In May 2019, the Global Fashion Agenda (GFA) published an update to the Pulse Report, a yearly report it first commissioned in 2017. The Union of Concerned Researchers in Fashion (UCRF) appreciates the value of regular evaluation of industry performance that the Pulse Updates seek to offer. The report works to illuminate to what extent efforts are genuinely working for the environment or if they are ‘business first,’ and it aligns with UCRF’s activities to drive change towards sustainability goals in fashion. This is critical in reaching, by now, a very uncompromising deadline of just over a decade to reverse catastrophic climate change (IPCC, 2018). In the light of the stark reality of the type and urgency of action on climate change, UCRF offers an Addendum to the report Pulse of the Fashion Industry 2019 Update; in which the UCRF highlights three areas which it considers are in need of further critical consideration. While UCRF appreciates the work and data the Pulse Reports make publicly available, it is the explicit goal of UCRF to facilitate critical discussion, civic engagement, and to change conditions in the area of fashion and sustainability, for the benefit of the whole population.
The Pulse of the Fashion Industry 2019 Update documents evidence of a slowing of improvement of industry activity towards environmental goals (as measured by its own metrics) (pp 1-2). Further it states that the current approaches are insufficient to outstrip the increase in impact generated by the growing size of the sector (pp 1-2). In addition, it predicts that this problem will worsen as the sector swells in size (p 2).
UCRF highlights to readers of the Pulse 2019 Update that systems thinking has long predicted these outcomes. Indeed these are archetypal behaviours typical in complex systems (like the fashion sector) where attempts are made to ‘fix’ the system through treatment of symptomatic problems, rather than underlying causes. In the fashion sector, the growth logic is at the root cause of the fashion-sustainability problematic. The growth logic is made manifest in, for example, overproduction and pressure on cutting lead times. Indeed as long as growth is the dominant driver and metric of success; the better the current system performs, the worse the environmental problems will get. They are endemic in the current system design. While the language used in the Pulse 2019 Update invokes ‘systemic change’ (p 2), the discrete recommendations appear to be located comfortably within a current and unquestioned growth logic and therefore serve business-as-usual over planet. UCRF suggests that a genuine systems thinking approach be adopted for future reports.
The Pulse 2019 Update places great emphasis on the pursuit of efficiency improvements to drive change within the sector. Indeed, while evidence does support efficiency drives as a way to deliver impact reductions; efficiency gains are not without limits (Allwood et al., 2017). After the ‘low hanging fruit’ of simple efficiency gains has been enjoyed; each additional improvement is more challenging and costly to achieve. Further efficiency improvements are recognised to ultimately generate more – not less – resource use (Kallis, 2017). ‘Pushing harder to overcome limitations’ (Pulse of the Fashion Industry 2019 Update, p1) risks making a systems error (Ackoff, 2005). It puts the sector at risk of doing the wrong things with greater and greater efficiency rather than establishing what is the right thing to do.
UCRF seeks to move both action and discussion towards urgent change, of the scale and speed necessary to avoid climate breakdown and total biodiversity loss (IPPC, 2018; IPBES, 2019); and advocates systems thinking as a prerequisite for this.
Use of language and conflation of key ideas
UCRF wishes to draw attention to the use of language in the fashion-sustainability field in general, extending to the Pulse 2019 Update. It is UCRF’s strongly held view that establishing clear and accurate communication is essential to fostering sector-wide change towards environmental goals. Precise and consistent use of key terms is the foundation of robust practice; honest appraisal of existing situations; and the application of appropriate interventions for change. Without precise and consistent use, terms – and the ideas and/or practice they represent – become muddled and as the distinctions between concepts are blurred, they risk losing their value and routes to action become less visible. Further it leads to an escalation of invention of new terms, as existing ones are appropriated and co-opted for other purposes. Erratic use of terms can convey, purposefully or not, that progress has been made when it has not; or where it has, but to a lesser extent than the term indicates.
For example, UCRF highlights the terms reformation and transformation. Reformation, in a systems context, is concerned with changing the means systems employ to pursue their objectives. It accepts the conditions that created the current set up and seeks a compromise acceptable to participants. Reformation tends to ignore underlying problems within a system in order to preserve as much as possible of its current order. By contrast, transformation involves changes in the objectives it pursues. It changes the underlying system so that the problem disappears. The Pulse 2019 Update (pp 9-18) confuses these two concepts. On all occasions that the term ‘transformation’ is used in the Pulse 2019 Update to describe making a change to the fashion system; the economic imperative is the defining objective. Therefore the Pulse 2019 Update can be seen to describe acts of reformation; but never transformation. UCRF calls upon all those working in the field to adopt more precise language and thinking in order to facilitate transparent change.
Another example, is the report’s attribution of growth of the sector to the ‘increasing demand In Asia Pacific and developing countries’ (p 2). UCRF wishes to problematise the use of the term demand here, as it signals responsibility of populations and end-users rather than industry. ‘Demand’ is a term entrenched in the growth logic, used to legitimise overproduction while shifting blame to consumers.
Broad definition of users
In this addendum, UCRF also wishes to place greater consideration on a broader understanding of potential roles played by the people who wear clothes – users – in fashion-sustainability work. The Union notes that in the Pulse 2019 Update, ‘people’ are described exclusively as consumers, as actors in the commercial marketplace; and not as custodians, carers, co-creators, artisans, lenders, borrowers, among others. It is UCRF’s view that only placing value on a narrow spectrum of user activity (such as that which readily aligns with a market of ready-to-wear), risks radically limiting the potential for change in the sector. Fashion is much more than shopping and consumption, and entrenching the perspective of people only as consumers severely limits the possibilities for the fashion industry to recognise a multitude of relationships between people and brands. UCRF questions the very premise of the idea that purchase of garments be the chief proposed solution to sustainability challenges. Developing a more detailed and inclusive understanding about users of clothes and use practices is critical in overcoming this and building a system-wide engagement with change. A key element of this involves bringing in other global perspectives, including those from outside the Global North.
Ackoff, R. (2005), Doing the Wrong Thing Right by Russell Ackoff, October.
Allwood, J. H., Gutowski, T. G., Cabrera Serrenho, A., Skelton, A. C. H, & Worrell, E., (2017), Industry 1.61803: the transition to an industry with reduced material demand fit for a low carbon future, Special Issue on Material demand reduction, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A, 375 (2095), https://doi.org/10.1098/rsta.2016.0361
IPBES (2019), Global assessment report on biodiversity and ecosystem services of the Intergovernmental Science- Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. E. S. Brondizio, J. Settele, S. Díaz, and H. T. Ngo (editors). IPBES Secretariat, Bonn, Germany.
IPPC (2018), Global warming of 1.5C, Switzerland: IPCC.
Kallis, G. (2017), Radical dematerialization and degrowth, Special Issue on Material demand reduction, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A, 375 (2095), https://doi.org/10.1098/rsta.2016.0383