From Reset to Regeneration: What Does Sustainability Look Like in 2021?

How can we use the year ahead to rethink how we approach the world of fashion? For Rosanna Falconer, it comes down to three things: resetting, rethinking and regeneration. 

Rent, resell, repair, re-wear. From #BuyBetter to #30wears, sustainability is part of our lexicon. And now what? Beyond the tangible environmental priorities of slow fashion, 2020 brought social justice to the fore. #PayUp and the plight of garment workers not just abroad but on our doorsteps, drove home the ethics that had been too long ignored. That T-shirt may be organic cotton with non-chemical dye but how about the hands that made it? This collective awakening, along with an appreciation for local shops and awareness of our excess accumulation of ‘stuff’ as we work from home, would explain the statistic that 65% are altering their buying habits with a focus on quality over quantity in 2021.

It’s a promising statistic. After all, ‘reset’ was the catchphrase du jour of 2020. The “you’re on mute” of the fashion industry. But will it be heeded? The first lockdown was novel with a collective creativity shown in adversity. As the new year begins, a sense of apathy is palpable, both for people at home past the novelty of yet another Zoom quiz and for brands facing the launch of another collection digitally. It is pivotal, difficult moments like this when dialogue is so important. Conversations that the industry once thrived off. After all, there was ample opportunity, from fashion week to events; it was an industry renowned for its networking opportunities. They are sorely missing right now. With this in mind, I turned to some experts and thought-leaders for their take on the year ahead. Their thoughts fired me up for the year, I hope they do the same for you.

The Reset
As we grasped for hope in the relentless news cycle of COVID-19, heartening stories of dolphins in Venetian canals and clear skies over Delhi went viral on social media, providing optimism that this might be the reset the planet so desperately needed. Sadly, many of the triumphant reports have since proven to be a case of fake news and carbon emission reductions did nothing to stop 2020 being the hottest year on record, as Nasa announced last week.

An environmental reset will need more than a pandemic for success. Can the same be said of fashion’s fundamentally broken business model? There was “a lot of noise” around a collective reset at the start of the pandemic, according to Emma Hamilton-Foster, Director of Sustainability at Vivobarefoot (a B Corporation™ Certified business). However, she adds that “the pragmatic amongst us knew this wasn’t the case.” It’s a realism shared by other experts like Claire Bergkamp, who became COO of Textile Exchange after 9 years at Stella McCartney, most recently in the role of Worldwide Director of Sustainability and Innovation, helping to establish the brand’s leadership and reputation in sustainability. She fears that our desire for a return to ‘normal’ will outweigh any ability to reset: “I don’t want to go back to a place where consumption is unchecked… Where corporations are judged only on their profitability and not on their footprint.”

Rosanna wears: Jumper from Herd, made from soft Bluefaced Leicester sheep wool grown and made in NW England. It has been washed only in water and organic detergents, so is fully circular. Skirt from Needle & Thread’s responsibly sourced collection with Jasmine Hemsley, made using recycled sequins.

Image: Sindiso Khumalo

It is that traditional emphasis on profitability that has led to fashion’s failure in sustainability. The oxymoron of an industry driven by novelty versus the climate’s urgent need for reduction and repair. How can this change as the UK edges towards a double-dip recession and the biggest fall in retail sales since 1995?

When survival is key and there are livelihoods at stake, it is a sad inevitability that other issues are pushed down the agenda. Sustainable textile designer and Green Carpet Fashion Award winner Sindiso Khumalo cited overriding financial concerns as the reason many businesses are losing momentum in sustainability. “As businesses are forced to make cuts due to the pandemic, I hope that they will not be making cuts to their sustainability endeavours.”

With supply chains disrupted, staff furloughed and redundancies looming across the industry, Shailja Dubé, is acutely aware of the challenges facing businesses this year. In her role as Programme Lead of the British Fashion Council’s Institute of Positive Fashion, she is focused on “addressing our industry’s largest challenges” through its strategic pillars of environment, people, community and craftsmanship. She shares Khumalo’s acknowledgement of survival: “Many in our industry are unable to make business decisions based upon any other reason but for survival as a result [of the pandemic]. Can business leaders step up, lead the way for international collaboration and be the power for change?”

That power of collaboration is one that Wilson Oryema echoes, expanding it out to the wider community of global citizens: “The past year has taught us resilience. To keep pushing through to the next day, despite the troubles which hound us. I am hopeful we can overcome and make great progress collectively.”

It’s that collective spirit and strength that is needed, now more than ever. Dubé continues, “2020 was a year of awakenings, initiating the start of our collective transformation from a state of opaque to transparency. We have been snapped out of auto-pilot across all aspects of our lives, not least of which is the fact that we are far from an equitable society.”

A New Narrative
This inequality is most apparent in the chasm between the top CEOs and those at the start of fashion’s supply chain. FTSE 100 chief executives earned the average salary within the first 3 working days of 2021. It is fashion’s expansionist model, focused on the bottom line, that has driven this inequality and wrecked the ecosystem. My co-founder of FashMash Rachel Arthur questioned this growth imperative for Eco-Age last year. She expanded on this concept to me, as we met (virtually) to plan for the year ahead: “Only once we measure success differently, can we live within our planetary boundaries and still provide a just and fair future for society.”

Watch FashMash’s conversation with Dr Helen Crowley here.

In the same discussion, she flagged a profound switch in perspective to me: inspiring positive change by switching the narrative away from sacrifice. All too often, the climate crisis is tied to loss, guilt and shame. For example, the reproval of queues outside Primark post-lockdown is unlikely to have driven a shift in consumer mindset, only widening the gap of privilege. Big statistics of climate change may seem powerful, but they often only serve to overwhelm and confuse the consumer, “it doesn’t deter the majority of individuals”, explains Arthur. “My hope for 2021 is that we can start to reimagine the climate crisis as a huge moment of opportunity for the fashion industry to lead the charge towards a more positive, regenerative and equitable future.”

After all, how impactful is negative messaging? Does it fall on deaf ears, like a child too often admonished?

It’s a sentiment shared by Dr Helen Crowley, one of the world’s leading authorities on biodiversity and our most popular speaker at FashMash last year. Currently on sabbatical from her role at Kering, she is working for Conservation International on this very topic, and accordingly crafting the biodiversity pillar of the G7 Fashion Pact. Her interview on biodiversity provoked positive action via practical advice, focusing on our inextricable link to nature with the resounding takeaway that business cannot continue without supporting nature in a restorative way. Echoing Arthur’s notion of a positive narrative, she commented: “Regenerative agriculture is the best food for storytelling (pardon the pun) – it’s about farmers and livelihoods, about welfare of animals and restoring the soil cycles and water cycles. It’s all about building back better.”

Might regeneration be a buzzword on which the fashion industry can finally succeed? After all, its focus on positive creation is far more palatable. Hamilton-Foster certainly hopes so. Her vision for 2021 would be “transformational action to rewild, regenerate and restore our natural world and our communities within it.” Bergkamp echoes this sentiment, “we need to help nature bounce back”, adding a powerful (and positive!) that there is “the potential to reduce global carbon emissions by 12 gigatons per year.”

For me, the reset was a new mindset catalysed by our collective pause. But a reset is ultimately passive. It is far more promising to bring regeneration to the fore as we start a new year, with prospects of proactive transformation and long-term change. Onwards! Upwards!

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