Oct 11th, 2021, 04:27 AM

Fashion as a Catalyst for Development

By Michelle Doyle
Image credit: neri.media.mit.edu
With a concerted movement in the fashion business towards sustainability, new professional fields are intersecting with the industry — from environmental experts and human rights advocates to diversity strategists.

Fashion may not be the first thing that comes to mind as an avenue for development in climate change and human rights, but issues emerging within the industry are opportunities for progress.

There’s a concerted movement within the fashion industry towards sustainability. This means new professional fields are increasingly intersecting with fashion — demands for environmental experts, human rights advocates, and diversity strategists, just to name a few, are expanding within the industry.

With fashion spanning human rights and the climate, it has been formally recognized as a catalyst for change. Positions opening up in fashion can facilitate movement in the same direction of the United Nations Sustainable Goals. In 2015, the UN recognized fashion’s capacity to meet the 17 goals by 2030. The focus is achieving a sustainable future by improvement in socio-economic and environmental areas of development.

Image credit: Unfashionalliance.org

A closer look at the areas in which fashion can foster development shows how they intersect. Recent advances came as a result of the Covid-19 crisis, which highlighted the risks of single sourcing. Companies saw production come to a halt as the pandemic swept through China, where many companies source their items. A response to this has been a push to bring production closer to home. Companies like Gucci, which opened Gucci Art Lab in Scandicci, Italy, have taken action to internalize their prototyping and product development by moving these processes closer, a choice that drastically cuts down on carbon emissions produced by transportation and factory production.

Another area of technology that is progressing within fashion is artificial intelligence, with many needs of the industry being met with AI advancements. While using AI to suggest fit and taste predictions for consumers has been around for some time, other practical uses on the business-end include its role in supply chain purposes, where the technology is being developed to leverage natural language processing (NLP) to monitor various outlets to detect disruptions, such as natural disasters or factory issues.

On a different scale of manufacturing, there are more opportunities for traditional forms of textile and jewelry production to become more widely implemented, as well as the protections of these cultural traditions. Fostering the economic development of old traditions by building business skills with makers is one of the initiatives of the UNDP.

Science is also beginning to establish a promising place in the industry as well, with advancements in material change. The work of Neri Oxman and her team at MIT have made fascinating developments in material ecology. This approach to design utilizes micro-organisms to transform biomass into biomaterials, which can be used to create clothing along with other materials.

On the social end, we’re seeing a rise of diversity and inclusion strategies which designers are building into their businesses for multiple reasons. There have been examples of high-profile accounts of brands in recent years making poor choices in regards to racist imagery and product design. Prada for example, came under fire for a line of products which depicted ‘blackface' imagery in 2018, and two years earlier Dolce & Gabbana’s for the brand's 'slave' sandals.

Image Credit: Instagram/Chinyereezie 

The importance of holding brands accountable for these actions is undeniable from an ethical perspective. These creative choices by design teams are also massively damaging for business, resulting in boycotting, backlash and bad press. Consumer and societal pressure has been the starting point for companies to understand the value in having diversity experts on their teams who can assess creative decisions from a cultural and ethical standpoint. On the environmental side, there are fast fashion brands like H&M and Zara, which in recent years have announced 'sustainability' initiatives. However, they have been consistently called out for 'greenwashing'. As consumer pressure for transparency grows, the space for more positions in sustainability strategy within larger companies and collaboration with NGOs is ripe for expansion as well. 

From a developmental perspective, the needs of the fashion industry can work strategically across environmental and social sectors as far as experimenting with collaboration, setting the grounds for policy change, and creation of new jobs. Fashion presents a promising way to work with the environmental and human rights crises in our world today, and with the right mix of investment and advocacy, this space has the potential to be an incredible catalyst for change.