Understanding the Dynamic Practices of Sustainable Fashion | An exert from ‘fashion sustainability’ understanding the dynamic practices of sustainable fashion by Dr Lisa Heinze

Australian fashion practices have enormous potential to become sustainable, but without a significant increase in commitment and/or disruptive interventions by a range of stakeholders this potential will not be realised.

The Fashioning Sustainability research project, conducted with the University of Sydney, set out to examine the wicked problem of sustainable fashion1 in Australia with the hopes of providing industry tools to improve sustainability while maintaining profitable businesses, and of providing activists tools to enhance campaign engagement.

Like all wicked problems, addressing issues of fashion and sustainability requires solutions that are holistic, innovative, collaborative and future-focused. As such, the project relied on qualitative research with a variety of stakeholders including independent activists, NGOs, sustainable fashion entrepreneurs, mainstream fashion companies and fashion consumers.

Research  Assumptions and Questions 

This research was established with recognition that various practices of fashion interact with, and rely upon, one another. For example, consumers are often called upon to show their interest in sustainable fashion by making purchases – in other words, voting with their dollars. However, in order to do so on a mainstream scale the fashion must be readily available in familiar shopping destinations at relatively comparable prices and in appealing designs. This requires efforts by sustainable fashion designers, retailers, mainstream fashion companies and the fashion media; none of these practices exist in isolation but co-exist and are continuously shaped by one another
(See Figure 1).

The Australia Circular Fashion Conference 2018

Some of the questions that drove the research and analysis include:

  • How can the sustainable fashion movement and the fashion industry move beyond a reliance on consumer demand to instead address the system as a whole?
  • What sustainability issues are known/understood by the mainstream fashion industry, and what actions are currently being taken to address them?
  • What do consumers know about fashion’s sustainability issues?
  • What can be learned from sustainable fashion entrepreneurs about the challenges and opportunities of sustainable fashion?
  • What design and business innovations are being created trialled in Australia?
  • What aspects of each practice will be easiest/most likely to transition toward sustainability, and what aspects will be hardest to transition?

Research Findings at a Glance

  1. Increased physical access to sustainable fashion is essential to encourage uptake and growth of the sector.
  2. Passionate and innovative advocates and entrepreneurs have led the transition toward sustainability to date; industry and/or government support could enable a swifter transition toward sustainable fashion practices more broadly and lessen the emotional labour expended by
  3. Mainstream fashion and retail brands face a range of challenges that take precedence over sustainability such as increased international competition – including fast fashion brands, and changing consumer practices as more shopping occurs online.
  4. There is increasing sustainability activity from mainstream brands, though not to the extent that international fashion brands are engaging  and investing in sustainability.
  5. Hybrid label success stories offer insights to up scaling sustainable fashion start-ups and transitioning established fashion businesses  toward sustainability.
  6. Fashion consumption is already layered and complex before issues of sustainability are considered; this does not mean consumers do not know or care about the issues.
  7. Consumer awareness is higher than many sustainable fashion advocates assume and many elements of fashion consumption are already sustainable.
  8. Communication directed toward consumers, including in the form of rating/accreditation systems, needs to become more transparent and more empowering. Consumers see through greenwash, are frustrated with limited information from brands and rating/accreditation systems, and do not like being talked down to or made to feel guilty.

Expanded Research Findings and Recommendations

Passionate and innovative advocates and entrepreneurs have led the transition toward sustainability to date.
A handful of Australian pioneers of sustainable fashion led the charge toward sustainability starting around 2008 and the expertise of these individuals dictated much of the progress in Australia. Many of the pioneers are fashion designers or come from the industry, which means they have hands-on knowledge of the multiple stages of production and an understanding of material possibilities when creating with sustainable fibres. They also created the first Australian sustainable fashion labels, improving access to garments that previously had to be bought from overseas. However, there is a great deal of emotional labour expended by sustainable fashion entrepreneurs – due to the stress of creating a start-up business with pro-social motives and the financial insecurity of entrepreneurship – and industry and/or government support would enable a swifter transition of the industry toward sustainability. The entrepreneurs have the passion and the know-how, and financial and institutional support would enable an up-scaling of sustainable fashion practices and greater investment into design and material innovation. This recommendation offers significant potential for the Australian market to take a leadership position in sustainable fashion.

Fashion consumption is already layered and complex before issues of sustainability are considered. Consumers often prioritise what may appear to be rather mundane or ordinary requirements – including what is appropriate for work, what is a convenient location to buy clothing, how easy a garment is to clean, whether an item can be worn to work as well as out socially, or whether it can be worn to chase a toddler around the house – but this does not mean consumers do not know or care about the issues. In fact, consumer awareness is higher than many sustainable fashion advocates assume. While this was not a large-scale quantitative survey, over half of the participants in the study actively brought up issues of sustainability unprompted that related to sweatshops, animal welfare, the waste/poor quality of fast fashion, and synthetic microfibres in the ocean. Messages about sustainability have been getting through, but consumers do not always know what to do with the information.

The Australia Circular Fashion Conference 2018

In addition, many elements of fashion consumption are already sustainable, including: considerations of quality, whether garments can be worn for both work and play, whether a garment will be out of style in a few months, selecting vintage items for their unique look, avoiding dry cleaning, and habits of tailoring and mending garments. While this was not a quantitative study and further research is needed to understand how these trends play out in a broader sample, this finding points toward addressing fashion consumption in different ways than most often employed by the movement that include talking about fashion waste, the negative aspects of consumption, and statistics on water/chemical/energy use in clothing production. Instead more communication should focus on aspects of quality, longevity, cost-per-wear, honing one’s personal style, the style impact of tailored clothing and the positive feelings one gets from wearing fashion they love. This type of messaging occurs in some campaigns, but the statistics-heavy and/or “stop-shopping” messages have the impact of disengaging consumers, rather than empowering them.

Communication directed toward consumers, including accreditation/rating systems, needs to become more transparent and more
Consumers see through greenwash, are frustrated with limited information from brands and accreditation/rating systems, and do not respond to being talked down to or made to feel guilty. They seek clear and honest communication about what a label is doing in terms of sustainability. This does not mean a label has to be “perfectly” sustainable, but that it openly spells out what it is doing in terms of environmental and labour standards on each garment.

A growing number of consumers are also wary of accreditation/rating schemes, particularly when fast fashion brands that sell a large volume of clothing and promote multiple ranges each season receive high scores. Frustration was often expressed that labels like H&M and Zara received relatively high scores on systems like the Good On You app, the Ethical Fashion Report by Baptist World Aid, and Greenpeace’s Detox reports even though the brands promote frequent and excess consumption; the nuance understood by many consumers was surprising to the researchers. In contrast, most consumers are pleasantly surprised to learn of ethical production credentials (ECA-accreditation) of familiar Australian labels and want to support Australian brands that pay attention to sustainability. The majority of consumers are unaware of any sustainability initiatives of Australian-owned and operated labels, suggesting enormous potential for increased and clearer communication by those labels that are engaging in sustainability initiatives.

“Consumer awareness is higher than many sustainable fashion advocates assume.”

Ultimately, instead of treating sustainability as an “add-on” or antithetical to fashion, the creativity inherent in all fashion practices should be harnessed toward sustainable transitions, which would support all stakeholders’ engaging more deeply with sustainability without alienating or belittling anyone involved in the practices.