For the third edition of #tomorrowtalks I spoke to London based futurist and trend forecaster Geraldine Wharry. I recently took part in her online course „How to forecast like a futurist“ and really appreciate her thought-provoking insights into the future. Believe me when I say you are in for a treat with this interview: Geraldine takes on everything from our misguided relationship with sustainability to why you should think beyond digital. She also shares her top innovations that will define the next decade - a must-read for anyone working in the fashion and design industry.
ts: How has the Covid-19 crisis been affecting you?
Geraldine Wharry: I have always been working from home since I started my consultancy and I love it. But it’s quite different now: I used to go out a lot to meet clients or attend events. Nevertheless, it has been a time of high communication for me and it’s been great. I have had a huge demand in press because everyone wants to know what´s next. And I have been connecting with my small community online, doing Instagram Live interviews.
ts: The “Sustainability” trend was going really strong in fashion before the crisis hit. Is it going to continue?
GW: Oh, where do I begin? Over the years, I have become more and more outspoken. Sustainability to me is an imperative, it is not a choice. I feel fortunate that in the UK many people are on board with that, even though we are still one of the worst places for fast fashion. Even in mainstream media like The Guardian or Vogue Business, there currently are so many articles saying this is our chance to press the reset button. So that´s great! However, there are many implications in pressing the reset button: Some retailers are refusing to pay their orders, so there are millions of workers at risk of not being paid, facing a humanitarian crisis in places like Bangladesh. The reality is that post-crisis, as companies will struggle to get back on their feet, there is a strong chance that we will go backwards in terms of modern slavery and child labour. Companies might be forcing suppliers to produce at a very small margin. It is something we will have to monitor extremely closely.
ts: So we might miss the chance to reshape the fashion industry for the better?
GW: Regardless of Covid-19, we are facing extinction as a species if we continue like this! There is a 9.5 % chance that by the end of the century we will be gone from this planet. We face tremendous societal disruption: If we think the Covid-19 is bad, it may just be one brick compared to what we are facing in the near future. I know it sounds really scary when I say that, but there is a chance of changing things. We have to act now.
What worries me in all the conversation around sustainability is how we are rushing to create these solutions: Is digital really the point, if it is just to emulate the same consumption patterns? If it is just to empower the same cycle of consumption and overproduction? Our planet cannot endure the current overproduction. We are literally drying out our planetary resources.
We simply have to find a different way to do commerce, because we can´t keep producing as much as we do. We have to recycle, reuse and find a way for materials to be able to go back into a circular system.
ts: But isn’t this already happening?
GW: There are a lot of claims in fashion about “zero waste” or “low carbon foot print”, but in reality it´s not possible to be zero waste unless you completely changed our whole entire systems as an economy. We are trying to use the language of scientists in an industry that has never been based on science. If we want to do this right, we need to involve the data scientists, the carbon foot print experts that know how to exactly measure the impact and carbon emissions. Even brands that I really admire have recently left me asking myself questions. For example the idea of a “low impact fashion shoot” involving sustainable brands, less travel for the team and models working on the shoot. I really love the principle of it but transparency goes much deeper than that. It’s a good initiative and concept but is it surface engagement? You would need to look at every single item of clothing, where and how it was made and share that as well in my mind. Transparency is a complete process of metrics from beginning to end.
ts: So you are calling for more transparency?
GW: Fashion Revolution just came out with their yearly report and they rank the fast fashion retailers as the most transparent which for me has been confusing, although I truly admire this organisation. They are using public data. But there is a huge amount of greenwashing going on and what is called “data dumping” to confuse the consumer through publicly shared data. H&M was called out for a dress in their conscious line which was actually only 10% wool and the rest was synthetic yarn. It’s hard as they are pushing in a positive direction but also supporting a consumption pattern that says something else. That makes us question what is and can call itself sustainable? Individuals and brands see the opportunity of sustainability – it is one of the biggest buzzword at the moment. And many are jumping on that bandwagon and that is positive. I am however worried sustainable fashion will be co-opted like the term “organic food”. It would be great if we could have a transition model so that brands can be clear about how they are transitioning but not yet fully sustainable. This is something some farmers do for example in France when they are waiting to get the organic seal of approval and want to be clear with the consumer.
ts: So what can we do to make things better?
GW: Our biggest job is to ask the questions and be humble, transparent about our imperfections, be open to learning. I feel strongly about this. On Linkedin I have noticed a little bit of greenwashing of career profiles. Sustainability is not a business or career opportunity, it’s a core set of values to live by. We are all learning and must study to understand all the implications of sustainability before claiming to be an expert. It is not just about new materials and modes of production, business opportunities. It´s also about how workers are treated, fighting poverty, protecting our waterways and the planetary ecosystem. It´s hard work to look beneath the surface. We are going to see where brands and people will be going with this and the best thing we can do is be very transparent about what we are learning and correcting. This will help create a better culture of transparency and honesty in our Industry.
ts: So is it the end of overconsumption?
GW: I believe we have been going a bit in circles here: The end of overconsumption was already in the 70s, when scientists first rang the alarm about climate change in research commissioned by the Club of Rome. Let´s just think further:
Imagine it´s the end of overconsumption: What do we do with the workforce? It´s all fun to say it is the end of overconsumption, but this is a huge industry! We need to stop talking and actively work on a plan to reorganise our workforce, supply chain and our schedule.
We could dedicate a time of the year on establishing better relations with the suppliers, and another part we work from home to be with our families more. Maybe designers will start working on transparency in companies, if collections become smaller and they have more time. There are lots of ways we could work. Let´s start putting this into action!
ts: The crisis also seems to be accelerating all things digital. Do you agree?
GW: The future is craft. Digital is not the destination, it is a tool. If everything goes digital, we will be making a mistake because it is too short sighted for humanity. Part of why we are in this situation now is that we no longer know how to do things ourselves. We don’t know how to sew, we don’t know how to plant vegetables. We don´t know how to make furniture. We don´t know how to build. Craft is so important because it is our independence, our creativity. Digital will be amazing in terms of making our industry very efficient and enabling new ways of producing in a very smart way. It is also an amazing avenue for creativity as an artistic medium. But I don´t think it takes away from us knowing how to make, customise, repair or reuse with our own hands.
ts: So what exactly is the next step if you say it is not digital?
GW: It seems like a logical evolution that if everything becomes more digitalized and more personalized, individuals will also become part of the process in a supply chain that involves the end user and/or their data in the making. Sustainability is about the workforce and the materials, but it´s also about thriving over time as a person. Having a lifestyle that you can sustain. More and more people prefer the word “regenerative” instead of “sustainable”.
ts: Which are the top innovations that you see will happen a lot quicker?
GW: I think one of the best systemic innovations at the moment is the Wellbeing Economy Alliance which several countries have now joined. There are some great innovations in terms of circular supply chain models and sustainable materials. Digital showcasing of collections is already happening. This will fast track the rise of avatars and might affect the whole modelling industry. Digital Rendering is not new, but taking hold: Through rendering of clothing you can now sense the texture of a fabric even if you are only seeing it on the screen through haptic technology. In terms of wellness and health, immune system protection, clothing that is more and more in tune with your biometrics and maybe alerts you of temperature or pollution levels, etc will rise in demand. There will be a greater merger of fashion and the tech industry, which is not something new, but the big problem we are facing is privacy. By entering fluidly into that sector, fashion will inherit some of its problems. We need to have an ethical code, not just in sustainability, but in the agency people have to own their own data. There is discussion on a universal bill of data rights which we should have as nations and as a planet. I really believe the privacy problem will be the next big thing waiting around the corner for the style industry. All these ethical problems that come with technology and the management of big data are going to catch us off-guard.
ts: That´s a really interesting outlook for the fashion industry, but it also seems like it´s going to lead to some profound changes.
GW: I am really excited about people buying less and getting really creative about their consumption. But I also realize that it is going to be really hard when it happens. I love my industry and I love creating and I love clothing just as much as ever, but not at the cost of our children and future generations‘ quality of life. We have only been in this very toxic cycle of mass production for a few decades. We have to remember that there used to be a different way, not that long ago. This proves we can change the state of fashion and the course of history more than we may think.
More about Geraldine:
Geraldine is from Paris and is bi-cultural / bilingual French American, growing up traveling between the USA and France. She studied Textile Design in Paris. After 11 years as a fashion designer in the US managing collections for global brands, she joined the international trend firm WGSN in London as senior womenswear trend forecaster for Macro Trend collections. She now runs her consultancy and has grown a global reputation for thought provoking insights and presentations. Geraldine is regularly interviewed for media such as Vogue Business, WWD, the BBC and is a regular contributor for Dazed Beauty.