What is Conscious Fashion?

Beige is the New Black

We’ve all heard of ethical fashion, sustainable fashion, eco-fashion, organic, green, slow and circular fashion, and we’re now hearing more and more of the umbrella term conscious fashion,yet there’s no dictionary definition out there. What does conscious fashion mean to you?

When I was at school one of the teachers ran a Fair Trade stall at lunchtime once a month. We’d shuffle around her trestle table and watch as she unwrapped handmade chocolate, jewelry, statuettes and other bits from newspaper and tissue. We’d speak in low voices and count the coins in our purse belts in the hope of exchanging them for these unfamiliar items.

The stall sold these little notebooks whose unlined pages were sewn at the spine and perfectly imperfect with flecks of unprocessed cotton – nothing like the crisp stapled workbooks I carried around in my schoolbag. I barely thought about the meaning of the Fair Trade logo printed on the wrapper of the bitter dark chocolate that I didn’t really like but enjoyed with intensity as a sweet-toothed schoolgirl who wasn’t allowed to sneak to the shop at lunch.

I used to imagine the people who had made them: diligent, meticulous craftswomen from a foreign country that I knew nothing about and would probably never visit.

The concept of trade – fair or otherwise – meant little to me beyond bartering and exchanging Pogs and Puppy in my Pockets with the girl who lived in the flat behind my dad’s. Kneeling on the concrete pavement by the car park, magnates of the plastic figurine trade, we made our life-changing business deals swiftly before we got called in for tea.

Trade still isn’t something I know much about but when it comes to phrases like conscious, ethical and sustainable fashion, it’s still the people at the very start of the supply chain that I think about. What is still important to me is #whomademyclothes?

But conscious fashion is without definition so far. Which means its wider understanding varies a great deal, and it doesn’t always explore what this means for people at the production end: the garment workers (usually women) and the conditions they work under.

In my experience, conscious fashion can be defined by comparing it to what it isn’t. It is the opposite end of the fashion scale to Fast Fashion in terms of manufacture, production, waste, durability and environmental concern.

This makes sense, defining something by comparing it to its familiar opposite. However, a lot of the time this is interpreted in terms of aesthetics and in doing this we water down the concept, reducing it to a trend.

If we consider Fast Fashion to be of cheap fabric made to be disposable, then by comparison sustainable fashion becomes expensive, an investment. This is a problem when consumers are put off exploring conscious fashion brands because they believe it to be unaffordable.

Even colours are associative on this sliding scale: fast fashion is a spectrum of colours, every colour anyone could want at any one time, changing with trends and seasons. Autumnal burgundy and mustard, Summery blue and white seersucker, and New Year’s Eve black, red and gold. Consistently though, the fabrics and colours associated with conscious fashion are neutral and natural: hemp and hessian and bamboo and beige.

When this contrast is perceived Fast Fashion becomes representative of a throw-away culture and a lower class of product. By contrast conscious fashion is long-lasting and symbolic of quality and wealth, so somehow becomes aspirational. How can it be that there is actually a class divide derived from the dyes and fabrics used in clothing manufacture?

And this is why some people need an approved definition. Because conscious fashion isn’t about wearing your wealth on your sleeve. Fashion Revolution have calculated that if garment workers were paid a living wage the retail price of a 29€ t-shirt would increase by just 1.57€.

Conscious fashion doesn’t look a certain way, it’s not about colours or how much you paid for it. Ethical fashion is about people. The workers I imagined when I bought my first Fair Trade notebook. Members of a society whose waterways and marine eco-systems suffer when gallons upon gallons of waste runs off factories. The young women I know who consume products at an unhealthy rate to keep up with trends.

Conscious fashion is created with environmental and ethical awareness. It is sometimes more expensive, but it lasts longer and it is better quality so cost per wear increases its value for money. Not to mention no one actually literally died making it.

The conversation about conscious fashion is just getting started, there is so much more to come, and when it does a definition will follow. When something is talked about and written about enough it earns its stripes and takes its neat little place in the world as legitimate lexicon.
And the meanings of words come from their collocates – the words they hang out with. So if, when we talk about conscious fashion, we think about all kinds of concepts like fairness of trade, gender equality, decent working conditions, a living wage and sustainable, ethical and environmentally friendly practices, then I already have my definition.

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