OPINION - Finding joy in sustainability

·5-min read
Stella Mc Cartney Spring/Summer 2022 (Getty Images)
Stella Mc Cartney Spring/Summer 2022 (Getty Images)

Getting dressed has become a political and moral minefield. On one hand, there’s the joy of a package arriving in the post, signalling a new opportunity to get dressed up and shake off the darkness of the last couple of years. While on the other hand, feeling guilt and shame that every order is contributing to the impending climate apocalypse.

I’m a firm believer in the idea that every time we get dressed is an opportunity to tell a new story about ourselves. As a futurist, I’ve been lucky enough to build my career this way, working with brands to figure out what stories people will want to tell about themselves (and the products they need to do so) two, five or even ten years from now.

The pandemic has revealed the desire for many of us to tell new stories, to cast off the loungewear for dopamine-infused colour in those moments of catharsis and connection between Covid outbreaks.

During this discombobulating period, fashion is a way of anchoring ourselves. Delving into our wardrobes to pick through what’s there, allows us to remember who we were, the carefree souls that entered 2020. But it also allows us to look forward and tell our stories about who we might want to become.

Finn Buchanan in Selfridges Rental (Selfridges Rental)
Finn Buchanan in Selfridges Rental (Selfridges Rental)

In this, there’s a huge amount of tension, where many of us are oscillating between a sense of blind panic when it comes to buying new things as the planet is burning, while simultaneously wanting to treat ourselves for making it through the pandemic. Some days it’s a case of: forget the pandemic, forget the climate crisis, let’s put our best heels on and go dancing.

According to research by Zalando, 65 per cent of women and 56 per cent of men feel their self confidence is “strongly influenced” by the clothes they wear. But when it comes to sustainable fashion, the most common sentiment is guilt, and half of consumers are not even sure what sustainability in the context of fashion means.

But instead of living in a state of denial, we need to continue to focus our energies on making sure that what we wear defines the best of who we want to be, and finding more joy in sustainable products and behaviours.

For many of us working in the fashion industry, there’s an understanding that the pace of consumption simply cannot continue at the rate that it has done in recent years. Traid research from 2018 found that the number of items of clothing purchased per person has doubled over the prior decade, and the number of times an item is worn before it ceases to be used has decreased by 36 per cent compared to 15 years ago.

But the message of buying less, but better is not yet landing in the way that it needs to. Partly, because when we talk about it, what we start to imagine is a timeless capsule collection of clothes in navy blue, beige and black.

Dress for rent on Rotaro (Rotaro)
Dress for rent on Rotaro (Rotaro)

This is a tough sell when people feel like they’ve had to give up so much over the past couple of years. But the fact is, that a more sustainable fashion future will require all of us to buy fewer items. This doesn’t have to mean that we all have to wear the same clothes in the same dull colours. Shopping for clothing is, for many of us, a hugely emotional act. And as we ask all of the important questions around provenance and production, we should still be asking ourselves how an item makes us feel, and whether we will love to wear it a year from now.

Looking at my own wardrobe, the thing that stands out as the greatest longevity is a leopard print jacket that I got on sale, maybe a decade ago, from the big Topshop on Oxford Street (remember that?). Styled with high-waisted blue jeans, a cashmere tee and a loafer I’m elegant and put together, when paired with a clashing striped shirt and directional trainers, I’m serving a take on Jenna Lyons’ style, and with a band tee, ripped jeans and Converse, I’m firmly planted back in the grunge era of 1993. This is a jacket that has taken me across two continents - from boozy nights out in Shoreditch in my 20s to dinners and job interviews in my 30s. I get to be reacquainted with all of the different lives I’ve lived.

When we think about being more sustainable, it’s not all about saying no to shopping, but saying yes to shopping in new and exciting ways.

There is still a lot of work to be done to get sustainable fashion solutions to scale, things like closed loop, which will see garments recycled back into garments again, rather than seeing 3.1kg per person of clothing going to waste in the UK each year.

Stella McCartney x Bolt Threads mushroom leather (Stella McCartney)
Stella McCartney x Bolt Threads mushroom leather (Stella McCartney)

But there are reasons for optimism, brands are really starting to embrace resale as part of their business models, through partnerships with businesses like Depop, Vestiaire Collective, The Real Real and Rotaro. Beyond extending the life of a garment, each of these businesses are helping fashion loving individuals feel like they are connected and part of a community.

New tools are also emerging that make this process easier, Mr Porter has been testing its Digital ID, a QR code that records each item’s history – telling its story from manufacture through use, resale, reuse and recycling.

Companies are also getting better at creating the perfect item for each of us as individuals. Unspun is a US denim company that creates custom jeans, which requires you only to twirl in front of your smartphone to get your measurements. When you own the perfect jean that has been designed for your individual body, you’re likely to have a stronger emotional attachment, which means you’ll wear them more often and for longer too.

Innovation is also creating new, highly desirable fabrics, with brands like Stella McCartney working with Bolt Threads to bring products made out of Mycelium (a mushroom-like fungus), to market at a broader scale in 2022.

Fashion often leads the way in terms of helping define the stories people want to tell about themselves. As we look to create a sense of hope when we come out of the pandemic, new stories around sustainability, ones that lean into joy and away from guilt will be necessary to help ensure the industry’s long term recovery.

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