According to a recent interview Vivienne Westwood gave to GQ magazine in their September 2021 issue, Westwood considered that Couture is the only sustainable fashion out there. During her interview, the fashion guru stated:
“The high street is the problem. All that mass production is just about cheap labour and death. Couture is the only sustainable fashion – meaning you can’t get any more sustainable than couture. My answer is to buy less, choose well, make it last. And that’s the best thing for the ecology at the moment.”
Is Westwood right to make such a bold assertion? This article will explore if Couture really is the only sustainable fashion and what high street retailers can do to combat this issue.
What is sustainable fashion?
If an item of clothing contributes to maintaining the ecological system, then it is sustainable. By that, I mean if the way the product is sourced, manufactured and supplied is environmentally friendly and does not create an imbalance in the ecosystem chain, then it can be deemed sustainable. The fabric which the product is created from should be safe to both humans, animals and the environment. The reuseability of the final end product is also considered when determining the sustainability of the clothing, so that the resources used in producing it don’t get dumped completely. In addition, the lifespan and durability of sustainable fabrics should normally be longer than other fabrics. Examples of such fabrics include but are not limited to: hemp, bamboo, Tencell, Lyocell, Wool and organic cotton.
Why is sustainable fashion production important
Anyone who has been watching the news recently will no doubt see that wildfires, flooding, hurricanes and other natural disasters are happening on a more frequent basis across the world. Climate change is the driving force behind this and truly is the great existential crisis of our time. You will note from my blog post ‘’The impact of fast fashion’’ that the fashion industry is one of the biggest contributers to global warming. According to (UNECE, 2018) 85% of all textiles end up in landfill or are incinerated. Clothing brands that take on a sustainable fashion model aim to tackle this by reducing this statistic either by reselling worn clothes, upcycling clothes or developing high quality and more durable clothing.
In the 1960s, the typical person bought less than 25 garments a year, but spent 10% of their household budget on clothing. This is in stark contrast to consumers today who are averaging at roughly 75 pieces per person per year for approximately 3.5% of their annual budget. The impact of this is often paid for by the environment.
What is Couture fashion and how is it sustainable?
So now that you know what sustainable fashion entails, how does that make Couture fashion sustainable? The word ‘’Couture’’ comes from the French word for ‘’dressmaking’’. It encompasses pieces that are handmade from start to finish that are constructed from high quality, expensive and unusual fabrics. Some might say that when it comes to conventional couture that the only eco-friendly aspect of it is the fact that it is made to order and therefore uses only as much resources as is needed/wanted by the consumer. This is the opposite of clothing brands that mass produce products to keep up with new fashion trends.
Generally couture designers use fabrics that are durable and eco-friendly such as linen, wool and silk. The idea is that each piece is timeless, longlasting and can be passed on to new generations. In this sense, Couture is the epitome of slow fashion.
In what ways is Couture fashion not sustainable?
Although Couture encompasses the slow fashion model, there are still some pitfalls with this type of fashion. For example, couture fashion designers produce one off unique pieces that they consider to be pieces of art. Some outfits are extremely ‘’out there’’ and produced to make a bold statement. In this sense, the majority of Couture outfits are worn only once by their owner. This sadly means that the production of Couture contributes to the excess of clothing which in turn greatly burdens the environment.
In comparison to fast fashion brands, the customer base of Couture Houses amounts to approximately 4,000 people. In the fashion industry, Couture therefore makes up a very small proportion of it. In this regard, one might consider that it almost seems pointless to focus on sustainability within such a niche sector as overall it will have little impact.
What makes high street retail brands not sustainable?
High street fashion falls into the ‘’ready-to-wear’’ fashion category. This focusses on the production of garments that appeal to the current market trends of the season. When looking at high street retail brands, these retailers produce clothing for the masses and consequently make up a larger portion of the fashion industry. Unlike Couture brands, high street and online retailers churn out large numbers of new items every week. This contributes to 300,000 tonnes of clothing being chucked into the bin each year in the UK which increases the amount of green house gases emitted into the atmosphere. Popular retailers like Zara and H&M have pledged to create collections all made from sustainable clothing. At first blush, this sounds good but the sad reality is that this will not have as much of an impact if these retailers were willing to change their production numbers. Sadly this is the main reason that high street retail brands are not sustainable.
Can high street retail brands be sustainable?
High street brands can be more sustainable but its whether they specifically want to be. After all fashion is business and more customers equates to more revenue. Fast fashion online stories such as Boohoo and Pretty Little Thing demonstrate just how lucrative the fast fashion industry can be. However more and more clothing retailers are taking steps to make more of a concerted effort to become more fashion conscious. Examples of this include being more transparent about their manufacture and supply chain and incorporating sustainable fabrics into their clothing collections. Retail and consumer expert Martin Newman recommends that “High street fashion retailers need to find manufacturers who have a focus on sustainability throughout the whole supply chain process, work hard to only use recycled packaging, try to work with couriers who use or will be using electric bikes and electric vehicles, and, of course, try to also source locally to reduce the carbon footprint.” In addition to this, producing less is also key for high street retailers to consider when trying to become more sustainable. Despite these positive suggestions, fast fashion culture still persists amongst the high street. More action needs to be taken by high street retailers and the Government if this issue is going to be tackled head on.
Is sustainable fashion only achieveable for the wealthy?
If Couture fashion is targeted towards a more affluent audience, then is sustainable fashion only achieveable for rich consumers? We all know now that fast fashion is cheaply produced and more accessible to lower earning consumers who seek to achieve on trend looks for less. With nearly 14 million people in the UK on the poverty line, it’s not plausible that the entire population will start to invest in expensive eco-fashion. Taking a step back, one can see what type of customer is driving the fast fashion market. Poorer communities typically outweigh wealthier ones in almost every country but a few. This imbalance needs to be addressed if the global fashion consumer market seeks to address the issue of sustainability and combating environmental destruction.
So overall, Vivienne Westwood is right to say that Couture is the only sustainable fashion, but only to an extent. The nature of Couture fashion means it simple cannot apply to the masses. By integrating certain things from the Couture fashion business model, such as producing less items of clothing, it is envisioned that high street retailers can become more sustainable and tackle the negative impact of fast fashion on the environment. Hopefully this happens sooner rather than later.
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