The Institute of Sustainable Corporate Management of Ulm University organised a one-day interdisciplinary symposium aiming to bridge the gap between the niche of sustainable fashion and everyday fashion consumption. In this regard, this symposium provided the opportunity for academics and practitioners from different disciplines related to textiles, fashion, consumer behaviour as well as marketing to exchange the latest findings, innovative ideas (solutions) and practical examples addressing sustainable fashion consumption in everyday life.
Why sustainable fashion consumption?
Many researchers and activists have been working on sustainable fashion issues even before the Rana Plaza catastrophe. However, the topic received a decent attraction on media only after the collapse of the textile factory in 2013. Sustainable design, fair-trade production, standards and regulations for sustainability are all required as the first steps toward a cleaner fashion industry. At the same time, neglecting the role of consumers in this industry is impossible. Researchers at Ulm University recognised the lack of a profound discussion on the consumption side of sustainable fashion. With this in mind, the international symposium on sustainable fashion consumption aimed to address the issue of consumption and to dedicate more space for detailed discussion on the topic. Experts discussed the concept from different perspectives and challenged each other with in-depth questions and comments during the event.
Prof. Dr. Elke Schüßler opened the symposium with a talk on “Rana Plaza: A Threat to the Fast Fashion Model?” She emphasised that garment global production networks are buyer-driven; however, most of the initiatives are production- (and not consumption-) orientated. In addition, she mentioned the regulatory gap in transnational arenas, as the private regulations to improve labour and environmental standards seem to be not as effective as they are supposed to be.
Prof. Dr. Kirsi Niinimäki gave a talk on “Innovative business thinking through product service systems for sustainable consumption”. She mentioned the need for more radical approaches toward more sustainable consumption patterns in the fashion industry. The impulsive purchasing and short use times of garments are only two examples of unsustainable fashion consumption. Prof. Niniimäki emphasised the necessity of understanding users’ needs and a new value proposition. New business models and innovations in the fashion industry could also lead toward more sustainability in the industry. Concepts such as product service systems, rental services and circular economy were discussed as new approaches for fashion businesses.
Mr. Rolf Heimann, CEO of Hessnatur Foundation gave a talk on “Sustainability as a Value Driver”; he discussed the role of companies toward sustainability in the fashion industry. He mentioned some of the tasks of companies such as knowledge and transparency throughout the textile chain, considering environmental and social standards, implementing management and monitoring systems, conformity and credibility, as well as holistic corporate responsibility. Additionally, he pointed sustainability as a value driver for brand articulation (USP, credibility, storytelling), risk minimisation, strategic measuring points, cost reduction through ecologic optimisation, and employee identification.
Prof. Dr. Alastair Fuad-Luke highlighted another important issue, that is the mass scale of production driven by economic growth. “We need to make the invisible (waste, unsold clothes) visible” he said. In the afternoon session, he gave a talk on “Hybrid clothes, values, cultures: How research x design x social practices and actions can help re-make local economies”. He underlined: “We have to rethink the current paradigms of the global economy, GDP growth, and technological determinism”. Furthermore, he shared his critical viewpoint regarding sustainable fashion, when he mentioned his book “The EcoDesign Handbook” (2002). He claimed that the solution towards achieving sustainability in the fashion industry has been proposed long time ago but the change pace has been rather slow. He called for a radical shift in design, to influence other practices, in a wider societal context. The idea of “makershop” as a place where everybody could design and make her/his own garments was one of the most fabulous ideas that Alastair shared with others during his talk.
The last Keynote on “Consumption pattern of clothing in movement? Toward sustainability?” was given by Prof. Dr. Ines Weller. As an expert on gender studies, Prof. Weller referred to several important issues starting from consumption and disposal behaviours, touching on the intensity of use and the development of new consumption patterns. The extension of garments’ lifetime through repairing, re-using and upcycling, as well as sharing and swapping were main topics in her talk. In the context of her gender studies, she mentioned that it is an important requirement to change clichés on gender-specific responsibilities for clothes when aiming to achieve viable approaches for more sustainable fashion consumption.
Sustainable fashion consumption: a viable future pathway or only a myth?
In the final panel discussion, all the keynote speakers, together with Ms. Helen Gimber from the Clean Clothes Campaign and Mr. Andreas Merkel from the Otto Garn Company, had a fruitful debate on whether sustainable fashion consumption is a myth or a viable future pathway. Nina Lorenzen was the moderator of this session.
From a business perspective, Rolf Heimann claimed that consumers are aware of sustainability, and companies are interested in this topic, but the problem is that consumers don’t buy sustainable products at the end of the day. Therefore, the first step should be to make sustainability attractive. Different stakeholders have to bring all the efforts together, but consumers have also to be part of the responsibility. Andreas Merkel, CEO of one of the very few remaining yarn spinning companies in Europe, thinks that the key for sustainability in the future lies in consumer’s awareness.
From a designer perspective, Alastair Fuad-Luke believes that we should bring people in the conversation (e.g. through making). He highlights: “Designers create their narratives through artefacts. We should ask: What is the narrative? What are the values, and ethics underlying the fashion industry? We need to build stories we can believe in the end”. He also believes that we need to eliminate the distance between ourselves and farmers, garment producers, etc. and to shorten our supply chains. Elke Schüßler claims that changing the consumer behaviour is difficult and the change should start from the producer, because until there is this cheap offer, consumers won’t change. It needs regulations to start this change. Kirsi Niniimäki emphasised that fashion is not driven by guilt, but desire, therefore we need to be clever to offer fulfilling events around fashion.
How is gender equality in sustainable fashion?
“80% workers in this industry are women, and have lower jobs. In Turkey, 1/3 of the employees are men; the remaining 2/3 are women, but working in the informal economy. People should pay a living wage to everybody, no matter who they are” Helen says. Alastair Fuad-Luke believes that there is no distinction in terms of age, gender and race in makerspaces. Kirsi Niniimäki notes that “young consumers in shopping malls are as boys as girls. I have most worked with women as the most fashion lovers.” Nina thinks that the role of advertisement in relation to gender inequality should also be studied.
Why are the changes so slow?
Rolf Heimann, after years of working in this field, stated the need for a paradigm change. Helen Gimber sees in “Fashion Revolution” a proof of a worldwide consumers’ interest in this issue. However, she agrees that dealing with environmental issues has always been easier than with social ones, and therefore social rights of workers have been overlooked. Fuad-Luke believes that due to outshored production, the visibility of the impact is removed far away from us, and having focusing events can foster a fast change.
PechaKucha, Poster and Fashion Exhibition
Besides the tremendous main talks, the symposium was enriched with presentations in three parallel sessions. The first session focused on analysing the current problems of the fashion industry and to review the current status quo of sustainable fashion consumption. The second one was dedicated to discuss the enablers and barriers for sustainable fashion consumption, and the third session focused on strategies for fostering sustainable fashion consumption. The Pechakucha presentations and fashion/poster exhibition added a great value to the one-day symposium.
We need to make production visible again
Alastair said: “In Medieval time, the makers were visible at the shop window. We need to make them visible again, making clothes in Europe again. There is a Horizon2020 project, Textiles Clothing Business Labs, which aims to think about other ways, e.g. long tail of niche markets”. Maybe it is really the time to have a look at the past and the future, to combine traditions and innovations, to design slow but radical, but more importantly to act toward a more sustainable fashion, in which consumption is not harmful anymore.
By Samira Iran (PhD Researcher at Ulm University)