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What's the Deal with "Conscious" Fashion?

What's the Deal with

by Ana Wang

February 26, 2015

When Gwyneth Paltrow announced in a goop newsletter that she and Chris Martin were "consciously uncoupling", the internet went into its inevitable moment of Gwyneth uproar. (When does Gwyneth ever do anything that doesn't leave people in an uproar?) Every headline mocked the phrase endlessly, and it became the kind of thing that left us all wondering: Did she really think it was going to go down well? Any effort to glamourize or sugarcoat something that many of the rest of us have to deal with can seem insensitive to the truth of the matter: that it is divorce, and it doesn't need to be called anything different. I mean, while you're at it, why not call marriage "consciously coupling"?

Me? Well, I thought it was great, but then again, I think most people are too hard on the woman. Maybe it's the fact that her lifestyle site actually supports a lot of eco, local and organic brands that has swayed my fashion-loving activist's heart, or maybe it's because I'll always remember that pearl pink Ralph Lauren gown as the dress I wanted to wear to my prom even though prom was a long seven years away, or maybe getting her goopy newsletters is the closest I'll ever get to being friends with a celebrity, but gosh darnit, I thought "consciously uncoupling" was cool, interesting, refreshing, and actually really heartfelt. 

You should know: I get teary during ads, and I think this guy is cool, so I'm not exactly the expert on cool and heartfelt. (But come on, isn't #ligerthegreat is the bestest?) And hey, I also get that some things just aren't meant to be cool or interesting.

So what was it that made the phrase so odd? I can't help but feel that it was the "conscious" part that irked people who were actually irked by it, and not just on the Gwyneth hate bandwagon.

It's a weird word.

As it applies to fashion, I've seen the term "conscious" being used more often recently, but it isn't something that has made its way into mainstream vocabulary. It's a niche term, even more niche than eco fashion, green fashion, or ethical fashion, all of which are the go-tos when it comes to mainstream media coverage. Then there's "sustainable" fashion, which I think is a great umbrella term, because eco is not ethical, vegan is not organic, socially responsible is not ecologically responsible, and so on and so forth. Sustainable kind of covers it all as the why to their whats - we want to live in a world that can be maintained and not trashed. But "conscious" fashion? It's vague and really could count as psycho-babble if we consider that we are all sort of conscious, if not really, then at least technically. 

I ask a guy (a "guy" because he didn't want to be named) right about here and he looks at me like I'm testing him - he doesn't reply because I just know he thinks it's a trick question because what is unconscious fashion? Clothing for people in comas? I suspect that all his clothing decisions are consciously made, and he may not be able to comprehend that a lot of people don't really think about their purchases, thus a necessary descriptor for an action that otherwise is meant to be second nature.

But "eco" fashion: that's something that people can at least understand, even if the connotation is visceral and immediate: burlap, basics, boring, beige. (Even those who have lived long enough to think "Well, back in my day, everything was eco. Why is there a special word for it now?" understand what I mean when I say it.)

No such luck with conscious.

I started to use the term to replace "sustainable", which I had always thought wasn't a very appealing way to describe fashion to people. Sustainable has always been something that as a designer I recognized as being a very technical way of describing how to extend the lifespan of a piece of clothing and the processes that go into producing it in order to prolong resources. When we talked about it in school, it was about facts, data, science. For example, how do we build systems that use less water? 

But when I graduated and ended up in marketing to support my design dreams, I learned that "sustainable" doesn't mean anything because no one has ever wanted to be "sustainable" - if you explain what it means, then, yeah, they're into it, sure. But few in this world are passionate about the processes that prolong resources. (And if you are, congrats, you are one of the very few people who are that altruistic.) You are more likely to want to be eco, ethical or green than sustainable, because even though we mean in this context that sustainable is the opposite of disposable, it can also mean: not audacious, safe, not exciting, regular, beige, void of novelty and change - and those are all things sort of opposite to what fashion is a whole is all about: it is all about change.

If we're drawing a graph to visualize words, sustainable looks like a straight line. The dictionary definition, after all, is: able to be maintained at a certain rate or level. 

Fashion, however, has always been ups and downs and squiggly lines. To me, the most accurate visualization of fashion as a whole would be akin to how Kang the intergalactic creature from The Simpsons says it: "We must move forward, not backward; upward, not forward; and always twirling, twirling, twirling towards freedom".


I turned this battle of the words into an experiment, even if it started just as a way to figure out how I could get more people to read my sustainable fashion blog. I would interchange words, switching them out once I had started to notice a pattern, looked at what was happening, who was reading, how engaged they were.

The results: When I used sustainable fashion, I attracted a lot more followers who wrote or cared only about sustainable fashion, and very specifically about this (not that as people they didn't care about anything else, but as businesses they shared sustainability as their primary focus). During this experiment, new followers that didn't share this specific overriding interest were few and far between. 

When I used conscious fashion, I attracted a lot of followers who came for other things, but were generally interested in better ways to live. Still good. Most people may not have completely understood the term, but it didn't turn anyone off. The sustainable folk were less intensely interested by this point.

When I used more specific terms such as eco, green, vegan or ethical, I attracted all types of people with varying degrees of interest, often as fleeting as an Earth Day article buried down the page at Refinery29. So, they got it, and articles seemed to get shared more often - probably because more people share what they understand - but many of them cared only for a moment, and then they were gone.

It came down to two.


Conscious, although sort of new-agey and vague, had a sexy sort of appeal - vague became mysterious, shrouding the technicalities of something that most people steer clear from because they don't care about sustainable. 

When H&M launched their sustainable line, they called it "Conscious", which is infinitely more cool-sounding that a tag labelled "Sustainable", which just sounds, again, very technical. Ecosalon's tagline is Conscious Culture and Fashion. There's a Conscious Magazine

What they all mean, and what I had meant very simply is: Let's be mindful about our choices. And as we all know, mindfulness is enjoying its moment in culture, as it should, after years of noise, consumption, and accumulation have reached its pinnacle. 

So maybe Gwyneth wasn't trying to be dismissive of tradition - she just wanted to inject her divorce process with more love and mindfulness than maybe what she's seen been done in the past, a testament to her nature to always strive, if not for perfection, then for fulfillment, even through the act of something that really is a life-changing loss and separation. 

And that's what conscious is. It's a beautiful way to say I don't know all the answers, but I'm trying. I'm alive and I want to be a person, not a walking zombie with the choices in my life dictated to me. It's a way to say I'm striving for something better, something more sustainable, something more fulfilling, and it isn't about one thing or one way - it's about what I choose. Conscious is choice, and for the first time in years, we have the choice to choose much better. 

I've considered dropping terms altogether, which is what I'm currently experimenting with, to varying degrees of comfort and success. I often think: Why am I pitting word against word, especially when they mean the same thing at the end of the day? As a creator and a consumer, I can see the appeal of both. But I can also see how wonderful it would be when we don't need terms at all.

Entertain this: Instead of ethical fashion, maybe it's fashion and unethical fashion. Instead of sustainable fashion, maybe it's fashion and disposable fashion. Instead of eco-friendly fashion, it's fashion and toxic fashion. Instead of cruelty-free fashion, it's fashion and cruel fashion. (Well, when you put it that way, why would anyone consciously choose what then sounds like the obvious wrong answer? I'm afraid the "there are no wrong answers" quip they taught in school doesn't quite sit the same way here.)

So for right now, that means I'm operating in a bit of sustainable-conscious-mainstream limbo. I'm not loyal to anything. I'll use it all, when I want to. You'll noticed a sprinkling of "sustainable" here because it means something tangible, a dash of "conscious" there because it means something beautiful, and a dollop of nothing at all everywhere because at the end of the day, I just want to write about fashion, to design fashion, to consume fashion. And that's the way it should be, a life made up of a series of conscious, mindful choices, while we all twirl toward the inevitable state.

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