The reason why a fast food chain restaurant can offer a 1 euro burger wherever you may be but getting clean, potable water to places that may need it seems sometimes impossible is the same reason why China had an incredible fast paced industrialization and growth after Apple decided to build the iPhone there; chains of production and transportation. I am not going into detail about the economics or the pros and cons of such large scale cogs that make the world market turn round, instead I will over-generalize certain points I think are the main focus when talking about sustainability, and specifically in the fashion industry.
Industry brings money and places are often charmed by the influx of low-skilled production jobs, which on their own are charmed by the cheap labour. The problem comes in when there is no care for the community or the place. The short term benefits of urbanization and wealth have proven to be quickly outweighed by pollution, extremely poor safety regulations, an emphasis on speed and quantity and not a long term commitment; and just like land that gets overworked at some point it dries and the fertility seems to be gone. Workers demand more in terms of income, benefits, laws and regulations get stricter and the industry that so suddenly came in moves on to find another place to colonize as it may seem. We have seen this time and time again. Yet it is hard to place the blame on one thing alone.
The speed at which the industry must move derives by the speed us as consumers demand product. Fast fashion being a frontrunner in this with stores that switch around a lot of their inventory every two weeks. We want the next trendy item and we want it to be affordable, we want that cheeseburger and it better be a euro.
From consumers to providers there lies an incredibly long amount of intermediaries ranging from transport companies with tankers, port employees, retail workers, factory workers, communities that get built around these industrial towns, farmers and land owners, countries and taxation, bankers and lawyers who struggle to make sense of everything so that you can get that white tee for 5 bucks no questions asked; so much depends on it sometimes it seems like the cliche’d phrase of “it might just be too big to fail” seems to apply.
I would like to point out an important part of the chain that sometimes gets relegated to a different sector, which people might consider to be somewhat separate, and that would be designers. Technology and fashion have always been connected; the use of denim for work attire, or the use of materials to make clothes waterproof may be a good example. Before plastics we’re a thing we would cover leather with beeswax for example, but how affordable is that for today’s market? We can also leap to today and see what sports brands are doing with sneakers and their incredible push towards materials engineering; a quest for comfort and durability at a point where it can be mass produced at a price point where people find it worth their money.
Luxury will always be there, so a good pair of leather shoes built by human hands will have an artisanal value, but I would argue that the care put into quality means something that will stand use and wear, not a cheap leather item that is in itself nothing but designed to be replaced after a season. So leaving that alone for now, let’s talk a bit about technology.
Does technology need to be priced as much as luxury is? Do a fabric that can offer durability, comfort, or even thermal properties need to be more expensive than something that came from half way around the world in a container? Unfortunately mostly yes. For the industry to cannibalize itself there will always be a reason to keep the machine working. Or will the bubble ever burst as perhaps the housing industry did? Unlikely.
I am not trying to say that we as consumer have the power to influence a sudden change. We can compare it to the zero kilometer movement in the food industry, but even then people will pay a markup for locally grown, locally sourced vegetables and fruits. Neither I am saying the economical system needs to be reworked for anything to change, every system has and will always have its flaws.
So what exactly am I trying to say with this seemingly pointless rant you might be asking yourself right about now, and that’s a fair point, because I do not have all the answers and I believe no one does. I do have some suggestions and do feel free to disagree with me, but as long as I made you think of your own then I believe this has been worth every keystroke.
The west going in crisis where over-qualified people can’t find a job is a place that needs to get some investment on. Not for production perhaps but for development. Whereas in other industrial revolutions so much effort was put into the development of technology it has now been focused entirely on phones that we throw out every couple of years and the likes. We can see how this can work with companies like Tesla and finding solutions for energy sources, or how a private company tries to make affordable space exploration when the dream seem to have been lost in past generations. We are easily distracted and information comes so often and so quickly that our perception has been shifted into small pockets of issues we as a whole pay attention to and then move on. Impossible with funding from Google and Bill Gates has developed a burger paddy that imitates meat as much as they could with plants, not for vegetarians, but to proof meat eaters that there can be another way, All of this thanks to designers and engineers and people with white coats; people that sometimes don’t get the pay they should get in a world where ideas are privatized and owned by employers.
Some may say open-sourcing certain things might make the market adjust itself. If a new textile can be developed by students in MIT and companies could use their chain of production to create and sell something more environmentally and socially friendly that would benefit us all.
What I am trying to come down to is that ultimately all it takes it for someone to care and to make someone else care, not with frustration and the hashtag of the week, but with empathy. For consumers to buy smart, spend what you can but spend on something that is worth it and be an informed consumer. For designers to be interested in talking to engineers and for decision makers to convince the backers that sometimes, if they actually care we as consumers will too. Let’s make technology in fashion not such a luxury anymore.