Regent’s hosts joint conference with the International Textile and Apparel Association on sustainability in fashion

The three-day conference brought together academics, designers and students from across the world to present their research, design ideas and sustainable businesses.

The conference opened with keynote speaker, Professor Kate Fletcher, Professor of Sustainability, Design and Fashion at the Centre for Sustainable Fashion (CSF). CSF is a research centre at the University of the Arts, London, whose work is at the forefront of research in fashion and sustainability. 

Professor Kate Fletcher
Professor Kate Fletcher addresses conference attendees

In her speech, Kate explained that the fashion industry is a complex system and when looking to foster change towards sustainability, it is important to understand that different actions, approaches and strategies work in very different ways.

She then referred to the work of Donella Meadows who drew up a list of sustainable processes, ordered upside down from nine through to one. According to reasoning, this method enabled Donella to discover the most effective processes as typically people think of the most obvious and therefore least effective methods to drive change first.

‘It’s only when we begin to scrutinise the industries at the level of rules, goals, purpose and paradigms that we begin to offer up big opportunities for change,’ commented Kate.

Attendees during discussions
Attendees during discussions

Kate believes fashion is an engine of consumerism. It’s very normal to access and engage with fashion primarily by going out and shopping, and it has, since recently, been socially acceptable to discard rather than repair items. In neo-liberal consumer cultures, buying more has become a necessary component of what it is to be alive today. The social language of position and status is woven into the goods we buy. 

‘What we see more than ever is that fashion really is cut in the cloth of consumerism and the market domination of clothing production and consumption has really changed the fashion industry itself.’

‘We now have an industry that is set up to produce things quickly, with high volumes using very standardised materials. We are being presented with this notion that shopping is some sort of democratic choice, which integrates personal and economic freedom,’ she commented.

Sustainability in fashion conference attendees
Regent's students who kindly helped at the conference

This all leads to a situation where we buy low cost clothes in bulk, which leads to businesses providing for the consumer. What is seen is that the dominant model assumes the preference for consumerist fashion and so even when consumers move to the sustainability sector, the model is still so dominant. The main way people can think of engaging with sustainability solutions is to buy them. 

It is no secret that fashion contributes to the sustainability crisis. Since the 90s, there have been huge efforts to reduce the impact of the sector. Efficiencies were pursued, new fibres and chemical processes were developed, technical improvements in terms of water, energy use and recycling were introduced but it is all happening in a system that’s optimised for growth and efficiency, in which gains don’t mean much when you have aggregate growth. The net impact of the sector is still increasing – things are getting worse not better.

‘Even the best intentions of the sector over the years just come up against the structures of unsustainability largely wrapped around the growth logic. There must be radical change in the ways in which we approach the challenges. We are in very fragile times on planet Earth, what we know is that the business we are in, the sustainability of fashion is not just about the what, but also about how we are dressing. We need to begin to engage with fashion culture.’

Over the three-day conference, delegates attended panel discussions, breakout sessions, and even entered in some rather heated debates about sustainability in fashion. Speakers included Sass Brown, Celeste Malvar-Stewart, Chitra Gopalakrishnan Caroline Gilbey, Debbie Moorhouse, Ilishio Lovejoy and Laurence Cox. A Q&A session saw Janet McQueen discuss McQueen’s life and work with Kim Blake, PR Agent, and Julia Robson, Fashion Journalist. 

Sustainability in fashion conference posters
Sustainability in fashion conference posters

22 posters were accepted for the conference and were presented at a reception on the University’s Marylebone Campus. Judges selected four posters for prizes which were awarded on the following evening at the gala dinner. The prizes, which were recent publications about sustainability in Fashion, were sponsored by Bloomsbury Publishing and presented by Bloomsbury’s Georgia Kennedy.

The Conference culminated in a dinner, at which keynote speaker, Rangini Hamidi, delivered a moving speech about her pioneering work in Afghanistan and about Kandahar Treasure – the business she set up in 2003 to help Afghan women to become self-supporting.

Gill Stark, Assistant Dean, Head of Regent’s School of Creative Arts, said: 'We were delighted that the Conference was so successful. Delegates were delighted with the mixture of keynote lectures, academic breakout sessions, workshops and networking events. It was a very lively conference, with many opportunities for discussion and debate in addition to dissemination of research.'

'Our huge thanks to Barbara Kaluza from Regent's University London, Jana Hawley from the University of North Texas and Nancy Rutherford of the ITAA for organising this tremendously successful three-day event.'