I presented this text during the webinar, 'Expanding the Frontiers of Commoning,' 16 November 2023, with the Schumacher Center for a New Economics
I would like to tell you about OurCommon.Market, a collection and platform of fashion commons being developed by the activist group, Fashion Act Now, or FAN, headquartered in London, England.
You are probably already scratching your head. Fashion commons? Now, if you are thinking, “Isn’t Fashion all about showing off, and supporting, hierarchies of status and power?” you would be right. ‘Fashion commons’ appears to be a contradiction in terms, an oxymoron. I hope I will be able to alleviate some of this cognitive dissonance during the next 10 minutes.
At FAN we work on dismantling the Fashion system. But first, a bit about working within FAN. Participating in this activist group I have been excited to experience how a whole can be greater than the sum of its parts. What I want to share today is very much the fruit of FAN discussions and working together; it is impossible to pinpoint the boundaries between the thinking of our individual members and that of the whole group. Many of the ideas that I will be sharing are the result of ‘group discussions’; our ideas are constructed and held in common. As we agitate for what we call ‘de-Fashion’ (i.e. degrowth, sustainability and radical fairness in clothing systems) we try very hard to learn and practice what it means to be a knowledge commons. None of us is an expert in commoning. We are learning while doing.
The place for me to start to explain Our Common Market is with the distinction that underlies all of our thinking in FAN, namely, the difference between what we call big and little-f Fashion. If ‘Fashion Commons’ was an oxymoron for you, that is because you have big-F Fashion in mind. Not surprisingly! Most people only know big-F Fashion because it has been the dominant system of clothing production and consumption on the planet since long before all of us were born.
Recently people have been raising their voices to decry Fast Fashion as 'Fossil Fuel Fashion' pointing out that this highly damaging form of Fashion is enabled by fossil fuels --not just for production but also for synthetic fibres. We at FAN agree, but we go much further. We point out that ALL of Industrial Fashion is Fossil Fuel Fashion. Since its inception in the Industrial Revolution in the early 19th Century the entire trajectory has been enabled by fossil fuels, starting with coal-powered steam engines. The use of those fossil fuels has increased exponentially and Fast Fashion is only the latest stage in the trajectory.
While fossil fuels have been the true engine of industrial Fashion, Fashion theorists attributed the uniqueness of the clothing system in the West, instead, to a higher stage of cultural evolution, to a more sophisticated civilization, to racial superiority. In short, the sheer power of fossil fuels went straight to our heads and puffed up the ego of the West. The term ‘Fashion’ was co-opted for the clothing of rich sophisticates who could afford rapidly changing styles, while the rest of the world ‘merely’ had clothing rooted in tradition and slow to change.
So there you have it, the dark side of Fashion lurking behind every catwalk and Fashion magazine: the vertical binary: the Industrial forms versus the non-Industrial forms. That simple. And thus Fashion has been celebrated while all other clothing forms, including peasant, tribal, and foreign, have been erased, ignored, undermined, plundered, and considered unimportant and bound to disappear.
I think you can see where this is going: On the one hand: the unseen, erased, carbon-sequestering, local, small-f fashion expressions and on the other: the growth-based, destructive, Industrial Fossil Fueled Fashion that has ballooned out to dominate the clothing scene worldwide, with FAN's interest in 'fashion commons' relating to small-f fashion expressions.
Of course the thinking of most of us has been dominated by Industrial big-F Fashion, informed by: what the shops are filled with, catwalks, fashion magazines, the styles of the rich and famous, and on and on. Small-f fashion doesn’t even appear as a blip on the screen, except maybe when dubbed ‘handicraft’. This blinkered view of big-f Fashion also dominates the framework of sustainability in Fashion, which is entirely oriented to reforming the Industry! We, at FAN, place little hope in the industry becoming ‘sustainable’, because it is growth-based and fossil-fuel based and, by definition, rooted in the unfairness of erasing small-f fashion expressions.
Long, thoughtful, soul-searching discussions amongst FAN members have led us to a fork in the road. Would we choose the Extinction Rebellion kinds of strategies of visible and audible protest against the Fashion industry, or would we choose the path of building and supporting alternatives to big-f Fashion? With the wise counsel of David Bollier in our ears, and the clear-sightedness of Sara Arnold, our co-ordinator, we chose for building and encouraging alternatives: in other words, to showcase small-f fashion. And this makes us unique as activists for a better fashion world. There are many other groups brilliantly critiquing the Fashion Industry. Make no mistake, the Fashion industry MUST BE dismantled for the well being of people and planet. But here’s the thing: when Big-F Fashion comes down, little-f fashion has to be there. Ready. Resilient. Regenerative. Small and Beautiful; Free, Fair and Alive.
Hence: OurCommon.Market, the interactive platform that we are building to connect, encourage and support small-f fashion expressions. This includes a whole array of community groups that repair, share and repurpose their clothes, farm to fashion initiatives like Fibershed (now in many countries, not just the States where it started), The Linen Project in The Netherlands, groups reviving or maintaining their clothing heritage, such as communities in the Ukraine that have produced and decorated clothing from homegrown flax and wool for generations, and so on and so on. Zoe Gilbertson, one of our FAN members, is researching bio-regional bast fibre knowledge, and is plugged into its revival in the UK. Another member, Ariel Fabbro, has constructed the website, Cobbled Goods, to profile sustainable shoes made with respect for nature.
We have constructed ground rules -- we call them the ‘Common Code’ -- for participation in Ourcommon.Market so that the communities that we on-board are not big-f Fashion wannabees waiting for their chance to ‘scale up’, but function, rather, as commons, in which the common good and fairness, not profit and growth, are central.
We hope to offer a forum that will eventually generate a significant groundswell. Will Our Common Market result in some kind of solidarity? Will the communities learn from each other and support each other? Can we collectively become a commons of commons, or a kind of what David Bollier called "a vibrant Republic of Commoners"? That’s what we hope and aim for.
Our path will be made by walking on it. We have to trust to the group dynamics that will take place. We know that many challenges lie ahead. They will need to be solved iteratively, within and through our communities, through trial and error, and through deep discussion: differences of language and culture; differences of vision and strategy, will need to be bridged.
Inside and outside Europe there are countless groups struggling to keep their clothing traditions alive. We want to serve, not just as an alternative to big-f Fashion, but also as an antidote, by providing a space where small-f fashion communities can find each other, support each other, shine, feel pride, revive and flourish. In short, to re-emerge from two hundred years of erasure.
The loss of these systems is not something to shrug off, and feel that they are doomed by modernity. It is absolutely crucial that they be supported:
1. First, they provide alternative understandings of how fashion can operate for the good of communities -- and this is desperately being sought now by Fashion reformists in the Northern nations.
2. Second, they are part of the process of becoming sustainable in the North. The process of being sacrificed by the continual expansion of big-f Fashion needs to be reversed. Small-f fashion needs to be granted the space to survive.
3. Third, we hear so much about the loss of natural diversity and the 6th Great Extinction. But cultural survival is a problem equally profound. That is also part of the polycrisis. Wade Davis made a prediction 15 years ago that,
“Within a generation or two … we may be witnessing the loss of fully half of humanity’s social, cultural and intellectual legacy.”
My time is up, but suffice it to say that I have found profound, even mind-blowing, meaning invested in indigenous Indonesian clothing systems maintained by indigenous cultural commons. Indigenous systems of dress, not just their appearance, but also how they are made and used, are imbued with what Schumacher referred to as ‘psychological structures’ and, in turn, are profoundly linked to cultural survival. I’d like to end, now, with a quote by Schumacher.“The life, work, and happiness of all societies depend on certain 'psychological structures' which are infinitely precious and highly vulnerable. Social cohesion, co-operation, mutual respect and above all self-respect, courage in the face of adversity, and the ability to bear hardship - all this and much else disintegrates and disappears when these 'psychological structures' are gravely damaged. A [person] is destroyed by the inner conviction of uselessness. No amount of economic growth can compensate for such losses.”