Sustainable – Discourse analysis of a fashion/fashionable term
Nathalie Hyde-Clarke (PhD), Head of the Department of Culture and Media, Arcada UAS
Sustainable: Able to be maintained at a certain rate or level; conserving an ecological balance by avoiding depletion of natural resources; able to be upheld or defended (Oxford University Dictionary 2019).
Since the publication of my last blog, ‘Stranded: a critical discourse analysis’, I have been asked by students in the Kultur och Media Methodology course to explain how this method differs to ‘plain’ discourse analysis (although there is little ordinary or simple about any such study). In both cases, the focus is on language, based on the tenet that knowledge is constructed through words, so we can better communicate with each other. Critical discourse analysis (CDA) seeks to examine how discourse supports or reinforces relations of power, dominance or inequality (see seminal text by Van Dijk 1993) and this why ‘Stranded’ has a clear focus on perceptions of authority or lack thereof. Discourse analysis considers ways in which language is used by people to produce and attach meaning and values to the material world, regardless of whether or not this language allows others to exercise influence or power over others (Dunn and Neumann 2016). Words or phrases can simply be analysed in a social context. In both cases, it is important to ask: who speaks; how is the message framed; and to what purpose?
To illustrate discourse analysis, I am going to share an experience I recently had while attending a fashion show in Helsinki, Finland. It quickly became apparent that the word ‘sustainable’ was being imbued with a myriad of meanings – all of which referred to quite different processes or approaches, but all were designed to be received favourably by the audience in attendance (pun intended!).
What makes the use of this discourse so interesting for us as social science researchers? The word ‘sustainable’ has garnered increasing importance over the past five to ten years. Largely associated with environmental concerns and depleting natural resources, more attention is being given to the need to both provide and maintain sustainable practices, such as the use of renewable sources. Arcada’s strategy identifies sustainable development as one of its core thrusts, and many students have incorporated topics related to sustainability in their thesis research. This is particularly true in the Cultural Management and Media Management degrees in the Department of Culture and Media.
In the fashion world, one area of interest in our Artist Management course, there has been a growing urgency about the need to be more aware of the environmental impact of the textile industry. Identified as the second largest polluter in the world almost five years ago (Conca 2015), the fashion industry accounts for approximately 10% of global carbon emissions. With a revenue of more than £1 trillion a year, fashion is highly resource intensive (Bhardwaj 2018). It is therefore not surprising, that much like the oil industry (the worst polluter), the fashion world is often criticized for its production practices, and that current brand and reputation management strategies include a greater focus on sustainability. I intentionally focus on the pure verbal communication element here, and not the production process nor strategic communication, so as not to diverge from my topic of interest, which is the application of the actual method.
Throughout the fashion show that inspired this discussion, representatives of the relevant brands introduced different garments to those in attendance as ‘sustainable’. Yet, it did not take long for those of us in the audience to realise that the meaning altered depending on what aspect or element the speaker wished to highlight. By the end of the show, I had identified the following meanings associated with the specified word:
- Is a classic style unlikely to go out of fashion
- Can be handed down to the next generation as is durable
- Is produced from natural products
- Has been produced using chemicals that have been approved by an environmental monitoring agency
- Is biodegradable
What immediately struck me, was how rarely the word was used to mean all of the above, or even more than two of the above. It was clear that individual elements were being highlighted in order to make most of the garments sustainable – although in practice, it meant many different and quite diverse things. This discrepancy was not lost on the audience, and it certainly led to a riveting discussion amongst those within my earshot. After all, if we applied the notion that something should be in a classical design, durable and able to be passed from one generation to the next, then a plastic raincoat (the least ecologically friendly material) could easily be labelled as ‘sustainable’.
In the same way, it also became obvious that the high cost of fashion was in some way being motivated due to these ‘sustainability’ practices in an inferred and implicit manner. Firstly, it was subtly suggested that being a sustainable brand meant implementing more expensive and time-intensive production practices. Secondly, if a garment is designed to last longer, then it is more valuable to the wearer (and subsequent owners) and thus consumption will be affected positively (for the consumer, although negatively for the fashion brand as the fashion industry is profit-driven and less consumption means less revenue) in the long run, and this justifies the greater expenses now. This is of course the point of sustainable fashion: to decrease consumption and waste. However, allusions to increased cost does mean that the audience is even more quickly struck by the deviations in meaning. One could justify a greater expense if one were assured that the garment did indeed meet all the necessary criteria of what one believes sustainability should be – while making the wearer look good too. However, if there is some concern about how the word is used, or misused, then the cost becomes more of a concern and this places more attention on what may be deemed dubious practices or labelling. This in turn reflects negatively on the brand – and we have recently seen several instances where well-known international fashion houses have been accused of ‘green-washing’ resulting in a loss of clientele.
Basically, then, if the purpose of the use of the word ‘sustainable’ is to increase favourable responses in the audience to those brands, resulting in a positive public image and/or a conversion to sales, then the meaning needs to be more in tune with expectations. Those expectation change depending on the audience, and in this case the audience was comprised mostly of Finns who are generally very aware of ecological issues and have a culturally-strong tradition and inclination to behave and consume in an environmentally-friendly manner. Arguably, this is a ‘tough crowd to please’ when it comes to how language around sustainability is employed. In this case, that one word has the ability to alter how the Finnish public communicate around that fashion brand.
From a Cultural and Media researcher’s perspective, this basic discourse analysis can create a building block to explore a variety of different themes. There is the possibility to more closely examine how people understand the term based on their own expectations or consumption practices. It can be used as a reflection exercise. Alternatively, the study could be expanded to examine a range of advertising and organisational material from the fashion industry where the term is adopted. From here, one could either assess the effectiveness of such discourse in those instances, or one could recommend how it should be better utilised in the future. One could also investigate actual production practices in relation to the use of the term by specific brands. Such studies could (and probably should) be supplemented with additional methodologies, such as surveys or interviews (for perspectives), or content analysis (for documents). Discourse analysis is therefore a versatile tool for examining social relations and subjective realities. It really is an excellent way to explore and explain evolving communication practices in the Culture and Media field.
Bhardwaj, G. 2018. Understanding Sustainable Fashion. Chatham House: The Royal Institute of International Affairs. https://www.chathamhouse.org/expert/comment/understanding-sustainable-fashion?gclid=Cj0KCQjwjOrtBRCcA RIsAEq4rW6NgAieqDwW5FKC23fHeUPWpslvDIUW _5VMMoXPGokNeFZZlvO0yGEaAoMSEALw_wcB (External link). Accessed 1 November 2019.
Conca, J. 2015. Making Climate Change Fashionable – The Garment Industry Takes On Global Warming. Forbes https://www.forbes.com/sites/jamesconca/2015/12/03/making-climate-change-fashionable-the-garment-industry-takes-on-global-warming/#17e4559679e4 (External link). Accessed on 1 November 2019
Dunn, K.C. and Neumann, I.B., 2016. Undertaking discourse analysis for social research. University of Michigan Press.
Oxford University Dictionary. 2019. Sustainable. https://www.lexico.com/en/definition/sustainable (External link). Accessed on 29 October 2019.
Van Dijk, T.A., 1993. Principles of critical discourse analysis. Discourse & society, 4(2), pp.249-283.