May 19 2020 - There is a technical lifetime to clothing, and then there is a social life of clothing. The technical lifetime is about the physical strength of materials, how long does it last without breaking or ‘wear out’.
"A product like natural fur has the technical potential for long lifetime, so it is important to work with the social side," said Ingun Grimstad Klepp, a research professor at Consumption Research Norway, Oslo Metropolitan University.
She conducts research on sustainable textile and clothing, with a particular focus on the user-phase of clothing. This area of clothing is somewhat underexposed in the sustainability debate, yet understanding how and why people wear their clothes is critically important to reduce the environmental impact of fashion. This is based on the simple observation that the more we wear the same clothes, the less we will buy new, resource-demanding clothes.
The user-phase of clothes can be studied empirically as the connection between material and cultural aspects of clothing and consumption. Here you can find answers to why some garments become favourite clothes, while other garments are hardly used, if ever. Lifetime is impacted by a number of social or cultural factors, important ones being whether the clothes fit, and what use we have for the particular types of clothes in our wardrobes – active outdoor people will utilise outdoor garments more excessively. What is ‘in fashion’ is less important to active use than people may think, but reflects that active use of clothing sometimes changes over time.
"Waterproof suits became more used when the design became more light and functional. A wedding dress, on the other hand, will not be worn more than once by the same user," Ingun Klepp said.
Personalisation and flexibility
Improving the social or cultural life of natural fur would apply mainly to the design- and manufacturing part of the fur community’s value chain. It would imply to take advantage of the already strong technical characteristics of fur and support its extended use in the future. At the design level, this can unfold as preparing for multiple users by preparing for future refurbishing and repair – think push buttons for example – while also paying attention to personalisation and garment fitting. Areas more exposed to being ‘worn out’ can be made replaceable, and good quality can be enforced by the use of good technical quality in add-ons like buttons and linings.
"You can work with the adaption of fur for different occasions, for example, clothes that work for both festive and less festive occasions, as something that protects against the cold, but still usable when the weather is mild. Overall, you can say it is about flexibility," Ingun Klepp said.
At a commercial level, it might unfold as new business models targeting the sharing economy. Innovation could also arise from changing the original product:
"It is a very interesting feature of fur that products can be reused and turned into something else," Ingun Klepp said.
In Norway however, this is not happening a lot. Many furs are stocked in Norwegian cellars and ceilings and are simply not being put to use.
"There are many people who don’t dare use their inherited furs – or buy second-hand fur. I believe this is wrong. Everything that has already been produced ought to be used with good consciousness," Ingun Klepp said.
Fur farming will be banned in Norway from 2024, following a decade-long political debate that has helped shape the stigmatisation of fur that exists in Norway today. Thus it created attention when Ingun Klepp publicly promoted the use of second-hand furs in Norway for environmental reasons, a position quickly disputed by animal lobbyists fearing increased use of second-hand furs will add to the legitimation of ‘new’ fur.
"Those who disagree with my talk about symbolic value, but for me, it is a matter of good utilisation of resources," Ingun Klepp said. Whether this little part of the sustainability debate in Norway will lead to more Norwegians wearing second-hand fur has yet to be proved, but Ingun Klepp says the reactions suggest many people principally agree.
Clothing lifetime becomes important
This resonates well with Ingun Klepp’s expectations that a ‘new way of consuming’ is underway to its breakthrough:
"Today, people take mass consumption for granted, and consumers have gotten used to it, and consume accordingly because they have gotten used to being able to buy ‘new’ all the time. But it was not always like this, mass consumption was a revolution when it happened, but consumer behaviour has matured beyond mass consumption, there is an element of ‘been there, done that’ around today. The interest for re-use, knitting and home production is growing," Ingun Klepp said.
But one thing is talking about fashion’s transition towards sustainability. Another is what actually happens. This part is largely still in front of us, but change may happen fast:
"We don’t see rapid changes in consumer development. On the other hand, if we look at the debate it is evident it has changed a lot. There are many things which point in the direction of fast-paced changes. It has to do with both youth and politics," Ingun Klepp said, with reference to the climate-conscious youth movement, and the undeniable emergence of green reform legislation across the world, before stressing her point with a hands-on example:
"The debate that follows plastic waste in the oceans is a part of a lifetime discussion. The whole discussion over plastic is about user-phase and lifetime, and it has led to certain single-use plastic products being banned. It is clear that we are now discussing these things, and therefore lifetime becomes important."