Making sustainable fashion accessible

cadia-belanteCadia Belante, Fashfest 2016, recycles sleeping bags into sustainable fashion

Numerous people talk about the function of fashion. Miuccia Prada, for example, said, “Fashion is instant language.” Whether we care about our outward appearance or not, what we wear says something about us, and in more ways than one.

Ostensibly, your clothes can tell a story about who you are in that moment, from being cosy and lazy on a day in, to being chic and sophisticated on a night out, and anywhere in between. Fashion may often be characterised as superficial or materialistic for this very reason, but our clothes have several other functions – fashion can be art, an expression of something, a reflection of something.

Marc Jacobs claims that “clothes mean nothing until someone lives in them.” It’s a provocative thought, one that tries to transcend the superficial label often slapped onto the fashion industry. I, however, disagree with Mr Jacobs (at least to an extent). Sure, functional fashion (as opposed to artistic fashion) is reproduced by the people who wear it, and these people matter, but this is only one half of the story – specifically the second half, after the clothes are made available to consumers. So what about the first half?

It’s increasingly common knowledge that the fashion industry has severe environmental (and social) impacts. I chronically eschew much conventional fashion because of these negative consequences, yet I couldn’t turn down tickets to Fashfest (Canberra’s own fashion festival, now four years old). Fashfest features mostly Australian designers, including a number from the Canberra region, and – this year at least – a handful that claimed to be ‘sustainable.’

Sustainable can mean many things in this context. It can be ‘socially sustainable’ by being made locally without sweatshops, it can be the use of ‘sustainable materials’ such as organic cotton, or it involve recycling or repurposing existing products into something new. As an example of this latter idea of sustainability, one designer at this years’ Fashfest turns old sleeping bags into winter outerwear: puffer jackets and the like. I thought this was an incredible idea, and an amazing example of how fashion can represent something beyond the person wearing it. Many sustainable fashion brands, however, are less tantalising, at least for a uni-age student. In my search for sustainable alternatives, a not-insignificant portion of sustainable fashion I come across adheres to a specific aesthetic: always quirky, often baggy or patch-worked, with lots of draping and tassels and shawls going on. To paraphrase one of my good friends, ‘Yeah alright – I might wear that in another thirty years, but right now it’s not my thing.’ And I agree. Most of the time, sustainable fashion comes in unappealing styles – or at extortionate prices for the average university student. So what are we to do?

Luckily for us, sustainable alternatives to fast fashion are becoming more accessible. We may have to change our behaviour – buy less, be prepared to spend slightly more and become more conscientious of our power as consumers – but it is possible for a uni student to have a sustainable wardrobe. Clothes swaps and op-shopping are some of the most sustainable alternatives – socially, environmentally and economically. On the other hand, if you want to buy something new – as most of us do every so often – there are new tools that help bring transparency to the sustainability of clothing brands.

A few databases are around that rate brands based on different metrics of sustainability: workers’ conditions, environmental impact, animal welfare, and so on. Ethical.org.au is one example, while the Behind the Barcode report is another. Good on You (an online website with a free app), runs a blog of tips for developing a sustainable fashion sense, in addition to compiling an ever-expanding collection of ratings for major fashion brands. From American Apparel and Zara, to Cotton On and Country Road, Good on You breaks down the fashion industry in a transparent way and makes sustainable fashion accessible.

Once you find the information, making sustainable choices can be surprisingly simple. They are for me, at least. When I learn that a particular product is unsustainable, I gradually lose any desire to support it. It may take time, and it may involve some small sacrifices, but for me, these choices are worth it. They reflect what I believe in, what I want from and for the world, and turn my spending power into a commentary on the issues I care about.

Just as fashion can be an expression of art or of the person wearing it, it can also tell a story about these issues. What you purchase and wear expresses your implicit support for one side or the other of this story, of what those clothes represent. Where do you stand?