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Op-Ed | A Sustainability Solution for Fashion: Sell Signifiers, Not Stuff

Better manufacturing processes won’t solve fashion’s sustainability problem, but brands could decouple the social signifiers they fundamentally sell from physical goods and reassign them to immaterial products like media experiences, argues Aaron Chamberland.
Louis Vuitton has collaborated with Riot Games' League of Legends to create branded virtual assets for the video game
Louis Vuitton has collaborated with Riot Games' League of Legends to create branded virtual assets for the video game. Louis Vuitton.
  • Aaron Chamberland
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The fashion industry seems to think it can solve its sustainability problem with manufacturing processes that are more environmentally friendly: more efficient supply chains, more organic materials, less toxic dyes, and so on. The assumption is that the way to become more green is to keep on making more stuff, but doing it in a different way.

To be sure, this approach may result in incremental progress. But as Albert Einstein said, we can’t really solve problems by applying the same kind of thinking that created them. Similarly, the solution to fashion’s sustainability challenge is unlikely to come from the same thinking that created it, even if the stuff being produced is more sustainable.

Instead, we need to dig deeper and see that it’s not how we manufacture but why we manufacture that is the root of the problem. The truth is, nobody needs another handbag but our consumer culture has convinced billions of people that they do. The tragedy isn’t just that fashion is damaging the environment. It’s also doing so in pursuit of false gods; we’re selling products that rarely offer real fulfilment and we’re destroying the planet in the process.

To be blunt, we’re enticing people to spend more money on more things they don’t need to create impressions that won’t last on people they don’t care about while sacrificing our world.

The underlying dilemma we face is not: “How can we make our means of production and manufacturing more sustainable?” The real question is: “How can we reconcile our aspirations for the ‘good life’ with the limitations and constraints of a finite planet?”

It’s not how we manufacture but why we manufacture that is the root of the problem.

When I think about what makes up a “good life,” what comes to mind is personal growth, discovery, learning, friendship, family, community, making a difference and helping others. None of these things are material. Interestingly, the main reasons why people buy fashion and luxury goods aren’t actually material either. First and foremost, they buy them in order to convey status. They buy them because it helps them cultivate their identity in the eyes of others. They want to associate themselves with a particular brand and show off that association.

None of those things necessarily have anything to do with tangible goods. Rather, they have everything to do with intangible things like image and reputation. If this is the case, is it really necessary to continue to produce so much material stuff to fulfil our desires?

Indeed, if what we fundamentally desire (and are willing to pay for) is intangible, then wouldn’t it be better for the planet and everyone inhabiting it to decouple these desires (and the economic growth that depends on them) from material objects? Simply put, could fashion companies manufacture and sell way less tangible stuff (clothes, bags, shoes) and sell way more intangible stuff (media, experiences, community)?

In effect, what I’m advocating for is the dematerialisation of fashion; that fashion brands cease being fashion brands in the traditional sense and start acting more like media-experience companies that may also happen to sell clothes and accessories.

Thus far, signifiers of prosperity and the “good life” have come in the form of expensive material things. But remember these objects have little value beyond the meaning we give them. We have the power to break free from the straitjacket of materialism that’s destroying ourselves and our world, and reassign social value to immaterial things, perhaps even unlocking a healthier definition of a “good life” in the process.

Remember that, if the fashion industry has taught us anything, it’s that it’s capable of making us fall in love with all sorts of signifiers we didn’t even know we desired. And these new symbols could deliver things like community connection, not just social status.

Aaron Chamberland is a marketing and communications specialist in the fashion and luxury sector.

The views expressed in Op-Ed pieces are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Business of Fashion.

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