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You Can't Buy a Cheap product and have a Clear Conscience

In a backlash against cheap mass-production in the fashion industry, futurists and fashion critics say the answer lies in better and smarter purchasing as well as designers embracing a brave new scientific world.

By Gabrielle Kennedy / 13-11-2008

When Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter announced that green was the new black, ripples of enthusiasm spread throughout the fashion world and a bandwagon was built. That was two years ago: the magazine is still not printed on recycled paper and fashion is no closer to claiming sustainable status than it was in the 90s. If anything, things have gotten worse as green has become an over-used, overtly-abused and little understood catch-term.

“It’s all a load of rubbish,” says David Shah, one of the speakers at this week’s Beyond Green in Amsterdam. Beyond Green, now in its second year, is a symposium coordinated by AMFI and ArtEZ Institute of the Arts to discuss issues of sustainability in fashion.

Shah, a fashion designer and publisher of the influential magazine Viewpoint, says everyone jumped aboard that bandwagon, slapped on a green label and employed advertising imagery to imply that their company was earth-friendly. “And nobody believed it,” he says. “Nobody even knew what it meant.”

Sandy Black, professor at London College of Fashion, agrees that neither the industry nor the public is sustainability-literate. “All things eco failed in the 90s,” she says, “because nobody knew the rules or understood the jargon.”

Back then, green fashion mostly meant organic cotton, an idea heavily touted by British designer Katharine Hamnett. And while none of the speakers at the Beyond Green symposium was anti-organic-cotton, they unanimously agree that it isn’t the solution. Organic cotton, like inner-city, organic food boutiques and eco-travel, is an elitist, life-style choice available only to a small minority.

“And where is organic cotton now?” hissed Shah. “Nobody is talking about it anymore because there simply wasn’t enough to go around.”

Instead, Shah says the path to sustainability can only arise out of a mental paradigm shift away from the now and into the future. “The macro-economy has clearly failed,” he says going on to talk terms like micro-economies, bespoke, and mass-customization. Consumers want unique items, which are usually better loved so also more sustainable.

Picking up on Barack Obama’s popularity and win, trend forecaster Li Edelkoort points to Africa as a haven for personalized fashion. “Africa is the ultimate continent of bespoke fashion,” she says. “And African women know how to dress. They have an innate sense of style.” Demand then has come full-circle, away from mass-market production and back to the couture-mentality of yesteryear.

Shah, though, is adamant that this nod in favour of old values remains devoid of nostalgia. It should not, according to him, have anything to do with a desire for a more simple, handmade lifestyle, and instead be all about science and the future. “Fiction will become faction,” he says going on to describe a world where man-made particles are released into the air and oceans to solve environmental problems. He calls it nonsense to even try to reverse human behaviour in an attempt to prevent future environmental problems. “Scientific intervention is risky, but it is the only way,” he says.

Every speaker lamented the irony of fashion's unfashionable conservatism. While architecture and furniture design have been revolutionized by technology, fashion design still lags behind. One celebrated exception is the hero of sustainability, Martin Margiela who reforms old clothes on an axis to create new forms. In general though, fashion design is stuck in a time warp. “We are still stitching like the Egyptians did,” Edelkoort says. “There is nothing futuristic about the industry … new forms, and new materials are very rare.”

Better polyesters, enhanced and coated textiles, biometrics, and smart materials using nanotechnology are still in the discussion stages. That a garments biggest impact on the environment comes from its laundering and not its manufacturing is something that the textile world is all but ignoring. And except for a few notable exceptions like Hussein Chalayan and Nike, fashion designers are not lacing garments with technology, designing wearable wireless or even tapping the power of a basic chip to enhance the light and energy of clothes.

Edelkoort reinforces the popular idea that the boundary betwen design disciplines is blurring by keeping the focus of her speech on furniture. She beams images onto large screens of Dutch designs by Marcel Wanders, Maarten Baas and Tord Boontje saying that each object possesses soul and personality. “A consumer has to love an object and to have a real relationship with it, if they are not going to throw it away,” she says echoing the earlier idea of bespoke fashion being better loved and therefore more sustainable. “I think we can calm down consumption by creating more energy between objects and their owners.”

For all of fashion’s failures, every speaker at Beyond Green was full of belief and optimism in the industry. “Fashion is the 5th biggest industry across the globe,” says Black. “People's lives depend on it and we don’t want to stop that.”

But it was perhaps Otto von Busch whose cynicism for boycotts, and passion for the power and mystery of fashion that impressed most.

Von Busch dismisses as hopeless the culture of protest. He questions the validity of Naomi Klein’s No Logo ethos and even German artist XOOOOX’s “HIV” protest piece. That billboard intervention, erected during this year’s Berlin Fashion Week, suggested that rather than HIV, it will be mass production and consumption that spells our end. What dissent like this fails to grasp, however, is that many people, even with their qualms about ethical production and distribution, love fashion.

Using computer interface analogy of closed and open operating systems, Von Busch launched the audience into a world of fan-fiction where individuals spot loopholes and portals in a brand, jump in and appropriate plot lines for themselves. “It’s like liberating the characters in a film,” he says.

So if you are a fashion fan, but don't agree with what the mass-market is doing, find a portal, jump in and act. Von Busch’s best example among many was the world of counterfeit crocheting. Uploaded patterns instruct “hacktivists” on how to create designer items pixel by pixel. “It is about the reverse engineering of fashion brands,” he says. “It uses the energy of a fashion brand and gives away the components and source codes to users so we can all join in.”

The full-capacity audience at Beyond Green left with a good sense of where fashion is headed. Consume smarter, design smarter and embrace science. Edelkoort concluded with a short description of her emerging plans for a field university of the future that fuses design and science. “One day we will be able to engineer form,” she says. “Imagine being able to sow design. We can already create form from living matter like skin and bone, and the obvious next step is to bioengineer design. In your life time, students from different universities will be cooperating to achieve this … it really will happen.”

Images: David Shah, Katharine Hamnett’s organic cotton campaign, Li Edelkoort calls African women “innately stylish”, beyond Green's audience, XOOOOX’s HIV protest art, counterfeit crocheting, Beyond Green’s audience, hero of sustainability is Martin Margiela, Hussein Chalayan. All event photography by Mathieu van Ek.

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