Re-imagining Fashion as an Ecosystem of Commons

Last month David Bollier delivered a talk at the conference “Searching for a New Luxury” in Arnhem, Netherlands. The conference focused on the dark underside of the fashion and garment industries: underpaid and abused labor, prodigious amounts of waste, hyper-commercialism at the expense of craft and design, odious marketing strategies. But it also explored the positive responses underway. David’s report follows.

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Schumacher Center Staff



Fashion Revolution Week.

It turns out that the fashion world has quite a large cohort of designers, fashion houses, scholars, and activists who want to revamp the global fashion marketplace. This movement wants to find new ways to design, produce and distribute clothing that are more ecologically minded, respectful of workers, and attuned to the needs of real people.

The strength of these ideas can be seen in the remarkable turnout of 500 people to a conference hosted by the ArtEZ University of the Arts and an annual exhibition called State of Fashion. I was told it was perhaps the largest, most diverse gathering of people concerned about the current state of the fashion industry.

The conference described its mission this way: “Fashion is in dire need of more value-based critical thinking as well as design-driven research to thoroughly explore, disrupt, redefine and transform the system.” It aimed to “collectively investigate how to move towards a fashion reality that addresses ethics, inclusivity and responsible consumerism in a more engaged way.”

Theodorus Johannes, host of “Community Dressing” documentary video series, takes inspiration from the traditional dress of Netherland communities.

I was impressed by the range and caliber of approaches to revamping the fashion industry. One of the most formidable efforts is being waged by a group called Fashion Revolution, a global advocacy group that was started after the Rana Plaza garment factory in Bangladesh collapsed, killing more than 1,100 people. Fashion Revolution has tried to make the fashion supply chain more transparent in order to prevent future abuses, as in this film “The True Cost,” about the actual (high) costs of garments.

Fashion Revolution has criticized the whole “fast fashion” segment of the industry, which has contributed to the doubling of garment production worldwide between 2000 and 2014. Besides cranking up production of garments to dizzying speeds, fast fashion has produced prodigious amounts of waste. Some 40% of purchased clothes are rarely or never worn – the average garment is worn only 3.3 times over its lifetime – and about one-third of retail clothing is never sold, and is therefore burned or destroyed. The industry produces some 400 billion square meters of fabric waste each year.

“Sustainable fashion” was a term used by many speakers to point to clothing that is designed to cherished and last. Kristine Harper spoke about the “aesthetic sustainability” of clothing, probing the emotional attachments that we have with garments and how we might improve “sustainable design and durable aesthetics.” Orsola de Castro, a “recovering designer,” talked about how “loved clothes last.”

Osklen, a Brazilian fashion brand.

Another pioneer of sustainable fashion is Oskar Metsavaht, founder of the Brazilian Instituto-E and creative director of Osklen. He showed a short film describing his company’s aggressive efforts to find and develop new sorts of recyclable, sustainable materials for garments. Osklen has also created new sorts of supply chains and “conscious consumption.”

These sorts of ideas are seeping into fashion education these days thanks to people like Professor Pascale Gatzen, who developed an alternative fashion curriculum at the Parsons School of Design in New York City before moving on to teach at ArtEZ University of the Arts in Arnhem.

Gatzen explained her philosophy toward fashion: “Choices are made because they yield the biggest profit margins, not because they are more beautiful or because they make us happier. How you dress is about how you position yourself in the world. How do we take fashion back into our own hands and make it a catalyst for social change?”

Friends of Light in Hudson, NY. Photo by Katie de Klee.

Gatzen’s answer was to found a weaving cooperative in the Hudson Valley called the Friends of Light to produce handwoven jackets. The wool is grown from sheep on a nearby farm, so all materials are local and the production process is careful and holistic – so much so that it takes as much as 160 hours to make each jacket.

The conundrum: the more labor-intensive and authentic a garment is, the more expensive it is likely to be. This plays into the whole high-fashion ethic and business model. Eco-responsible fashion should not be a “luxury.” Still, even if it costs more, it is worth attempting innovative production methods and recovering a sense of craft within garment design and production. It is also worth weaning people away from their addiction to low-price, low-quality “fast fashion.”

Artemesia in Lenox, MA.

An intriguing way to kickstart such projects is for investors and consumers to support the local production of ecologically minded clothing. In the Berkshires, artisans such as Wendy Akroyd of Artemesia produce simple, functional, and beautiful linen clothing (above). Rebecca Burgess of Fibershed (below), is developing “soil-to-soil” textile processes to harvest and recycle textile fibers – a model she hopes to expand into regional textile communities and an international supply-chain system.

Fibershed develops “regional fiber systems that build soil & protect the health of our biosphere.” Photo of founder Rebecca Burgess by Paige Green, Andrew Plotsky, and Dustin Kahn.

In Philadelphia Circle of Aunts and Uncles, a locally-oriented investment club founded by Judy Wicks, has financed a small company, Eads, that makes canvas and cork bags using less toxic water-based inks. The company is a no-waste facility and all scraps are saved to future use.

Circle of Aunts and Uncles.

In my talk, I tried to imagine “fashion as an ecosystem of commons,” and suggested a number of strategies by which fashion could reconceive itself as a federation of commons. Alt-fashionistas might start by developing new ways to “beat the bounds” to protect their shared wealth and commoning – their collaborations, supply chains, and cultural vision.

A further approach would be for fashion innovators to develop their own finance systems and distribution and marketing infrastructure. This will be essential in trying to establish an independent and durable alternative to the existing production and marketing system. It will also help avoid the inevitable attempts at co-optation and “commons-washing” as new systems take root. Ultimately, consumers will have to be weaned from their addiction to the wasteful, throwaway ethic of “fast fashion.” They will have to learn that there is a living world of real people and fragile nature that lies behind the frenetic global markets making clothing.

For more information, view the video of the keynote speakers at the “Searching for a New Luxury” conference. My remarks go from the timecode 20:43 to 41:14.

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David Bollier is Director of the Reinventing the Commons Program at the Schumacher Center for a New Economics. He is an American activist, author, and blogger whose work focuses on the commons as a new paradigm of economics, politics, and culture.


Gordon Thorne
April 1941 – June 2018

We are all grieving at the loss of beloved Schumacher Center board member, Gordon Thorne. Gordon believed:

 “. . . that imagination is essential to the creation of a future we will want to inhabit and that a thriving creative arts community inspires and nourishes such community imagination.  It is therefore incumbent on a responsible citizenry to take steps to secure permanently affordable spaces for creative work within the community.  Such spaces, as an extension of the public commons, must be fairly managed and their use allocated in such a way as to preserve the space for future generations while ensuring vibrant present use.”


Save the Date

On Saturday, October 27th, Leah Penniman and Ed Whitfield will deliver the 38th Annual E. F. Schumacher Lectures celebrating the 150th anniversary of the birth of W. E. B. Du Bois, Great Barrington’s native son.  Registration will open in July.