MADELEINE HEATH - Designer and Textile Artist
A blog dedicated to initiating a more inclusive conversation around sustainability
April 12th, 2021
Power to the User!
Sustainable Fashion's Potential Downfall Lies in the Underestimated Power of the Consumer
Fashion, as we all know (unless your head is buried really far in the ground), is a toxic industry in so many ways. The sheer waste produced; the inhumane working conditions it perpetuates for the sake of cheap labour; and the illogical ideology it creates around body image. This is all true: facts we cannot escape and should never deny. In doing so, one gaslights an enormous percentage of the global population, as we are all impacted by at least one, if not all, of the ugly outputs of this industry. But much like everything in life, it’s not all bad. Fashion has the ability to inspire, empower and often revolutionise. With our bodies and the clothing we choose to adorn it, women have fought for their rights: suffragettes such as Elizabeth Miller wearing trousers as a woman for the first time in the 1800s; the introduction of the mini skirt as a symbol of female liberation in the 1960s; and the more recent Pussy Riot hat. My previous article spoke of the personal significance fashion has for us as individuals, as a means of expression and liberation. It is this power and meaning that clothing can have that is foolishly underestimated. As the consumer you hold that power, as well as a responsibility.
I find the transition to a sustainable wardrobe can in some ways be unappealing to the majority as it discards the significance clothing can have, hence the sweeping statement amongst the sustainable community that changing it is ‘easy’.
On top of this, as consumers we are instructed to almost turn against fashion as we know it, as sustainable fashion attempts to generate its own industry. An objective that could result in evading the problem as opposed to solving it. For as the sustainable fashion industry grows, it reaches a point where it runs parallel to the fashion industry it rejects. Sustainable fashion becomes an industry accessible to only the more privileged in society, creating a class barrier where those of lower socioeconomic backgrounds cannot access the materials deemed to be necessary for a sustainable lifestyle. Thus, fast fashion continues unaltered, tailoring to the needs of the many, with whom the sustainable industry hasn't engaged. The sustainability industry fails, then, to address the importance fashion plays in all our lives.
This attitude from some sustainable practitioners fails to recognise the symbiotic relationship between the fashion industry and the consumer. In so doing, these practitioners underestimate the power of the consumer – a misconception similarly held by the fashion industry itself. The fashion industry gives the impression that fashion is conceptualised and designed from above, whilst the user is merely a consumer of what is created. In fact, a more sensitive reading of the history of fashion tells us that fashion has been driven and evolved according to the needs of the individual user or societal movements. Fashion movements are instigated by the user as the industry reacts; marketing then tells us it is something designed for us when in fact it was inspired by us.
A simple way of explaining the significance of the consumer is the fact every brand has a target market, a demographic that the brand designs for. A symbiotic relationship is created, in which the brand represents us consumers and we represent the brand. Because of this symbiosis, the consumer has greater influence than is acknowledged. I am a firm believer that the consumer does not stand at the ‘end’ of the production process. The consumer is the heart of the fashion industry and has the power to initiate change.
Fashion marketing has been effective in convincing the user they are an insignificant participant in the wider industry. As highlighted earlier, we are all aware of the ugly truths of the fashion industry, but we don't recognise our contribution to it – we aren't capable of connecting the t-shirt in our virtual basket to the underpaid women labouring in India. We have discussed the importance and methods of transitioning to a considerate consumer practice, but what we haven't yet discussed is the importance of challenging the price tag and the provenance of the item we hold before us. We must be considerate of our siblings within industry – rather than just our own interests – to truly practice mindful consumerism.
Whether it be the real retail price or the sale price of an item, the brand will (almost) always generate a profit. If we were to consider a t-shirt that costs £2.50, the price will not only cover the cost of the raw materials, distribution and manufacture, but the brand will also make a significant profit,. Now look at that price tag and tell me you can see a fair labour cost. We need to recognise our significance as the consumer, as every time we discard the reality of the true cost of our garments, we are endorsing this behaviour.
Logic dictates that the industry responds to consumer demand, thus if our demand shifts and our consumer habits reflect these values – lower consumption, expectation for fair labour, a more considerate lifecycle of a garment – then this influence should filter and influence a change. While this is a very simplistic and perhaps idealistic outlook, surely considering how we can implement change is far better than writing off the fashion industry altogether. The ambition to create a sustainable industry detached from the current existing fashion industry baffles me - how can you remedy an issue without addressing its main cause?