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Kate Fletcher: Sustainability begins with our wardrobes

As fashion theorist Kate Fletcher visits India, she talks to Lounge about the equation between need and sustainability

Kate Fletcher’s work in the field spans over two decades; in academia, consulting with companies and communities.
Kate Fletcher’s work in the field spans over two decades; in academia, consulting with companies and communities.

It’s a counter perspective that turns the lens on to the consumer of fashion. Kate Fletcher, professor of sustainability, design and fashion at the London College of Fashion, suggests that for fashion to be a sustainable industry, the biggest chunk of responsibility and ability for change lies with the consumer.

Fletcher’s work in the field spans over two decades; in academia, consulting with companies and communities to put concepts such as “slow fashion" and “local wisdom" into practice. She has written a number of books on the subject, including Sustainable Fashion And Textiles: Design Journeys (2008) and Craft Of Use: Post-Growth Fashion (2016).

Fletcher will be speaking at a conference themed “Rediscovering Culture: Transforming Fashion", organized by the National Institute of Fashion Technology (Nift) in New Delhi, from 31 January-2 February. Other speakers include David Abraham, creative director of Abraham & Thakore, Radha Chadha, luxury brand expert (and Lounge columnist), and Narendra Kumar, creative director, Amazon India.

Ahead of the conference, Fletcher spoke to Lounge about a simple and fundamental shift in the theory of sustainability, one that acknowledges complex measures that are the prerogative of the fashion production industry but also involves asking ourselves: How much do we need and how much are we buying? Edited excerpts from a phone interview:

Sustainability means many different things to different people. Can you define it for us in the context of fashion?

The way that I see it is that fashion and sustainability are about ecological integrity, social equality and a sense of human flourishing. While it’s to do with products, garments, the things we knit, weave, stitch, it is also about actions and relationships in the making of, wearing and using of fashion. It’s to critically look at the practices where people use the clothes that they already have. Sustainability is much more than some decisions made in a supply chain, or the specifics of a particular material. It is essentially a guide towards living well.

Was there a moment in your early life that led you to work at this intersection of fashion, culture and sustainability?

I grew up in Liverpool, a city in the north of England, a very poor city by UK standards. When I was growing up there, Margaret Thatcher was in power. There were policies that had a disproportionately negative effect on places like Liverpool. I think at that point, I had a strong sense that something had to change. I also grew up in a household with an understanding that acting for the community was a vital part of enhancing our day-to-day lives.

What will you be discussing at the Nift conference?

I will be talking about a new piece of work that I’ve been doing. It’s about “localism". It’s generally been beneficial in the food industry. I’m exploring what localism means in fashion. I’m looking at a small mill town in the north of England that used to be a silk production centre in the early 19th century, and how it might foster some profound sustainability change. What we see in the UK is that while there have been many good movements around the issue of sustainability in fashion, actually, the situation isn’t getting much better. Though efficiencies are increasing, people are just buying more and more. Any gains that the industry makes are outstripped by increasing consumption. Today, the most interesting work around sustainability is trying to tackle issues of reducing the quantity of things that people buy. This piece of work is within that tradition.

So the onus for being sustainable lies with the consumer of fashion?

Asking people to give things up obviously makes them uncomfortable. But it’s an essential part of the conversation. In the last 10 years, the amount of clothing that people buy has increased by about a third. And I don’t think that people a decade ago felt that they didn’t have enough clothing. It’s a sense of how much is appropriate, how much is enough.

A change in consumption psychology might lead to a change in the fashion industry.

You’re on the money with that. There’s been research and analysis in psychology that shows how reported levels of happiness and well-being are related to the consumption of material goods. Generally, what you see is that after basic needs are met, each additional purchase of a new thing, garment or otherwise, has very little to do with well-being. In fact, it begins to undermine it. In the West, we’re seeing that materialistic attitudes are strongly related with the rise of anxiety levels and higher use of anti-depressants, fewer friends and less sophisticated relationships between people. So a key question that you have to ask is, how much are we buying? The sustainability questions related to fashion become less about technical issues—like making sure that you buy organic cotton or that you buy from a factory that upholds good processes—but also about how much we really need and how we’re engaging with the things we buy.

Different societies consume resources differently. Have you discovered anything specific to Indian culture that might foster more responsible fashion decisions?

A few years ago, one of my research projects was inspired by the work of an Indian professor of management, Anil Gupta. He started the Honey Bee Network. He would go walking on foot through parts of India, talking to people about innovations and ideas. It’s the grass roots talking to the grass roots. I’m beginning to acknowledge that many of the ideas that are vital for sustainability don’t begin in boardrooms or formally trained academic desks or design studios. They begin in places where there’s a need. Inspired by that, I did a project that was about talking to the public about clothing in the context of everyday life, about shared family use. The big sharing economy is part of that conversation (models like Uber, Airbnb, where direct peer-to-peer exchange happens—there’s a direct sharing of resources, goods and services). I’m convinced that it has been part of Indian society, as it has been of British society. Even though it’s becoming formalized now, it’s always been around. Sometimes one needs to recognize the things we already have in our culture and use them well.

Register online for “Rediscovering Culture: Transforming Fashion", from 31 January-2 February, at Rs8,000 for delegates, Rs4,000 for students.

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