New Rules

Sustainable Fashion and Social Norms Part 1: Shifting the Conversation

In the first installment of this three part series around investigating sustainable fashion and social norms, NJAL CONTRIBUTOR Jess Montgomery explores the importance of how conversations about and around fashion are framed.


In investigating the social norms that dictate how we interact with and discuss the fashion industry, it's essential to fully capture what the industry actually is: the economic power, the capital involved, and so on. Let's begin with the broad strokes. The textile and apparel industry—which the general public more commonly refers to as the fashion industry—is a global industry with a substantial impact; be it people, the planet, and so much more. According to the 2017 McKinsey State of Fashion Report, in 2016 the global fashion industry was worth $2.4 trillion, and “it would be the world’s seventh-largest economy if ranked alongside individual countries’ GDP.” The textile and apparel industry as a whole is worth closer to $3 trillion—and that's a figure that's only going to continue to grow; the 2018 edition of the McKinsey report stated that the sales growth has nearly tripled as of 2018.

The textile and apparel industry employs about 10% of the global population. A 2017 report found that on average Brits spend £1,042 on clothes per year. Americans spend between 2.5 and 3 hours a week shopping for clothes, a fact reported in a 2016 survey Cumulatively, the global population purchases approximately 80 billion new garments every year. Let that sink in: 80 billion garments.

Meanwhile, the production, manufacturing, transportation, and disposal of clothing and fashion goods is having a massive detrimental impact upon the planet. The textile and apparel industry is one of the most polluting industries in the world, following oil and gas, agriculture, transportation, tourism, and the energy industries. (It can be noted that textile and clothing production contributes to most of these industries: cotton is an agricultural product, polyester is created out of petroleum, the clothing industry is dependent upon energy and transportation to manufacture textiles and garments and transport these goods around the globe.) The majority of today’s clothing is made from cotton or petroleum based human-made synthetics. Cotton is the most herbicide and pesticide dependent crop, and requires 20,000 litres of water to grow one kilogram of crop—equivalent to “one t-shirt and a pair of jeans.” Textile production is a significant contributor to deforestation due to the need to expand agricultural land, and to create pulp-based cellulous fabrics. The dye process is responsible for unleashing 40,000 to 50,000 pounds of dye into water systems every year. In addition, there are various toxins used throughout the production process, which can have harmful effects upon the people who manufacture our clothing, as well as on the ecosystems that surround manufacturing facilities. A 2017 report by the McArthur Foundation found that textile production is responsible for 1.2 billion tones of greenhouse gas emissions annually.

It has been argued that the amount of clothing produced per year is a necessary response to a global population that is growing at unprecedented rates. This is in part accurate; the global population was just over 5 billion in 1990, today is at 7.3 billion, and is projected to increase to almost 10 billion by 2050. And inevitably, people do need clothes. However, research shows that between 2000 and 2014 individual consumption of clothing increased by 60%, but that these individuals were keeping each garment for half as long. The massive production of clothing is not simply the result of an unavoidable need to clothe more people, but is directly related to individual overconsumption. It's an endless and constant loop where capitalism and fast-fashion rule, adding more and more heaps of waste to the planet.

These are serious facts, serious impacts, and serious issues that directly relate back to the fashion industry. Yet that does not translate to the general outlook on fashion—it's an industry that leaves massive waves across the planet, but we continue to view it as an industry and ecosystem that is inherently not to be taken seriously; one where excess, image, celebrity, and trends trump any sort of ecological, social, or economic sphere. It is one industry that has two definitions that define one another, acting as points of difference in order to give meaning. You either operate within one or the other—not both.

Why the disparate views? Like any antiquated prejudice happily thriving beneath a veneer of political correctness, ridicule of fashion is insidious. This is not a hotly debated topic, but rather a cultural through line that must be read between the lines. 

In movies and televisions shows—which both shape and reflect popular culture—the fashion industry is usually presented as frivolous and deeply narcissistic. From TV shows such as Sex and the City to satires like Absolutely Fabulous, the fashion industry is presented as vapid and out of touch; it is merely a source of entertainment. Movies like The Devil Wears Prada, Pret-A-Porter, Zoolander, even documentaries like The September Issue or serious dramas like Phantom Thread all present fashion, and the fashion industry, as something that is ultimately in excess of the daily concerns of regular folk. In addition, the real-life high fashion world contributes to these stereotypes through advertisements that glorify drug and alcohol use, fashion weeks that are a zoo of celebrities preening in an assortment of outfits, and the incessant and obsessive coverage in magazines, blogs and fashion websites of the litany of fancy parties hosted by the fashion industry for the fashion industry. The fashion world is presented as an entire subculture so obsessed with the superficial that only surfaces register as important—wearing the wrong color is a calamity, presenting an outrageous new collection is paradigm shifting.


As the coverage of sustainable fashion grows in the news media, there is still a tendency to explicitly state that fashion should be taken seriously—therefore implying that as of yet, it is not taken seriously.

In a recent interview, Vogue Australia’s Sustainability Editor-at-Large states that her new book, Wardrobe Crisis, “looks at fashion in a serious way” by examining the “intersection between culture, politics, society and how we dress and what we wear.” Kate Fletcher, Ecological Design Consultant and Reader in Sustainable Fashion at the London College of Fashion, and a pioneering leader in the sustainable fashion movement, wrote an article for The Guardian titled Fashion is Seen As Frivolous But it is at the Heart of Contemporary Culture. She states “[f]ashion is readily characterized as the poster-industry of consumerist materialism; as frivolous, superficial and evanescent.” By specifically stressing the need to "take fashion seriously," particularly within the context of sustainability issues, these prominent figures draw attention to a general tendency for fashion to be dismissed as having little consequence.

Thought leaders Juliet B. Schor and Chimanda Ngozi Adichie have both written articles on the professional shunning that they have experienced because of their love of clothing. Peers and colleagues have expressed that as serious, intelligent women, they should know better than to care about fashion. The message, stated both clearly and implicitly, is that a woman who dresses fashionably conveys a certain kind of image, and that that image is not of a woman of gravitas.

These are just a few examples, but together they demonstrate a lingering association between fashion and frivolousness; an unchecked cultural narrative that fashion is somewhat trivial and therefore irreconcilable, on some level, with the more serious issues that fill our collective psyche such as those that surround climate change, ecological collapse, economic reform, and social justice. Put simply, there is an unspoken implication that one cannot care about both the state of the world, and about one's outfit. 

The lingering affinity to label fashion as superfluous has roots in a centuries-long tendency to decry even the simplest forms of the industry.

In academic circles there is debate regarding when Western "fashion" began, but it is generally agreed that by the fourteenth century styles of dress changed drastically every 50 years, and that these styles promoted aesthetic novelty over pure functionality. When European inheritance laws were altered to favour the first-born son only, younger sons were left to their own devices to make their way in the world—fashionable dress became a tool with which a young man could draw attention to himself and to communicate his social class. From its conception, therefore, fashion was intimately tied to excess, which often expressed itself through a tendency towards theatricality; this inevitably provided opportunity to draw criticism, often on moral or aesthetic grounds.


As Gilles Lipovetsky states in his book The Empire of Fashion: Dressing Modern Democracy: "Critics were no longer content to denounce human vanity …; they came to look at forms of dress themselves as indecent, scandalous, and ridiculous. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, bishops and preachers issued violent condemnation of the déshonnesteté—the impropriety—of breeches worn with tails, “nudity at the throat,” and long, pointed shoes. The tight doublet, with a camber that makes a man’s chest “comparable to a woman’s bust” and makes him “resemble a greyhound” created as much scandal as did hairstyles in the shape of horns. In the sixteenth century, farthingales were mocked, and their diabolical artificiality was denounced; in the seventeenth century rhinegraves (which resembled skirts) and jerkins were objects of ridicule. In the eighteenth century, people laughed at frock coats; the allegorical and extravagant hairdos that put the wearers’ eyes “in the middle of the body,” women’s clothing inspired by men’s, and the transparent tulle dresses of the Directoire were targets for caricature artists.” (Lipovetsky, p.28). Trends in fashion are cyclical, veering from outrageous to minimalist and then back again. As the above quote demonstrates, fashion has always had its critics; these criticisms generally disparage the superfluous nature of a trend, and the apparent lack of critical awareness of those who follow these trends. Underlying these criticisms is often a judgment of morality—the fashions, in some way, offend a generally upheld sense of human decency; men should not wear their hair long, women should not wear pants, jeans should not be worn as formal wear, and so on.

For the ethical fashion conversation to spread beyond a niche issue of concern within the fashion industry to a broad-audience topic of general concern, fashion must be seen as a topic that is relevant to the general public. Sure, there is currently a growing tendency to regularly cover "sustainable fashion" topics in various forms of publications, but that's even scratching the surface. In fact, undoing deeply rooted stereotypes and definitions is not exactly a simple task. So while these stories do indicate a shift—in consumer and/or industry concerns—it must also be noted that this content is reaching a very specific audience, namely a demographic that is interested enough in fashion to seek out fashion news and other fashion-focused writing. 

As long as the collective definition that surrounds fashion remains one of ridicule and dismissal, fashion itself will remain a topic of lesser value, and therefore less likely to capture the public imagination at the mass level that is necessary to reach a tipping point when it comes to overhauling the fashion industry in favour of a more just, equitable, and sustainable model. Change comes in numbers. Numbers come informed. 


It's time we shift the conversation, moving slowly but steadily towards a new narrative. Why don't we work to rewrite this cultural account as one that recognizes and celebrates the significant role that clothing has played throughout cultures and over centuries? Focusing on unfathomable trends and extremes of excess has often been at the exclusion (outside academic circles) of the significant role that clothing plays in the politics of our day-to-day lives. During the French Revolution styles of dress became an overt way of communicating allegiances. To this day, the Nazi uniform carries the weight of power, and fear. In the 1960s, jeans and longer hair became a symbol of the hippie resistance to consumer culture. Beginning in the 1940s, the Mao suit became a symbol for the victory of Communism in China. In 2017 the province of Quebec, in Canada, instituted a controversial ban on face coverings; though the ban was presented as an issue of safety, it was widely received as a direct attack on Muslim women.

Fashion holds power. From mainstream fashion to anti-fashion and subculture styles, the way we dress communicates how we see ourselves, and how we want to be seen by others. Larger socio-political forces are reflected in how we dress, and how trends evolve; during times of significant shifts in cultural values, clothing has often become a main point of contention. Rather than framing fashion as superficial and superfluous, it is time to embrace the significant role that clothing plays in shaping our lives.