In any crisis, particularly the two we happen to be living through at the moment—coronavirus and climate change—we tend to look for a silver bullet, a solution that’s both obvious and efficient. How can we fix this right now? When will things go back to normal? Where’s the vaccine? With COVID-19, we’ve seen that “slowing the spread” actually requires a combination of efforts: social distancing, hand-washing, closing non-essential businesses, and, yes, eventually developing a cure or vaccine. Addressing climate change calls for a similar mix of large and small fixes, and the same is true if you zoom in on fashion’s footprint. Imagining a more sustainable industry isn’t just about organic materials or plastic reduction or producing less or upcycling; it’s all of those things, and much more.
One thing that rarely comes up are company KPIs, or key performance indicators; we want to hear about creative and tangible solutions, like botanical dyes or upcycled materials, not metrics. Especially because those numbers are often the barriers to progress: Companies don’t want to budge on their sales or bottom line, and they aren’t willing to make sustainable changes unless there’s a business case for them, hence decades of inaction.
Céline Semaan, the founder of Slow Factory and Study Hall, points out the problem: Those KPIs and measures of “success” are out-of-date and antithetical to our current crises. We have to rewrite those rules so there is a business case for sustainability. Companies have to reevaluate how they measure their success, so it isn’t just based on economic performance, but on environmental and social action too. Their values also have to shift beyond just profit and short-term growth, because we’re seeing what happens when those are disrupted: Businesses crumble, jobs are lost, and people’s physical and mental health are compromised.
“In architecture, there’s a stress limit: the tension they test before a building would collapse,” Semaan says. “Fashion has never really tested its limit, and the system was already about to collapse. It was so broken, and it wasn’t built for resiliency—it was built for economic growth and profit. But the construct of profit and money is man-made—it’s our invention, it’s a concept. When we build systems around a concept and the inflation of that concept, it’s as if you’re building a system around a bubble of air. Sometimes that bubble [fills up] and your system feels like it’s succeeding, but when it collapses, the entire system around it collapses, because it isn’t built around anything real.” She continues: “Of course, money is real—it’s so real! But what we need to design is a fashion system that has resiliency and sustainability and heart, one that meets the environment where it is, that has a scientific approach, that has respect to human rights. Otherwise, we’re just engaging in exploitation [of people and land] at the benefit of profit. That system, as we’re seeing now, is not sustainable.”