How Designers, Consumers and Influencers Play a Role in Making Fashion More Sustainable

Ethical fashion took center stage at Fashionista's "How to Make It in Fashion" conference.
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Photo: Tonya Mann

Photo: Tonya Mann

Wondering whether sustainability can be a sexy topic of discussion sort of detracts from the point that it's a moral, practical imperative. It's like asking if nuclear warfare is sexy — it doesn't matter if we're all dead. But the panelists tasked with discussing the current state of sustainability in fashion at Fashionista's sixth-annual "How to Make It in Fashion" conference managed to make a 50-minute discussion about supply chains and profit margins enticing after all.

Fashionista's assistant editor Whitney Bauck led the discussion with Aurora James, the creative director and founder of Brother Vellies; Cara Smyth, founder of the Fair Fashion Center, a group that identifies market-based sustainability solutions; Mara Hoffman, president and creative director of her eponymous label; and Nina Farran, CEO and founder of the Fashionkind, an e-commerce platform focused on sustainability.

The panel, one of the liveliest of the all-day conference, touched on everything from "greenwashing" to why "shipping sucks." Each panelist defined sustainability in a nuanced, but relevant way: It's preserving the environment and protecting human rights, said Farran; taking the approach to least harm, said Hoffman; teaching people to provide for themselves, said James; meeting the needs of a generation without harming the next, said Smyth.

The discussion between fashion and ethical practices is increasingly necessary: Clothing manufacturing is notoriously harmful to the environment, workers' rights and lives are at-risk in the fast-fashion system, and the current "buy more" consumer culture creates a cycle of wastefulness that's proven difficult to break. Hoffman and James, who both founded and currently operate relatively small fashion brands with cult-like followings, in one breath admonished an industry that perennially demands new and more new before anything can get old; in another, they waxed lyrical about how you're supposed to be excited about fashion and design before all else.

Hoffman, who founded her label in 2000 but did not commit to sustainability as a business imperative until 2015, says that the brand's overhaul toward eco-friendly practice was daunting, but not ever something she intended to highlight. "We should still be designing, we're designers," Hoffman said. "[Our customer] wants to feel beautiful, not feel bad to buy a dress. There's an alchemy to it, an exchange of feeling that radiates out to the world, that's the magic to this."

Photo: Tonya Mann

Photo: Tonya Mann

Fashionkind's Farran also noted the disconnect between good clothes and for-good clothes. "What I saw in that space was brands championing ethical and sustainable fashion, but they lost the fashion side of things," Farran said. "I felt strongly in order for ethical and sustainable to be long-lasting and the norm, you have to demonstrate that style, quality, and design don't have to be sacrificed to be ethical or sustainable."

While it's easy to declare your mission to be focused toward aesthetically minded, ethical clothing, it's another to execute that mission and scale up. Each of the four panelists agreed that everything from logistics like shipping to fabric order minimums challenges designers and brands' commitment. The popularity of fast fashion companies like Zara — which consumers perceive as the best market option most of the time, according to Smyth — adds additional pressure to brands trying to shift how people shop.

"Fast fashion creates a problem, but it also serves a market," Smyth said. "The industry, all of us, whether cheap or expensive, has to make best product so consumer can shop more freely."

"This has to be a cultural shift," James adds. "Press, bloggers, they all need to think about how they're messaging things. Hollywood has greatest potential to reflect change, and creative industries have the potential to change the thought process."

It seems there's no discussion in the fashion-media vortex today without talking about influencers. "There's a huge responsibility on who we call influencers, on a cultural level of how we communicate any kind of consumption, especially in fashion," Hoffman said. "We have to start there, getting more people of influence to communicate that you should buy less. Shifting the cultural conversation takes a lot of muscle, and a commitment from people to do that."

While the fashion industry might be just that, an industry that is meant to sell products and make money, there are those who find a way to be involved without falling trap to its worst practices.

"Grace Coddington has worn the same thing for years, and people who have true style are open to repeating things," James said. "When people get stuck in a vortex, when the press says you need to have five things this month, that's brutal. Anyway, my customers are stoked about sustainability."

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