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  • Prof. Dilys Williams

Another story of fashion as a contributor to cultural, social, environmental and economic prosperity



Fashion is fundamentally changing, and fashion designers are becoming less affiliated with the conventional fashion industry than ever before. The conventions of fashion appear less and less relevant in a world disrupted by climate, social and personal change. The convergence of communication, production, energy and transport technologies is also fundamentally changing what we make and wear and how we live.


Through our research on the Fostering Sustainable Practices project, led by Prof. Sandy Black and myself, Prof. Dilys Williams, from Centre for Sustainable Fashion at London College of Fashion, in partnership with The Open University and Middlesex University’s Centre for Enterprise and Economic Development Research (CEEDR; a partner in Surrey University’s Centre for Understanding of Sustainable Prosperity), we have been able to produce the UK’s most in depth and definitive guide to fashion as a contributor to cultural, social, environmental and economic prosperity.


The research was funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (part of UKRI) and draws on valuable insights from organisations including British Fashion Council, Common Objective, Africa Fashion Week London; UK Fashion & Textiles Association, Textile Centre of Excellence and Not Just A Label, and with expertise from LCF’s Centre for Fashion Enterprise.


We have worked with UK Fashion creatives and support-organisations to reveal what sustainability in action looks like on the ground, to elevate and promote best practice in how fashion can make a positive social and cultural contribution, within nature’s limits.


This collaborative project, underpinned by over two and a half years of research and involving over a hundred in-depth interviews, has been translated into an interactive guide, ‘Fashion As Sustainability in Action.’ The guide is a reference tool and a go-to-resource for those who are identifying, supporting, mentoring, showcasing, and investing in fashion design entrepreneurs. It introduces ways to recognise designers whose practices do, or could, contribute to cultures, societies, and ecological and economic systems that are life and livelihood-sustaining as well as creatively fulfilling.


While many fashion designers are already tuned in to what the world and its citizens need in response to a convergence of changes, they are less well recognised and supported than many of those who follow (outmoded) conventional practices. Beyond that, the fashion system overall continues to perpetuate an endangering of the prosperity of now and of future generations through a blinkered focus on economic growth, no matter what the cost.


Through Fostering Sustainable Practices, we have found strong evidence of another story of fashion: one that thinks, acts and measures success in broader than financial and economical terms. For over a decade now, we have been witnessing how this new breed of designers flex their creative muscles. We are privileged to have spent valuable time with over forty of them in the collating of evidence of sustainability in action. These fashion designers have shared a purpose: recognising possibilities for fashion to contribute to society, culture, nature and financial economies. That is not to say, however, that they are similar; each is distinctive, and their contribution in the world is realised in very different ways. This otherwise imagining and realizing of fashion includes Bethany Williams, Phoebe English, Rejina Pyo, Alexander White, Elvis & Kresse, Nuw, Petit Pli, Birdsong, Finisterre, Away to Mars, Boy Wonder, Save Your Wardrobe and Vin + Omi. We have been sharing the stories of these designers and others in our blog posts for over a year now, as well as those of the project’s core partners Raeburn, Unmade, Riz Boardshorts, Michelle Lowe Holder and Martine Jarlgaard.


We seek to recognise, amplify, support and learn from these designers, who interpret the words ‘fashion’, ‘design’ and ‘entrepreneurship’ in the context of our times, quite differently from the ways in which these words have been perceived, separately and together. We identified, early on in our research, the vital role played by those who invest in, showcase, mentor and otherwise support these people, so we have created a guide, ‘Fashion As Sustainability In Action’ via the Fostering Sustainable Practices hub. It is for those who seek to support an interpretation of fashion design entrepreneurship as practices of good work, resourcefulness, care, creativity, ingenuity and a sense of urgency in their actions.


The guide shows that a new kind of fashion – one that expands its role beyond products to focus on places, people, nature and celebrating life – already exists. However, for those who understand and practice fashion in this way to fulfil their potential, they need greater recognition for what they do well; greater visibility to encourage others to learn from and with them; and greater clout, so that they themselves can be sustained.


The guide is based on real-life evidence on how all the elements of fashion – culture, society, environment and economy – are valued in the work of a number of UK based designers in micro and small businesses.


As well as the launching the guide, we have also outlined a Policy Briefing which sets out how UK government can help to amplify sustainability in action, recognising and supporting the work of these pioneers and giving opportunities for others to join them. The policy note outlines ten points for consideration and the critical need for a joined-up approach across government departments as a pre-requisite to achieving Net Zero emissions, good jobs, vibrant communities and a skilled sector that represents all citizens, localities, cultures and identities.


Through what we have found to already exist, albeit often against the odds, we invite those who support, invest in, champion, wear or otherwise recognise the work of such designers, to acknowledge these new markers of success. That way, we shift the sector, we change perceptions and, critically, we change the possibilities of what fashion design can be.


We invite you to:

  • Read through our findings, so as to extend your knowledge and understanding of fashion and sustainability.

  • Evaluate how to include the explanations and practical examples in your decision-making.

  • Apply the guide to support designers on personal, business levels and governmental levels

  • Share the guide with others in your networks, to expand ideas on how fashion can be recognised for its positive contribution to culture, society, environment and economy.

  • Let us know what works well, what doesn’t work so well, or what is missing — so that we can all be part of a shift towards sustainable prosperity in fashion.