Fashionably Thinking About Systems and Consumption

Denim Fashion

In April 2013 the world was horrified to learn that more than one thousand people were killed in a Bangladeshi factory used to make largely low-priced clothes for Western fashion houses. As the stories of sadness, loss and survival emerged from that rubble so too did cries of indignation and disgust from human rights groups, business leaders, and the media about the true cost of cheap, fast fashion.

Some of this push has to do with greater social demands for “more of everything” .

We can speed up our supply chains and reduce the design-to-line time while producing desirable goods cheaply so why don’t we? When it is more convenient to get something new than take something old and refurbish it, why not do it?

The Cost of Fast and Cheap Fashion

This mindset of fast and cheap has enormous costs that are often hidden from view. Speaking about his own field of clothing manufacturing, Flint & Tinder CEO Jake Bronstein wrote in his company’s blog about the Bangladesh incident that killed more than 1100 workers . His words (caps in original) were:


Bronstein has a stake in this game. His company is employing a business model that is centred on producing goods that last a long time, not ‘fast fashion’, even when the concept of an $8 T-shirt dominates the mass market. His company sells only a handful of products to begin with (rather than succumbing to fast fashion trends), are made in the United States in their entirety and meant to outlast their competitors, not just outsell them. This business model looks to create sustainable fashion, not fast fashion, which is more about disposable, quick response designs than durable products.

Bronstein makes a strong point and is trying to do something about it by creating an alternative option for consumers. There is a flourishing make-it-yourself/make-it-local market and movement that can be seen from Etsy through to the return of crafting and the growing popularity of the maker culture as seen in enormous events like the Maker Faires. This is changing the market landscape.

The Complexity of Change

At the same time there are also many myths about what the true cost of our choices are. Writing in the Huffington Post (Canadian Edition), Anne Theriault explores these in some depth pointing to the often classist, simplistic ways these issues get defined in talk about global manufacturing. Theriault challenges the idea that global outsourcing is all problematic, pointing to the jobs that are created often at relatively high standards for each region (and how there are relatively few others available), the comparable absence of affordable clothing selections for many of our poorest citizens at home, and the lack of manufacturing capacity in North America to provide alternative options for those on small budgets.

Theriault is not specifically defending globalization and off-shoring manufacturing, instead pointing out that simply stopping production in places like Bangladesh isn’t as simple as it looks without harmful consequences at home and abroad. The systems created to sustain the current models of economy, consumption, and product innovation are not easily halted without serious ramifications across the globe.

However, these models are also not sustainable. This is a hallmark wicked problem in the short term, but unlike true wicked problems this is one that can be potentially designed for change in the long term.

Designing Fashionable Change

Fashion is largely about design and thus its appropriate that design thinking might be useful in bringing about change in the way that the fashion industry operates (and how consumers support that industry).

Design thinking is employed in three key phases: problem finding, problem framing and problem solving*. We have a problem, that much is clear. But what is the frame of the problem? As both Jake Bronstein and Anne Theriault point out, fashion is about people before products to different ends. Neither highlighted aesthetics and identity when speaking about fashion; they spoke about livelihoods and values. They have framed the issue as one about human wellbeing and social and economic sustainability.

If that is the frame we start from, the next phase is to design a system that supports this expression of values. I surmise that wellbeing is about aesthetics and identity as much as the values behind it, even if we like to imagine we are above being pushed by such things (decades and volumes of social psychology and marketing research proves the point).

In a complex system it is more important than ever to distinguish oneself through markers and fashion is one of many that can do this. It’s not a surprise that complex societies with high levels of diversity are where the seeds of fashion emerged. It’s not just that fashion could emerge through this intersection of ideas, its that it necessarily had to.

If we accept the premise that fashion is useful and necessary, that it brings considerable social and economic benefit, but that the costs related to fast fashion and consumption are intimately tied to these benefits we can start to imagine new ways to design a system that supports personal expression, creativity, environmental sustainability, and social benefit simultaneously. This is only likely to happen once there is an embrace of the two sides of the current fashion industry.

Unfreezing the Mindset and Business Model

Social psychologist Kurt Lewin‘s planned model of change has been applied to complexity and found to be a useful way of viewing these kinds of issues. The planned component to change might seem at first seem at odds with complexity, but is very much at home with design.  From a design perspective, Lewin’s concept of ‘unfreezing’ a mindset around a problem opens up possibilities to create a new one in its place. The current mindset is set against tensions related to cost, employment, supply chain management, sustainability, and ethics.

Unfreezing this mindset opens up the possibilities of seeing spaces for synchrony. It also creates new space for business model innovation.

Bronstein’s recent initiative with Flint and Tinder to create the 10-year hoodie through Kickstarter is one result of unfreezing an innovation development model and creating a new market for a product that is normally designed to last far less than 10 years.

Crowd Supply is another venue that has sought to use values, quality, and local production as a driver of new product development by creating a hybrid funding model that marries Kickstarter with a conventional online retailer. The recently funded Wild Park Place jacket and Freelance backpack are some of the early funded fashion projects launched through this platform.

Another model is being implemented by denim manufacturers Gustin, who have taken a similar approach of crowd-funding production, but on a model-by-model basis within their product line. Gustin recognized that there was a lot of waste and costs to the traditional retail model of selling clothes to resellers and having to supply them with a set group of sizes and colours, only to have some returned, the costs raised, and much wasted. Now they take orders for specific pairs of jeans in batches, which allows them to fit somewhere between custom tailoring (one person, one product) and mass market (thousands of people, many products), reducing waste and lowering costs.

None of these are perfect (and its likely no model can be), but they all change the way the business model is set and offer some examples of ways to change the system as a whole, piece by piece. What makes these promising from a systems perspective is that these models can easily be replicated globally or potentially scaled up. There could be an Asian Crowd Supply, or a clothing maker in South America who could do the same thing. Crowd Supply is introducing new projects each month and denim maker Gustin has seen its runs increase over time as some evidence of the success of these models.

These do not fully address consumption — which is a big systems issue for our planet — but as large companies like Patagonia have shown, it is possible to create demand for products that can be repurposed, re-imagined, and redesigned to be less harmful to the environment, sustainable, high quality and economically rewarding. These start-ups are adding to that field.

Design is not just about fashion, it is about making sustainable, healthy, and ethical business models fashionable.


* These conventional phrases are somewhat misleading when dealing with complex phenomenon as problems are often not solved, but rather addressed in a manner that provides some optimal option for action that minimizes unwarranted negative side effects.

Image source from Pinterest; owner unknown.

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