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Nathalie Atkinson: Forget creativity – fashion needs to talk about sustainability

Another relentless fashion month winds down this week as Paris fashion week comes to a close. Whew! So glad that's almost over. Except it's not. Fashion never ends or goes away or starts again. Little wonder that the ever-accelerated pace of consumer appetite, copycat brands and self-interest has brought on an industry-wide existential crisis.

In one corner, the Chambre Syndicale membership unanimously voting against any changes to fashion's production and promotional cycles, in the other, the Council of Fashion Designers of America and British Fashion Council attempting to navigate the contours of consumerfacing shows and what they might mean to the bottom line. It is the six-months-ahead schedule versus the buy-now-wear-now model – but so much of it seems very much business as usual.

By far the quickest pivot has come from behemoth brand Burberry, which is now combining men's wear and women's wear on the runway in what is dubbed a "seasonless" collection immediately available to consumers – but they're still showing twice a year, within the calendar framework of semi-annual shows. What changes? Not much.

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The fashionverse has yet to acknowledge that its now significant secondary business in social media and promotion depends on the traditional system maintaining status quo. The industry continues to justify its existence with quick fixes that are merely small tweaks, but what's truly needed is a long-term solution.

So much of fashion is cultural entertainment – whether the industry admits it or not. A muchcirculated story at the beginning of fashion month revealed that tickets to the hottest New York Fashion Week runway presentations and designer meet-and-greets were finding their way into the hands of third-party brokers who – much like scalpers at sporting events – were selling them on the grey market at hefty prices. The scenes outside the shows, around the showrooms, in hotel rooms, en route to and from presentations – all of it is brand and personal promotion. And it all depends on a fashion system that remains much as it is.

As I write this, there is still no new chief designer at Lanvin or Dior, and rumours swirl about other global brands and house designers who may be bowing out. In one conversation, the main worry is about how inhumane the system is for these men and women in Paris, Milan and London who must dream up the forever-new every day. It's a convenient psychological compartmentalization. It's clear the players haven't stepped nearly far enough back – but given their perspective, they can't.

At this point it might help to supply a plummy disembodied quote on the fashion system to drive the point home. So here's Roland Barthes. "Calculating, industrial society is obliged to form consumers who don't calculate," the theorist said about the language of fashion magazines back in the 1960s. "If clothing's producers and consumers had the same consciousness, clothing would be bought [and produced] only at the very slow rate of its dilapidation."

There are progressive people talking about this but they're theorists or radical "others" on the margins trying to topple the system. That description may be true but it doesn't help that instead of engaging these people in the conversation about reform, most of the industry how-to-fix discussions are happening among those who sit on the same side of the table – brand owners, stylists, bloggers, editors, publicists and retailers. The most important point to consider in all of this is how, and how quickly and well, clothing gets made to meet delivery deadlines for retail buyers who have seen the shows and ordered items. That it isn't being addressed shows a ropey understanding of cause and effect, at best – as though the runaway market forces aren't ones the industry controls and feeds.

"I think that's a real danger and it's self-evident. I don't think we are at the stage yet where people are having these sorts of conversations in the open," said Andrew Brooks recently, when I spoke with him about his book Clothing Poverty. "The dicta of the market is commodity fetishism. Relationships between people are mediated by objects; we don't think about the moral relationships."

A fashion item is the product of many things, some ineffable, many financial. But it's also the work of people. A garment, handbag or pair of shoes takes time to cut and sew – human time. When there's talk of the unsustainable pace of fashion, it's still about how demand outpaces creativity when it should be about how demand outpaces supply. I realize it's perhaps challenging to invoke dignity talking about the fashion parade, but there is a lot of hand-wringing going on about the dignity of creativity, and not nearly enough about human or environmental sustainability.

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