The Blog

Why Fashion Needs a New Direction

The response to an atrocity in fashion, such as the devastating Rana Plaza factory disaster in Bangladesh, can be powerful, reverberating outwards to significantly amplify a push towards change. Through working hand in hand with partners in industry and business and through education how can we ensure this much needed change becomes embedded?

This blog is part of a month-long focus around sustainable fashion across HuffPost UK Style and Lifestyle. Here we aim to champion some of the emerging names in fashion and shine a light on the truth about the impact our appetite for fast fashion has around the world.

Fashion can arouse both incredible wonder and outrage, it is a vital element in oursociety and culture. When destructive, it can provoke heartfelt, on the spot calls for protest, action, regulation or legislation at local and global scales. The response to an atrocity in fashion, as seen through Greenpeace's Detox campaign or the response to lives lost or maimed through the Rana Plaza factory collapse, can be powerful, reverberating outwards to significantly amplify a push towards change in tangible terms.

Its here that I started, as a designer, whilst at Katharine Hamnett, with cotton poplin and habotai silk as mainstays, where I came to understand the implications of my decisions, not just on the look of the collection, but on farmers in India and human rights in China. Thanks to Katharine, a Pandora's box was opened and I started to reach out for the knowledge that could help me and others, to uphold the integrity of fashion.

The ability to make informed decisions and to critically consider fashion through a wider lens, requires co-operation, only through sharing of knowledge and a review of design's ambition can we improve practice. Nearly 20 years down the line, this is still a work in progress, but with a greatly extended network of incredible people and a dedication that can be seen across businesses large and small. In establishing the Centre for Sustainable Fashion I have been able to create a space which sets out a commitment to this exploratory way of working, with three identified parameters; 'Living within Ecological Limits,' 'Better Lives' and 'Transformational Design' which guide our thinking and methodology and help focus our practice. As a University research centre, based at London College of Fashion, University of the Arts London, we are able to develop new courses for students, such as MA Fashion Futures, to co-create groundbreaking curriculum with world leaders in fashion and sustainability, Kering and devise new design methods with teams as diverse as the United Nations. By transforming curriculum we can change the course of the industry and our future, providing graduates with the right skills to interrogate and disrupt the status quo.

At CSF, we also mentor and support a myriad of small to medium sized enterprises distinction through design for sustainability - so far over 100 businesses have come through our doors; there are companies who are producing new kinds of collections, working in innovative ways and using new business models or skills not usually associated with fashion. They are innovators and change makers who can, through a diversity of approaches, realize a more world relevant kind of fashion.

As researchers, we work with social and climate scientists, anthropologists and public audiences and as campaigners, we work with governments and specifically with Baroness Lola Young on an All Party Parliamentary Group in the House of Lords to raise awareness and debate in UK politics to champion and endorse change on a national level. Only by working hand in hand with industry and government will we see the scale of change that is required.

As the 21st century unfolds, we have become more aware, not just of the visible symptoms of imbalance, but of environmental destruction and social injustice that cannot immediately be seen or felt. Climate Change, resource depletion, the loss of human dignity and an increasing disconnection between how we live and what keeps the world in balance do not lend themselves to easily perceptible targets for action on recognized scales or in defined places. So, what can those of us who are engaged in fashion do? And just to clarify that's pretty much all of us, unless you go naked (which is actually a very visible fashion statement in itself) or unless you do not have any control over what you wear, which is a reality for some. So we should take strength in numbers - the great majority of us have the ability to change things, in some way, shape or form, whether as designers, makers or wearers - what we make, sell, wear, endorse, buy or discard is what makes fashion important in many immediately visible and unseen ways.

But that doesn't make it easy. 97% of scientists agree that Climate Change is happening because of us, naming our era the Anthropocene, the era of human impact on nature, but this is not matched by social consensus on how to move on, human nature is not good at acting now on things that we don't see until much later on.

Fashion though, is about defying and questioning, it's about change. With climate change offering the biggest critique that fashion has ever faced it gives an urgent mandate for this change. We have two main things to do - to change both the making of fashion's 'matter', its contents, materials and practices and also its meaning, its creation of social acceptability of resourcefulness, care and a social rejection of wastefulness and disconnection. In short fashion needs a new movement. If the early 20th century was given distinction through the Bauhaus movement which crossed disciplines and mixed academia with industry, its focus on mass reproduction.

Now in the 21st century we need a postindustrial movement that unites nature's energy with social energy, its primary lens being the connections between things.

The push of knowledge informing our ideas and the pull of possibility that this wider lens offers, depends on our abilities to look around us and to look ahead and realize that a stitch in time saves nine. If we can do this, then the fashion industry might just leave a legacy that we can be proud of, if we can't, then we'll be having to save a hell of a lot more than the proverbial nine lives to stay anywhere near to a world that we can all live well in.

Professor Dilys Williams is the Director of the Centre for Sustainable Fashion at London College of Fashion, UAL. She was recently named in the Evening Standard's Progress 1000 list highlighting London's most influential people for her work as a campaigner for sustainable fashion

HuffPost UK Lifestyle is running a special series around Sustainable Fashion for the month of September. Livia Firth is creative director of Eco-Age and founder of The Green Carpet Challenge, and will be guest editing on 18 September. If you'd like to blog or get involved, please email us.