What does an environmental entomologist, a twenty-something entrepreneur and a political analyst have to do with the sustainable fashion movement? A lot more than you’d think. We were front and center at the “Future of Fashion” panel at this year’s SXSW Eco conference in Austin, Texas. Eco-modelpreneur Summer Rayne Oakes, Modavanti founder David Dietz, Teens Turning Green founder Erin Schrode, and supermodel Amber Valletta took to the mic to discuss one of the world’s most polluting industries: fashion.
Sustainable fashion is easily thought of as a moving target that many are working to measure and define. With an all-star list of sustainable style influencers lending their voice on the issue, we were in for an hour of powerful insight and a few great takeaways to keep the wheels turning. The panel discussion kicked off by identifying fashion’s latest epidemic: incredibly fast fashion. With brands like Zara introducing new collections every two weeks, the uptick in production is an ongoing challenge that rivals the constant consumption culture that’s defining the way we see fashion. For those that are unaware, the current state of fashion is an epidemic that is polluting both our earth and our bodies and remains without consequences in any shape or form.
“People don’t understand that there’s something wrong with fashion right now,” explained Erin Schrode, whose organization educates young millennials on conscious consumerism and peer-to-peer mobilization around going green. Perhaps this observation explains the seemingly careless nature of consumers who’ve largely decided to opt-out of the ethical fashion culture in favor of scoring cheap threads at big box retailers.
David Dietz, the only one on the panel lacking a background in fashion (prior to starting online ethical fashion site Modavanti, he was a contributing writer on global affairs with a focus on the Middle East), asked the audience a critical question that left most of us with blank stares: “Do you know where your clothes were made, do you know who they were made by and what they were made of,” he beckoned. “Are you proud of your answers?”
Despite the large influence shoppers have on the success of the fashion industry, an alternative idea that sprung from the panel pointed out that the onus isn’t solely on the consumer. In fact, eco-model Summer Rayne Oakes identified the role manufacturers play in feeding our culture’s addiction to instant gratification. The “we want our fashion new and we want it now” lifestyle is fed by a system that remains tight-lipped about their environmental practices and labor laws. Oakes argued, “It’s not illegal to destroy the planet. Fashion is based on an economic system with issues much deeper than can be discussed on a panel.”
The factories that produce our clothing provide low-skilled labor that we’ve benefited from. The increasing rate of cotton farmers diagnosed with cancer due to heavy exposure to pesticides is a harsh reality that matters not when the only way these farmers can continue to survive is through slowly killing themselves each day to produce the materials that will become hanging shrines in our closets.
Despite the circling challenges of fashion’s inherent neglect to move towards greater ethical practices at a faster pace, all is not as bleak as it may seem. The panelists agreed that the right messaging could peak consumer interest and aid to change behavior and garner greater support in the fight to a better fashionable future. “We have to make green the new currency of cool,” Schrode said.
The ethical-fashion message is one that might be too draining for mainstream ears. It’s full of jargon, difficult to navigate and often an overwhelming burden. So how do we get above the noise and make sustainable fashion relevant to consumers? Amber Valletta, a veteran model with over 25 years in the industry and whose client list extends from Calvin Klein to Versace, resolves to make the message haute. “I believe that great design and sustainability can go hand in hand,” she explained. “Let’s make it better and let’s buy it better.”
Ideal messaging encompasses a spectrum of hands-on media, look books and pre-vetted designers and brands that takes the guesswork out of the search and removes the heavy burden for fashionistas who don’t have the wherewithal to sift through the information.
When asked about who is currently doing a great job in leading substantial change in the fashion industry the panelists named widely recognized brands Nike, Puma, Gucci, and Levi’s, whose commitment to cleaning up their supply chains and finding new ways to produce responsibly are making headlines these days.
“For the first time we are seeing brands come together,” said Oakes. “We have to look back at fashion’s history to inform policy now. We’re determining where the starting line is.”