than that.
“At the moment, the onus is on the consumer, we have to do all the work. And that’s good, we should try. But the problem is, the systems aren't in place. The regulations aren't in place. So when we are in our current convenience-based era, we expect things to be relatively easy and convenient and if the systems aren't in place, we have to really go out of our way to try and find an alternative. We need regulation and we need systems to change to make it easy for people to make the right choice,” says Clare.
Having said this, what would a regulated system look like?
“For example, some ways that we could ensure regulation for companies could be, say, tax credits if you use circular materials, or more sustainable materials. Or companies get penalised tax-wise if they don't have a system in place to deal with waste. All this stuff is possible, but is not happening.”
What can we do now?
Clare suggests, “Don't consider fashion to be disposable. Don't buy clothes that can just throw away. Buy the best quality stuff you can, and then consider how you can give it a second life, then third and fourth and fifth life by passing it on. Take part in that circular economy yourself!”
To keep up to date on developments, news and key figures in the world of sustainability, subscribe to Clare’s podcast Wardrobe Crisis. We’re obsessed, and we promise you will be, too.