Introduction to Lifetimes

It's pretty clear that the relationship between the clothing industry, the fashion sector and ecological thinking is an uneasy one. Evidence suggests that these industries are among the most environmentally damaging, judged on a par with the ill-famed chemical industry. And their core features, which include fast changing trends, fashion obsolescence and premature product replacement are in direct contradiction to ecological qualities of permanence, lightness and connectedness.

We think it doesn't have to be this way. We share Stewart Brand's (1999) view that fashion, amongst other things, is central to a healthy, resilient future. And that its fast pace of change, if balanced by the slow pace of change in other layers of activity such as culture and nature, can combine 'learning with continuity'. So fashion (at least in some form) is a key part of an ecological future.

Yet if you examine the important environmental and social developments in the clothing sector over the past 15 years, they are in environmental legislation, tougher pollution controls and social labelling standards, i.e. in production not consumption, or, to put it another way, in factories not fashion. This project strives for a more interconnected approach, as much concerned with hard-nosed environmental production as with the symbolic, experiential world of fashion and consumption.

In the ecological future, fashion has to be more informed, more transformative and move a million miles away from the 'eco chic' of the early 1990s. Eco chic was dominated by natural-looking colours and fibres, had little basis in environmental data and owed more to a reaction to stereotyped views of chemicals and industrial pollution than to sustainability. Here the superficial beauty, language and image of fashion confused the real debate and skimmed over the deeper, hidden 'ugliness' so rife in the fashion sector of consumerism, alienation, cynicism and exploitation.

In this project we approach fashion clothes through a particular frame (appropriate lifetimes) in an attempt to gain a sneak preview of the ecological future. Appropriate lifetimes require us to look at consumer impact and how long clothes last. Consumers are central to this project because using clothes generates lots of impact (so we need to work to reduce this). We believe that people's psychological and material needs have to be met, meaning that both fashion AND clothes are important so we need to evolve a range of responses that operate on both the symbolic and biological levels. This has led us to the idea of fast and slow rhythms of use working with fast and slow garments.

Durability is a popular environmental strategy. It is often seen as an antidote to fashion change, and qualities like honesty and timelessness have become popularly regarded as 'environmentally friendly'. Designing for durability is well liked by eco textile and clothing designers. In some circles there have been calls for all clothes to be designed for long life, transcending time and fashion, and because we use the same garment for longer, the number of garments made and thrown away is reduced. But as well as completely neglecting fashion and the differences in the way we use our clothes, increasing durability can sometimes lead to increasing environmental impact! We advocate a more flexible approach to side step such unequivocal strategies, instead working with clothing types, designers, producers and users in the context of today's industry.

Reference

Brand, S. (1999), The Clock of the Long Now, London: Phoenix.