Saturday, June 08, 2019

Giving a Damn and Hyperopia: Decolonizing for Sustainability

The more effectively a clothing company functions the more destructive it is (to the world). That is the nature of the beast. (Kate Fletcher)

On the 5th of June, 2019, I attended a community event at ArtEZ (a tertiary art and design education institution in Arnhem, The Netherlands). The Union of Concerned Researchers in Fashion was the first item on the agenda. Kate Fletcher, Research Professor at the Centre for Sustainable Fashion at University of the Arts London and one of the original founders of the Union, was there to explain the Union. She elicited interests and concerns specific to Arnhem/The Netherlands. Laudably, the Union organizes such assemblies to keep in close touch with its members. 

[I encourage readers to look up the union website: concernedresearchers.orgArtEZ stands firmly behind this initiative just as I do. It has the potential, as a global movement, to be a game changer that we so desperately need. Print out the Manifesto and hang it on walls and doors!] 

Kate Fletcher said something during her introduction that remained on my mind throughout the afternoon: "It turns out that it is easier to conceptualize the end of the world (as we know it) than a world that is not driven by capitalism." Think about that! Scary! --  given that it behooves us to think of, and live, alternatives to capitalism if we would like to postpone the end of the world. 

The group split up into smaller discussion units to hash out a variety of fashion sustainability concerns and then reported back. We did not discuss that scary paradox but the entire session was devoted to fashion re-visioning. Kate Fletcher's words were always in the back of my mind.

By the end of the day, some wind had returned to my sails. A collective framework had emerged. We all talked about the same things: making fashion more fair; making fashion better meet our needs by bringing it closer to home; making fashion more precious so that we stop throwing it away so wantonly; recognizing the physical world in our clothes. Two red threads that ran through it all included: 'caring' and 'togetherness', two of the words that Kate would bring back to share with the Union. 

I brought them home with me, too. The power of caring and doing it collectively! Eureka! The wrench in the capitalist wheel! Collective caring demolishes the primary credo of maximizing wealth at all cost. It would change everything. Nature would not be raped and pillaged to satisfy vanity; labours of love would prevail above worker exploitation; our clothing would not be made of oil and would biodegrade; and I daresay all wearers of such clothing would be happier. But how to achieve this utopian world, so exciting to consider? 

Aye, there's the rub!

We need examples. As I cogitate on Professor Fletcher's visit, I am struck by how profoundly we need anthropological knowledge, awareness of how other societies have organized their apparel, the awareness of alternatives. How limited we are if we can't think of a single one!

The word 'fashion' is no doubt part of our problem. The literature references the 'fashion system' as though it were singular -- while in fact it has morphed endlessly since fashion began (whether that beginning is assigned to the 17th 18th or 19th century). It has trickled up and trickled down and spread sideways, imposed itself and appropriated. As economics made visible, fashion's talent is to adapt endlessly to change. To position Western fashion as a monumental entity relative to non-fashion is to promulgate two pieces of fake news at once. Western fashion is, in fact, varied and not monumentally singular. And because fashion is ubiquitous, non-fashion doesn't exist. Everywhere there is and always has been fashion, in every society and in every time period. The examples out there are endless. The notion of fashion has shortened our vision.

Decolonizing fashion is of critical importance in this time of environmental crisis. It makes it possible to see different fashion systems; acknowledge and respect them; give them room to survive; learn from them: care about them collectively. That would be a fashion revolution. 

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