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What Journalism has been Getting Wrong about Sustainable Fashion

by Aya Nol (http://vestoj.com/author/aya-noel/)

Keywords: FASHION JOURNALISM (HTTP://VESTOJ.COM/TAG/FASHION-JOURNALISM/),


GREEN IS THE NEW BLACK (HTTP://VESTOJ.COM/TAG/GREEN-IS-THE-NEW-BLACK/),
NO OATMEAL-Y SHIRTS! (HTTP://VESTOJ.COM/TAG/NO-OATMEAL-Y-SHIRTS/),
SILK AND CHAMPAGNE AND POPSTARS (HTTP://VESTOJ.COM/TAG/SILK-AND-CHAMPAGNE-AND-POPSTARS/),
SUSTAINABILITY (HTTP://VESTOJ.COM/TAG/SUSTAINABILITY/)
(http://vestoj.com/app/uploads/2017/02/communicatingsustainability.jpg)

Two women protect themselves from the sun with newspapers, 1963.

THE LIMITS OF MY language are the limits of my world, wrote Ludwig Wittgenstein in
the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Likewise, there is a realm of sustainable fashion that
remains undiscovered because nobody has figured out how to write about it.

Increasingly, designers and brands are proposing alternative ways to design, produce and sell
clothes within an environmental and ethical philosophy. Fashion journalism however, is still
struggling to translate these exciting changes to a larger audience. Granted, the advertising
power of big corporations has limited the editorial coverage of independent design, but even
the scarce writing that does exist on the topic is not doing the cause justice.

Sustainable fashion has procured a bad reputation and fashion writing has only contributed
to this stigmatisation it is tangible right from the first sentences of every sustainable
fashion piece. These conventionally open with the unsuccessful reassurance that sustainable
fashion is not bland, boring or hippy-esque. Sustainable fashion, so they claim, is no longer
confined to the wardrobes of hemp-wearing acolytes or those who favour a Birkenstock
above all else,1 and the lumpy, itchy, hempy pieces of the past are gone.2 Sarah Mower
recently titled a Vogue interview with Stella McCartney with the cryptic No Oatmeal-y
Shirts!3

Ironically, saying that a product is not worn by hemp-wearing acolytes only adds to the
suspicion that it could be, and shirts that are definitely not oatmeal-y are rarely more
attractive than their luxurious silk alternatives. In their well-intentioned effort to free
sustainable fashion from a supposedly negative image, fashion journalists are doing the exact
opposite. In fact, the average consumer knows very little about sustainable fashion, if theyve
even heard the term before.4 Writers are counterarguing a clich no one knows about, and
are thus confirming the very image they are battling.

When journalists do start describing the sustainable brand or designer, they do so with a
vocabulary that has been handed to them from an outside source. Sustainability is an
extremely complicated topic, and most writers are therefore convinced that sustainable
fashion requires a specific lexicon, which they then borrow from environmentalism. This
leads to an array of pseudo-scientific lingo and dry data. Expressions like eco-conscious,
environmentally friendly and green style have invaded journalism, even if most readers have
no idea what they mean and frankly do not care enough to find out.

The word sustainability has come to serve as a linguistic umbrella for a wide array of
problems and their solutions: raw material sourcing, local manufacturing, recycling, labour
practises, energy efficiency, chemical pollution, support for small businesses. It simply isnt
possible for journalists to cover every technical aspect of sustainable fashion: the problem is
that they try to. Faced with an unfamiliar topic, writers cling on to dry facts and lists of
empty numbers, and they throw out any sense of style along the way. Did you know that one
pair of jeans takes 4000 litres of water to produce or that the impact of the production of just
one T-shirt is roughly equal to the carbon footprint of driving a car for ten miles?5 Maybe.
Has it made you more excited to discover sustainable fashion? Probably not. It seems as
though writers are compensating a lack of transparency in the fashion industry at large by
listing every technical detail about those brands that do offer information about the
production of their garments.

Whenever journalists attempt at writing something less dry and lifeless, they choose to focus
on passionate and emotional stories, hoping to reach their audience by pulling on the
heartstrings. Its the story of a single garment worker who cant afford to feed her children,
or a farmer whose crops are polluted by a nearby dye factory. Clusters of these stories can be
found on two occasions: Earth Day (April 22) when journalists rely on pressing global
warming issues and doom scenarios to talk about sustainable brands and anytime a factory
disaster happens.6 Of course, these stories need abundant coverage, and they are a great
method to raise awareness, but this should not be the only way we relate to sustainable
fashion.

While messages of disaster might grab readers attention, they come with the same problem
as the technical/scientific writing. Both communicate through environmentalism, not
creation. Sustainable fashion is perpetually presented differently from what is considered
normal fashion, so much even, that it has come to represent its opposite. Its as if there are
only two camps either you write about hemp and trees and farmers, or you write about silk
and champagne and popstars.

As a result, sustainable fashion has systematically been secluded to a separate space, if it


receives any space at all. Green issues by Elle magazine, Eco Blogs on Vogue.com, separate
writers to specialise on the topic all well-intentioned attempts at tackling the issue, but
ultimately unsuccessful, as they strengthen the idea that sustainable fashion isnt regular, that
there is a division between real and green fashion. This black-and-white view needs to be
abandoned. Sustainable fashion deserves regular (and why not, light-hearted) coverage, and
mentioning environmental issues can become a part of mainstream fashion writing.
Journalists should not feel forced to choose between being a political activist or a silent
bystander, but rather should consider sustainability every step of the way.

The reason fashion journalism feels obliged to choose in an either/or dilemma, is because
sustainable fashion is frustratingly often depicted as an oxymoron. Vanessa Friedman opened
her manifesto by pointing this out: Sustainable fashion doesnt make any sense. Its a
contradiction in terms. On the one hand we have the pressure to be new; on the other, the
imperative to maintain.7 The idea stands at the core of every sustainable fashion piece, from
the blogpost8 to the keynote speech9 , and has become so formulaic nobody even considers
wondering if its actually true.

According to this argument, sustainable fashion is an oxymoron because fashion is about the
new, which is directly opposed to the sustainable. The argument is flawed on multiple levels.
To begin with, it doesnt differentiate between fashion as a form of applied art and fashion as
an industry. When fashion insiders claim that fashion inherently stimulates a need for more
product, they aim at the fashion industry as we know it today. Secondly, the argument
confuses creating something new with producing more. Fashion celebrates innovation; our
current fashion system promotes accumulation. The difference is subtle but crucial.

Parallel to this clich, it has become de rigueur to critique the current fashion system and
vaguely demand change.10 There is a problem. Fashion is not what it used to be. Original
and authentic creation is a dying breed. Everyone seems to have a case of fashion fatigue, but
very few are able to pinpoint the cause of the issue. Generally, big corporate groups are
targeted for their relentless chase of profit which suffocates the creative genius they
supposedly rely on. Everyone agrees: fashion is suffering from the fast pace of the system.
However, a sustainable vision is rarely mentioned as a solution.

Fashion rhetoric got stuck in a paradoxical platitude where the speed of corporate businesses
is hurting creativity yet sustainable fashion is an oxymoron. Wont anyone dare to admit that
the industry could actually benefit from a sustainable production system? Fashion has given
sustainability such a bad reputation it cant even recognise its benefits when the industry
itself is suffering.

So, what options are there for the fashion journalist? First and foremost, fashion needs to be
de-commodified, meaning we need to stop presenting trends solely as singular must-haves.
There needs to be a space to write about fashion through ideas, concepts, zeitgeist, and not
just through objects. This is a challenging intellectual exercise, but not an impossible one.
Fashion is more than the colour of the season or the length of a skirt. Clearly, shopping
pages will remain a fashion magazine staple, but they cannot be the only way we translate
trends. If fashion writers continue to pretend fashion is nothing but the hottest, latest, must-
have it-item, we give in to consumerism as the only way to experience the art form.
Furthermore, the power of high-street bargain brands is that they can copy any design before
the original even hits the store. They are fuelled by easy-to-copy, visual trends and right now
fashion journalists are handing those to them on a plate.

Secondly, journalists need to work on restoring the consumers relationship with their
product. A study from 2014 has proven a need for producers to encourage consumers to
establish a connection with their purchase by providing the origins of the product and
education about disposal of post-consumer textile waste, in other terms completing the
lifecycle loop.11 However, providing this information doesnt just mean studying farm
policies and looking up cleaning guidelines. It means the product must be made valuable.
A journalist does this by telling stories. They reveal the craftsmen behind the product, talk to
the designer about his techniques or describe the feeling those pieces will give to their
wearers. There are so many different stories within sustainability, yet journalism has only
managed to communicate one. It is crucial that more space is dedicated to in-depth and
personal storytelling so journalists can engage and inspire readers to think and act differently.

Stories shouldnt stop at Genderfluidity is back! Shop our top gender-bending items, but
always look at the way identity is expressed through garments, and what that means.
Designers shouldnt be solely asked about their inspiration, but also about the process behind
the design and production of the clothes, and garment workers should become regular
contributors to that conversation. Fashion magazines shouldnt just offer the five hottest
summer shoes but also the shoes that carried me through five hot summers and one broken
heart.

Right now, the priority is not offering the readers information or creating awareness of the
issue, but more profoundly changing consumer behaviour. Its not sustainable fashion that
needs a make-over, its our relationship to fashion in general that needs readjustment. Our
collective vision of fashion and garments and the role they play in our lives needs to
transform, and nobody is more equipped for this role than journalists. If culture is language,
then writers control the very tools that influence thought. Time to start using them.

Aya Nol is a fashion journalist and editor-at-large for 1 Granary.

1. http://www.anothermag.com/fashion-beauty/8173/the-new-era-of-sustainable-fashion-
brands (http://www.anothermag.com/fashion-beauty/8173/the-new-era-of-sustainable-
fashion-brands)

2. http://www.marieclaire.co.uk/news/fashion-news/the-best-ethical-fashion-brands-to-know-
sustainable-fashion-84169#QomG3K7VQ9JaK5RY.99
(http://www.marieclaire.co.uk/news/fashion-news/the-best-ethical-fashion-brands-to-know-
sustainable-fashion-84169#QomG3K7VQ9JaK5RY.99)

3. http://www.vogue.com/article/stella-mccartney-kering-lecture-sustainability
(http://www.vogue.com/article/stella-mccartney-kering-lecture-sustainability)

4. http://www.triplepundit.com/special/sustainable-fashion-2014/green-new-black/
(http://www.triplepundit.com/special/sustainable-fashion-2014/green-new-black/)

5. https://i-d.vice.com/en_gb/article/lcf-head-challenges-fashion-to-save-the-planet (https://i-
d.vice.com/en_gb/article/lcf-head-challenges-fashion-to-save-the-planet)

6. See: http://www.dazeddigital.com/fashion/article/30786/1/why-we-need-a-fashion-
revolution-now (http://www.dazeddigital.com/fashion/article/30786/1/why-we-need-a-
fashion-revolution-now) or http://www.marieclaire.co.uk/uncategorised/8-things-you-need-
to-know-about-fashion-revolution-day-79888
(http://www.marieclaire.co.uk/uncategorised/8-things-you-need-to-know-about-fashion-
revolution-day-79888)

7. https://vimeo.com/96064452 (https://vimeo.com/96064452)

8. http://stylebubble.co.uk/style_bubble/2015/05/grappling-with-the-true-cost.html
(http://stylebubble.co.uk/style_bubble/2015/05/grappling-with-the-true-cost.html)

9. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WXOd4qh3JKk&t=185s
(https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WXOd4qh3JKk&t=185s)

10. See: http://wwd.com/fashion-news/fashion-features/fashion-designers-karl-lagerfeld-marc-


jacobs-10269092/ (http://wwd.com/fashion-news/fashion-features/fashion-designers-karl-
lagerfeld-marc-jacobs-10269092/) or
https://www.businessoffashion.com/articles/opinion/the-roundtable-fixing-the-fashion-
system (https://www.businessoffashion.com/articles/opinion/the-roundtable-fixing-the-
fashion-system)

11. http://www.triplepundit.com/special/sustainable-fashion-2014/green-new-black/
(http://www.triplepundit.com/special/sustainable-fashion-2014/green-new-black/)

By Aya Nol

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