Fashion and sustainability: Interview with Alex McIntosh

Wednesday, February 19th 2020
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As part of our continued conversation on sustainability on PS, I thought it would be interesting to talk to someone that works on the academic side of fashion and the environment. 

So through a friend, I got in touch with the Centre for Sustainable Fashion, a research centre at the London College of Fashion, and specifically with Alex McIntosh, who was one of the founders of the Centre. 

Alex is interesting because as well as continued academic work, he also advises fashion businesses through consultancy, and bridges both the leading research and its application. 

 

Permanent Style: Hi Alex, thanks for taking the time to talk. Could we begin with you telling us a little bit about the work the Centre does?

Alex McIntosh: Sure. There are teaching and research aspects to it. I’m not as involved as much as I was, but in my time I’ve seen a huge change in students, which the teaching side has helped foster. These days the fashion students see sustainability as a given - something every company needs an approach on. 

I love that, because it shows how values and purpose are now a critical part of people’s decisions in the direction they’re taking their work - which was always what I wanted when I helped set up the Centre. And we used that to create an MA course for students, helping them study the ways sustainability can be part of a fashion business.

And the research side is separate to that? 

Yes, although they’re always intertwined - because the whole point of research is to generate new knowledge, and if it’s genuinely new it will be something you want to apply and teach immediately. 

The most interesting research at the Centre is probably done by a friend called Kate Fletcher, whose has tried to drive thinking away from the corporate and capitalist side of fashion. In her view, we need a new approach where the way we wear and use clothes is more important than where we buy them from, or how much they cost.

It’s almost a post-growth approach, which you might call true materialism. She does a lot of work on how people treat clothes after they’re purchased - how they’re cared for, laundered and  repaired. And what that tells us about how we can effect those approaches more widely in society.

I think sometimes people struggle to realise how fundamental that is. They see it as cute - repairing your clothes and so on. But it’s much more profound than that: it’s a huge shift from focusing on shops, brands, designers, and more towards ourselves, wearing, owning, caring. Giving ourselves more agency. 

There’s lots of other interesting research out there too, for example around changing production processes or end products to be more sustainable - someone like Modern Meadow that’s developing lab-grown leather for example. 

How important do you think that kind of technological change will be in the future? 

It will be important, but it’s easy to place too much emphasis on it. We need ecocentric change more - technical fixes are fun and exciting, but they’re not going to solve the climate crisis on their own. We need to go back to ourselves, because it’s cultural as much as technical. 

And how does this research affect what businesses do? 

You see it everywhere. With jeans companies like Levi’s or Nudie, for example - setting up repair shops, or APC years ago, who had a scheme where you could bring in your worn jeans and get a discount on new ones, and then they’d resell the worn ones. 

The research helps show the cost of the production process, and convince companies to change or communicate to customers why the change is worth it. 

I’ve spent a lot of time in my career producing clothes as well, and jeans are particularly ridiculous - you go to a factory and see all these people sanding jeans, to make us look like saddle-worn cowboys. It’s absurd. 

Is the impact of the research related to public awareness? As in, you get a study in the news and then companies have to respond to it?

Normally no, it’s more slow and subtle. Often I’ll be working with a company and bringing up these kinds of issues, and they’ll reject them quickly - the change to working practices is too large. But then years later I’ll see them doing something similar, and the thought has clearly been there, and festered. 

Converse, for example, did a whole ad campaign about customers and their worn shoes, how only after two years or so were they ‘really yours’. I worked with Nike, who obviously owned Converse for a long time, and we had a lot of conversations around these ideas. They never went anywhere at the time, but I don’t mind that. You can’t change a whole company in one go. 

Academic research often helps give credibility to this kind of change as well. People are more likely to listen when you stand up and say, ‘I’m a Professor and I’ve been studying this for 10 years’. A lot of this is about ways to make people listen. 

Fashion is very anthropological - it’s about how we see ourselves, how others see us, what the culture as a whole deems important. So it’s often slow moving. 

How cynical should consumers be about the kind of campaigns you mentioned? Are some of them just greenwashing?

Greenwash is certainly a problem, particularly now as every company starts to feel they need to do something. 

I was in the car yesterday (electric car, I should add!) and listening to an advert from Shell, about how if you buy a certain fuel they’ll plant trees, so you’re driving carbon neutral. And it really irritated me. It shouldn’t be OK for a fossil-fuel business to talk about how it’s creating a problem and then solving it again. We all know that’s not the answer, that we have to stop creating the problem in the first place. 

However, in general I don’t think it pays to be that cynical. What we need is a series of nudges - where we can say that this is important, that it matters to everyone. And so when a business puts their head above the parapet, you shouldn’t just shoot them down, or not buy into it because you don’t believe they’ve really changed. 

Everyone has agency here - and if you walk into Ralph Lauren and buy a polo shirt made from recycled bottles, it won’t change the company or the world, but you will show them (and yourself) that it matters - it will be the right little nudge.

I find that people often forget that all businesses are driven by trying to respond to what customers want, and what they will buy. Being efficient at that is the one thing capitalism does very well - more than politics in that respect. 

Yes - while we’re living in this system, and there is no immediate alternative, we have to operate within it and be aware of how it works. That probably won’t be enough in the long term - the economic system will have to change - but that’s not an excuse for doing nothing. 

How much is the solution just buying less? That was one conclusion of a recent interview we had on PS - that it’s less about which products and what they’re made of, and more just buying less of it. 

It absolutely is, that’s at the heart of everything. I remember being at a discussion at the UN, and people talking round in circles about solutions, but central to all of it is just consuming less stuff, and therefore producing less. 

You don’t have to buy nothing, just reduce what you buy and care for it more - take more interest in ownership.

The only thing we have to be careful with there is to avoid letting the luxury industry off the hook. Because even though people might buy less of it, they’re hugely responsible for driving attitudes to clothing. 

And there are people who buy large volumes of luxury clothing too. 

Absolutely. And there, the attitude is the same as fast fashion, with people defining themselves by what they buy, rather than how they use it.

What else can a responsible consumer do? Are there obvious certifications to look for? 

There are so many, and the problem is they only certify one small part of the process - such as water usage, or animal cruelty. You’re talking about a very long, complicated chain.

In the end I think it has to be the responsibility of the company to explain third-party certifications, and the context. And the way you help as a consumer is taking the time to look at the information. 

Businesses are all driven by getting you from the point of interest to the point of purchase as quickly as possible. They don’t want to interrupt that if they can help it. But if you look around, read the information on the site, then you’re helping give the right indicators - showing you want more.

It’s a particular problem in luxury. If you look at a lot of these companies’ corporate websites, there’s huge amounts of information about their policies and practices. But on the consumer-facing site, there’s nothing. They’re terrified of interrupting that dream, that aspiration. 

There are lots of businesses starting to provide more information though: Far Fetch, Selfridges, Net a Porter. Just read it, shop on that basis, and give them the nudge. 

Are these things less of a problem with menswear? 

Yes, menswear is a much smaller problem, largely because men instinctively care more about functionality, how something is made - rather than just how it will look on a night out. So they tend to care more about quality, and buy less. 

There is a growing ‘hype brand’ market among men, but most men are more like the typical Permanent Style reader, where there is real interest in provenance, craft and value. In a way, those customers are the ideal - it’s what we’re trying to turn everyone else into. Actually caring about the product and investigating it. 

Still, that doesn’t mean you should stop learning about what you buy, and pushing companies to do better. You could investigate the impact of cashmere, for example: it’s a tiny part of the market, because it’s not produced in the volumes that cotton or polyester is, but it’s had a devastating effect on Mongolia. Largely because when the country stopped being communist, the subsidies for farming were removed and there was an incentive to produce as much as possible. 

Stella McCartney stopped using cashmere recently for that reason. They looked at their environmental footprint and found cashmere was 1% of production, but 20% of their footprint. 

It would take a lot of work for a company to unpack the impact of their cashmere, exactly where it comes from and how it’s farmed. The sourcing and trading is complex. But they’re more likely to start looking if you ask. 

Do you have an example of someone that’s done that work, perhaps from your consultancy side?

I have to be a little careful as most of the work is confidential. Big companies often don’t like people knowing the work they’re doing in this area - or asking other people to do for them.

But one I can talk about is VF Corporation - which owns Timberland, North Face and Vans. I sit on their Responsible Sourcing Advisory Committee, which is largely concerned with trying to improve the lives of people in their supply chain. 

They’ve made a huge investment in trying to understand that chain. And last year, as a result, they withdrew all their leather sourcing from Brazil (this is public knowledge) - because they couldn’t reliably say it wasn’t affecting deforestation in the Amazon. 

It sounds simple, but understanding something like that is so complicated. Leather is basically a by product of the meat industry, as far as the slaughterhouses are concerned, so it gets thrown aside, collected up by traders, graded and traded, then goes through tanneries, so there’s no traceability as to where the skins came from (at least not outside Europe).

It was impressive taking that amount of time to investigate it, realising you’re not just a buyer at the end of a chain. But rather, standing up and saying because the product has your name on it, you’re responsible for everything all the way back to the animal. And after the product is bought as well - how it’s worn, used and repaired.

I’m not saying VF are perfect, they certainly aren’t, but it’s that kind of realisation of the extent of responsibility and of the problem, that we need. 

 

For more information on Alex’s work under the Create Sustain consultancy, see their website and Instagram here.

The home of the Centre for Sustainable Fashion is here.