From 21 to 26 October 2022 I was privileged to join participants from the UK and Germany to attend a UK German Connections Youth Seminar “Future Textiles: Field, Farm & Fashion”. It was funded by and run in collaboration with The Prince’s Foundation and Fashion Council Germany. Over 5 days, participants enjoyed informative excursions, creative workshops and thought-provoking discussions with the theme of Sustainable Fashion being prevalent.  The seminar culminated in a conference held at Dumfries House attended by a panel of businesspeople, fashion designers, stylists, fashion students and activists.

The word 'sustainability' in the context of fashion encompasses the attitudes throughout the whole life cycle of clothing from the environmental impacts of creating, processing and manufacturing our clothes, through using them by wearing and caring for them and ending on the disposal of clothing.

A survey last year by DoSomething, a social impact consultancy, found that, “If [brands] are not authentic, Gen Z will be the first to raise a red flag.”

Our generation has been the forefront of sustainability, from movement makers such as Greta Thunberg to young people making small differences everyday to their lifestyle, from turning off the tap whilst brushing their teeth to reducing carbon emissions through making responsible transport choices. Big gestures are being made in terms of sustainable fashion; only recently the owner of Patagonia, an outdoor clothing giant, declared that “Earth is now our only shareholder” following his gift of the entire $3billion company to a trust with all profits going to fight climate change. However, the fashion industry still has a long way to go before claiming its sustainable crown. High Street and online fast fashion chain stores are taking Gen Z (otherwise known as the TikTok or social media generation) by storm. This poses questions about credibility of some social media influencers in terms of their commitment to sustainable fashion. Travelling by a private jet to make a sustainable fashion show or buying an unethically sourced T-Shirt with the slogan “Climate change is important” is not sustainable and demotes the reputation of what work pioneers of sustainable fashion have built.

One of the main takeaways from the conference was the fact that we are not fighting against methods to make fashion sustainable. In fact, we are trying to change the way we think about fashion. There are currently many affordable, accessible and achievable ways to make an impact when shopping. Some of the conference panel speakers recommended organising and attending clothing swaps, renting items for special occasions as well as repairing and regenerating your old clothes using techniques such as embroidery, Sashiko mending and upcycling. However, despite commending the ways in which some people renew their clothes and give them a second life, the speakers felt that the main problem was fast fashion and the throwaway society. The speakers supported the utilisation of unwanted items and donations to charities and organisations such as The Prince’s Trust in Dumfries Estate instead of creating any waste. They recommended actions to prevent and reduce impact by buying second hand, avoiding synthetic fibres (so buying organic and natural fibres where possible), as well as just purely avoiding fast-fashion trends and brands.

Interestingly, there are some areas on which consensus cannot be reached even amongst these changemakers. Some of the fashion students felt that leather was the way to go in terms of shoes and other parts of clothing, as not only is leather an otherwise wasted part of an animal which would have been butchered anyway for the meat, it would have been a waste to disuse the leather. Nevertheless, some fashion students stood strong with veganism, arguing that it is the attitudes that need to change, and that the sacrifices of one vegan, vegetarian or other sustainably-conscious consumer makes up for irresponsible choices which others choose or are forced to make in terms of clothing materials. 

Only time will tell to what extent Generation Z will embrace the sustainable fashion and make everyone re-think the fashion industry.