The Language of Sustainable Fashion: How Circular, Upcycling and Slow Fashion are Shaping the Future
Going Green with Your Wardrobe: The Benefits of Embracing Circular, Upcycling, and Slow Fashion
Written By: Ranji Mangcu
As the conversation around sustainability continues globally, the language continues to develop in nuance. Ultimately, this is a good thing – it indicates that we’re in constant learning, growth and course correction – broadly becoming better versed in the conversation so we can have it at a higher level that encompasses more perspectives.
The language of sustainability is constantly developing, with new terms emerging frequently. Whether they serve to better expand on the issue, or make it more complicated, it’s important to keep things accessible.
As established by Glamour South Africa’s Editor-In-Chief Nontando Mposo in the AFI Masterclass on “Building a Conscious and Sustainable Fashion Movement”, part of the fashion industry’s responsibility in facilitating critical conversations is ensuring that audiences and future designers are kept in the loop. Keeping things accessible is how the fashion industry re-centres the human in what we do.
Transparency is extremely valuable in how people consume, and how they embrace their personal part in this collective move towards sustaining the planet and its people.
As an aggregator platform that pushes luxury in fashion, African Fashion International is cognizant that our audience is incredibly diverse.
In an ongoing series, we will use our platforms to keep you current in the ever-evolving language of sustainability in fashion, starting with these three key terms: Circularity, Upcycling and Slow Fashion.
What is circular fashion? It is all about transforming the supply chain from a straight line into a closed circle. This is through recycling materials or bringing archived wardrobe items back into circulation – handing them to the next person or re-selling them. Circularity allows both producers and consumers to stage their own interventions on the waste produced by fashion while meeting our fundamental need to be clothed. A circular economy is defined by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation in three key terms: Eliminating waste and pollution; circulating products and materials; and regenerating nature.
What’s great about circularity is that many an African is already well-versed in the practice. From the exchange of hand-me-downs to the auntie who can mend anything, many have grown up with circular micro-economies established just in the internal networks of their families.
There are countless benefits of re-thinking fashion as a closed supply chain, for both the planet and its people. Not only does it encourage us to adopt a new way of thinking about clothing as continuously valuable and regenerative from the moment we buy them, but it also frees us from fleeting trend cycles that directly contribute to waste, signalling the return of personal style. It reframes each purchase as a long-term investment, whether or not it counts as a luxury, and incentivises consumers to learn how to best care for our garments to ensure their long life.
Upcycling is not necessarily a new concept either – we just happen to have cool, new terminology for it. Although our childhood selves used to seethe and sulk when our parents’ hand-me-down suitcases would emerge from the cobwebs of their closets, many now relish the opportunity to re-introduce and re-imagine formerly discarded pieces, giving them renewed life and function. Platforms such as Tik Tok have made a huge contribution to revitalizing the practice, as users demonstrate how to have fun and remain contemporary with it.
Contributing to the circularity of the fashion supply chain, upcycling is another consumer-driven initiative that is also embraced by major brands such as Nike, and designer labels such as Ahluwalia and LaaniRaani.
Globally, the textile and apparel industry is second to the oil industry in producing pollution and waste, accounting for more than 8% of all greenhouse gas emissions. Not only does the practice of upcycling substantially reduce textile waste and pollution, it also lowers the demand for new clothes by demonstrating how consumers can be self-sufficient and innovative with the garments they’ve already invested in.
What was once broadly understood as “sustainable fashion” has been broken up and made more specific, giving meaning and intention to each element of sustaining the planet as we continue to realise our need and love for fashion. Fashion journalist Vanessa Friedman famously called the term an “oxymoron”, given how intimately fashion is tied to the idea of “newness”. As mentioned above, this is the fun thing about the ever-evolving language of sustainability – the more the industry speaks, the more we course-correct.
The term “slow fashion” is now being thrown around quite frequently; a relatively new term that is unpacked less often than it should be.
Coined by Kate Fletcher at the Centre for Sustainable Fashion, the term establishes accountability from the starting point of production to the “end” point of consumption. For both producer and consumer, “slow” fashion is all about approaching fashion with a sense of moderation, mindfulness, and consideration for each process and resource at work in making clothing.
Practically speaking, slow fashion entails making material changes in the production process, with the aim of producing zero waste. This includes producing in smaller quantities, using eco-friendly dyes, bio-based fibres and sustainable packaging; foregoing quantity-focused mass-production in favour of the quality-focused assurance that your final product will last longer.
Promoting discernment, investment and intention, the concept of “slowness” is a key element of luxury. However, sustainable developments in fashion continue to prove that it is not limited to this area of the industry. Arguments for slow fashion propose that this familiar facet of luxury can be adopted and translated more commercially by both producers and consumers. However, it requires consumers to invest in what will sustain them for longer, rather than in “newness” and trend. In turn, it pushes producers to focus less on profit margins and pushing consumerism through a dizzying number of concurrent trend cycles.
It's clear to see that the world of sustainable fashion is both evolving and expanding in response to the environmental challenges we face. As more people become aware of their role in protecting our planet, circular fashion, upcycling, and slow fashion provide an answer to creating a more responsible way of producing and shopping for clothes. By learning about each movement and how you can incorporate them into your lifestyle, you can be part of this global drive towards greater sustainability within the fashion industry.