Otto von Busch, XXI magazine, iss 114, Feb 2013

Sustainability and “Passive Fashion”

We may know what fashion is – but what does it do? Who is active and who is passive? It may make the wearer feel refreshed, reborn in a new skin, full of new expectations. Fashion may be a tool to “stay ahead” socially and we may use all means necessary in this never-ending process. Today, with more accessible fashion than a generation ago, to “stay ahead” has come to mean a continuous acceleration of desire and the ephemeral satisfaction consumerism offers. Simultaneously, the threshold to become a member of the fashion crowd today, with blogs, tweets and street-style images, is so low we can all somehow feel part of fashion.

Fashion is like any other design. We will never be able to provide enough of design. The deficits of adequate design will never diminish, but continue to grow. Not only because old designs are not sufficient enough or fail to solve new problems as they emerge, but because expectations continuously rise and design in itself alters the conditions of everyday life. Take housing for example. As more housing becomes available and affordable, new family arrangements arise, splitting up the household which causes an increased demand for independent housing and more migration and commuting, which in turn alters the conditioning of the initial question about dwelling.

In a similar vein, affordable fashion not only raises expectations, it conditions our sense of individuality differently. As we strive towards more independence, we simultaneously further our dependence on the fashion industry in order to practice our newly gained independence. We can dress freely, as long as the industry has decided what we should wear. But we also influence each other, we imitate while we think we are personal.

On a consumer level, we can say that there are two everyday situations where fashion is actualized: on one hand there is an “active” fashion, that of explicitly wearing a fashionable garment or somehow exposing it to an audience. This person has made a choice from what is available and put a mark on his or her appearance by the act of exposing fashion. On the other hand there is “passive” fashion, that of being affected by it from others, by persons in the environment, physical or media landscape. In this way I may be “active”, having chosen what to wear, and at the same time also “passive” before someone else, especially someone I admire.

This acknowledges that the implications of fashion are disseminated socially, causing mental and environmental changes far beyond the active wearer. This is of course nothing new, as fashion would not exist if it were not for an audience. Yet, as we approach fashion and especially sustainability, we usually seem to do it from an individualist perspective (reduce YOUR footprint), or do so to advance something more abstract, such as eco-cotton or the rights of overseas sweatshop workers. Yet perhaps the biggest impact of fashion is to our immediate surrounding, the people who meet us in our everyday life. It is the people who see us wear fashion who are most affected by it. In front of our “active” choices of what to wear, they become “passive”.

Passive Fashion

Of course they choose what to wear too, and are thus also “active”. But this is exactly the point: in front of your conscious choice, also my choice becomes judged. Our immediate social environment is thus affected by fashion, or may even be at risk of being “polluted” by it. When I see you wear something new, I automatically feel old. Your consumption triggers my desire for more.

I am not after some form of asceticism, or ban of fashion. But acknowledging how we designers produce desire may help us approach sustainability differently. How do we as designers social pollution into account when addressing sustainability?

We could call such perspective “social environmentalism”. This would mean to realize design is a weapon in the struggle over the control of our shared culture, which is today most often disseminated through a filter: the ideology of consumer individualism. And paradoxically, just like we designers are at the unsustainable core of the polluting designer-goods economy, we are also at the main purveyors of the poisons in the social environment.
How should we as designers address the core paradoxes of what we do – that while we try to solve the problems of our time, we are also the ones promoting the arms race of consumerism? If we want to reach a more sustainable level of consumption, especially of fashion, we must better understand the driving forces of contemporary culture. And we may ask if is it possible to calm the design arms race through providing more design? Can we fight fire with fire, and design with design?

One initial path of action may come from the understanding that we automatically produce an “active” and a “passive” agent in every design situation. And this action itself produces new social conditions, or effects beyond the initial satisfaction or problem solved. Just like when we provide the smoker with a cigarette, the action of smoking produces passive smoking in the surrounding environment. The invention of the car produces the event of the car crash. Fashion seems to automatically produce new fashion.

Perhaps here we may find one inspiring example over the last decade. What can we learn from the shift of mentality we have seen in smoking, from a pervasive component of any social gathering, to now almost a stigmatized phenomenon? It seems to have moved from being a symbol of liberation to now express being a slave under the tobacco industry. How did this come to be?

After informing people for decades about the dangers of smoking, nothing seemed to have such powerful effect on smoking as the notion of “passive smoking” – that smoking, beyond the active smoker, harmed other people. Perhaps the active smoker didn’t care much, but the passive smokers did. Social pressure slowly amounted. Policies were discussed and implemented. Slowly smoking went from being individually cool to become a public concern.

So far sustainability is usually discussed from either the “active” perspective, such as buying local, or on a more abstract policy level, like introducing minimum wages or bans on certain pesticides. If we take “passive fashion” into account, we may try to make use of a core element in the fashion mechanism to promote sustainable practices. We may tweak the messages, insert sustainable values and support activities in fashion that are easily imitated and replicated in order to also reach the “passive” consumers.

Questions the sustainable fashion designer may ask could be: How can I make other people start sustainable practices by seeing and imitating what I wear? By imitating what I wear, you also reproduce the mechanism that made it sustainable in the first place. Can I repair in a way that makes others want to mend their garments? How can hand-me-down garments, or mending itself be a new subculture, a new symbol of cool? Can the very act of mending be cultivated as a lifestyle skill, like for example skateboarding or kite-surfing? Is the mended jacket the new motorcycle jacket, the repair kit the new Harley-Davidson?

Can we also make ”passive fashion” an activator of sustainability?

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