Understanding Sustainability Means Talking About Colonialism

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Beirut, Lebanon, 1957. Photo: Thomas J. Abercrombie/National Geographic/Getty Images

Sustain/Ability: Stories about how fashion impacts the environment.

I speak frequently about sustainability in fashion, whether at conferences or in an educational context, and I often hear the same question: “It seems that to have a sustainable ‘lifestyle’ — air quotes around the word lifestyle — one has to be rich. If you can’t afford $600 sweaters, how can you be sustainable?”

Whenever I’m asked this question I am reminded how the mainstream Western perspective on sustainability is focused on one small part of the problem, while ignoring most of the larger important global issues. Yes, clothing production with a priority to limit environmental and human-rights problems is much better than standard fast fashion (and is usually more expensive), but in fact sustainability is a spectrum, and doing less damage is still doing some damage. So you can’t solve sustainability by simply buying things. The game here is about reduction of harm, not binary solutions.

Sourcemap has traced supply chains for most major clothing and apparel manufacturers, and the data mapping it provides show that world trade routes are mostly the same as they were 150 years ago at the height of European colonial exploitation. In the same way that colonized nations provided cheap sugar, chocolate, coffee, and fruit to the West, “developing” nations now provide cheap semi-disposable clothes to the West and global economic upper classes.

Modern Western culture has tried to introduce solutions to sustainability, but those often miss the point, either by focusing only on a small part of the problem or ultimately encouraging more consumption at a higher price. The environmental slogan of the ’80s — Reduce, Reuse, Recycle — has mostly ignored the first two more important R’s and focused on recycling because it encourages consumption and continues to nourish and expand the disposable culture that drives the environmental destruction it is supposed to mitigate. The organic food movement grew from a global need to reduce chemicals and toxins in the environment and in our food, but has ended up at times just a marketing ploy to justify exorbitant pricing.

Some would argue that the solutions must be lab-grown, making them unattainable and expensive. But sustainability is a movement and a culture that has been around long before the West became aware or interested in the concept. Poverty and war create necessity. Let’s look to cultures in the Middle East, North Africa, Africa, and Asia that have practiced sustainability since long before it became a status symbol.

Joëlle Firzli is a Lebanese researcher and fashion curator, born and raised in Ivory Coast, which 200,000 displaced Lebanese people call home, most of whom are second- or third-generation African-Lebanese. She recalls, “For as long as I can remember, I’ve been sewing buttons back onto my shirts. As a little girl I would sew dresses for my dolls. I made clothing for them from scraps that my mom would give me. For me, this is cultural, I learned it from my mother, who learned it from her mother. There is a certain pride in being able to take care of your things. It’s called craftsmanship. I’m proud of my culture, I’m proud of my African-Lebanese heritage which unconsciously is promoting mending and repairing thus a form of ethical consumption.”

And sustainability shouldn’t just be about making cleaner production, it must be about reducing consumption. By 2030 the world is projected to face 40 percent global water deficit — this means less water for both harvesting food and harvesting cotton. Each year over 80 billion pieces of clothing are produced worldwide, and after a short consumer lifespan, three out of four garments will end up in landfills or be incinerated. Only a quarter will be recycled. The International Labour Organization estimates that 170 million are engaged in child labor, with many making textiles and garments to satisfy the demand of consumers in Europe, the U.S., and beyond.

In fact, we may be entering a new era where luxury is redefined. Instead of being an elitist, unattainable dream reflecting colonial values, in the future luxury could also include respect for human rights and environmental values.

Being able to afford that $600 sweater is not what defines sustainability. It is a cultural movement based on the way you consume. Before you buy something new, think about swapping clothes with your friends, or buying vintage or from a secondhand store. When discarding your clothes, look for a place where they can be recycled instead of shipped to African countries where they are left to rot and damage the economy. Instead of buying a new sweater, why not alter the one you have, extending its lifetime?

In fact, extending the average life of clothes by just three months of active use per item would lead to a 5 to 10 percent reduction in each of the carbon, water, and waste footprints. We need to create a culture of pride around caring for your things.

Celine Semaan Vernon is the founder of Slow Factory, a socio-political label, and The Library: Sustainable Fashion Archive. To learn more about sustainable fashion, tune in on February 7 at 4 p.m. for The Library: Study Hall conference in collaboration with MIT Media Lab and Ace Hotel.

Understanding Sustainability Means Talking About Colonialism