Interview: Academic researchers launch manifesto for fashion change

A new association is calling fashion academics around the world to unite and push for drastic changes in the fashion industry. Inspired by the Union of Concerned Scientists, a non-profit science advocacy organization formed in 1969 in the USA, four fashion academics are introducing the Union of Concerned Researchers in Fashion. Its manifesto, launched on January 1st, recognizes the significant role the fashion industry plays in global warming and the destruction of ecosystems worldwide.

“It is our view that concerned fashion and clothing researchers can no longer remain uninvolved or complacent”, says the document, arguing that academics should “advocate for whole systems and paradigm change” as “the response of the fashion industry to the intensifying ecological crisis has been -- and continues to be -- over-simplified, fragmented and obstructed by the growth logic of capitalist business models as they are currently realized and practiced”. The group also says change has been hindered by “uncritical research findings, duplication of research, reduction and misuse of scientific and technical knowledge”.

The founding members of the Union of Concerned Researchers in Fashion are: Kate Fletcher, Research Professor at the Center for Sustainable Fashion in the University of the Arts in London, UK; Lynda Grose, Chair of the Fashion Design program at California College of Arts in San Francisco; Timo Rissanen, Assistant Professor of Fashion Design and Sustainability at Parsons School of Design, New York; and Mathilda Tham, Professor in Design at Linnaeus University, Sweden. They spoke with FashionUnited about the Union and its goals.

What sparked the idea to form a union of academic researchers to create change in the fashion industry?

The idea of a new way to collaborate for systemic and paradigmatic change has been with us and our network for some time, with growing frustration about how little our collective knowledge (in terms of both urgency and what we can actually do) is translated to action. Lynda Grose proposed the idea of a union in her keynote at the Global Fashion Conference in London in November, 2018, inspired by the Union of Concerned Scientists. Suddenly, the time and place was right for us researchers in fashion and sustainability and we joined in action.

You published a manifesto on your website in January and invited other researchers to sign up. How has the manifesto been received so far?

There has been an overwhelming response to the manifesto, with signatories from academia, industry and organisations globally. The manifesto seems to have touched a nerve and to provide a pathway to action for many. Many who have signed it have expressed relief that a group is coming together in this way -- and feelings of hope for the future.

What are the Union’s next steps? What kind of activities do you intend to organize for the signatories?

We are now planning events for the coming year. This includes the focus on an activist knowledge ecology. Our first event was an “editing marathon” of Wikipedia’s Sustainable Fashion page because getting robust information and sources together for easy access is imperative. We hope the Union can be a force for systemic and paradigmatic change. We hope it can have power, criticality and creativity unimpeded by the forces of growth. We hope the union - through gathering so many knowledgeable individuals, and perspective globally, can lend confidence and and support for action around the world.

In your manifesto, you say that the fashion sector's response to the ecological threat has been "over-simplified, fragmented and overly cautious". Can you mention some examples of responses which you deem insufficient or flawed?

The Pulse of the Fashion Industry Report [published by The Global Fashion Agenda], for example, proposed actions that were very similar to actions that were proposed and enacted 30 years ago, when the crisis we face is now much more acute. We are frustrated that there is a good deal of activity, but not much development. We are also frustrated that there is still widespread belief that the problem of unsustainability is best met through the power and influence of business. Whilst we recognize that industry has a critical role to play in this, we also see after 25 years of implementing this idea/experiment, that it falls short. Efficiency gains are insufficient to countermand the negative effects of increasing volumes of production. Could this be a case of what system thinker Russ Ackoff characterised as: ‘we are doing the wrong things righter’?

You also invite researchers to advocate for whole systems and paradigm change, which would imply changing the whole economic system. Critique against capitalism is usually met with resistance. How do you intend to make sure this call for a paradigm change gets heard?

The potential of the union for successfully critiquing the growth paradigm lies in its independence from industry, interest organisations, and even academic institutions. Together we can have courage and credibility. We will meet myths with facts and work towards coherent overviews of knowledge.

The manifesto also calls for research practice to be changed to 'enact new relationships between humans and Earth in the context of fashion'. What kind of changes do you envision?

It is important that knowledge about sustainability doesn’t remain as reports on shelves, but is enacted. It’s also important to acknowledge that sustainable fashion is much more than just industry. There is knowledge within the civic remit and knowledge in older societies that we need to draw on today. It is important that the sustainable fashion discourse moves from a focus on product initiatives (such as replacing one fibre with another) to relationships: how we construct systems of fashion, business models and education, and how societal norms endorse or critique unsustainable resource use.

Picture: courtesy of the Global Fashion Agenda

 

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