Fashion as a Complex Adaptive System

As the pandemic has unleashed the fault lines of our economic, social and financial systems, we are faced with a bigger task that involves not just sustaining what we have but transforming our operating systems. It will not be enough to talk about changing the world, we will have to start changing ourselves first. The problems that are inherent in the current system have surfaced as we faced facts about inequalities not only in income and wealth distribution but also disparities in access to health care and security. The most vulnerable have been exposed and uncared for. The discussions of reformation, reshaping systems, rehabilitation aimed at value and impact capturing need to be based on a profound framework where natural and social justice can be vividly visualized, focused on, communicated clearly and practiced instead of being “mentioned”. The solutions will need to involve a move towards more inclusive discussions that include various participants from global commons.



The global fashion business is a complex dynamic system and its structure relates extremely well with the definition Professor Roger Martin (The author of When More is not Better) writes, “The complexity aspect of a complex adaptive system means that the system in question is largely inscrutable, with causal relationships among elements in the system that are ambiguous and nonlinear. Even more challenging, those relationships aren’t stable. The actors in the system are continuously driving adaptation of the system. By the time we decide what to do, it is quite possible, if not likely, that the system has changed in a way that renders our decision obsolete by the time it is acted upon. And by the time we have figured that out, the system will have changed again. Because of that adaptability, our design principle must be to balance the desire for perfection with the drive for improvement." Complex, dynamic problems emerge as dominant patterns; obscuring the real problems. Think about the problems that we seem to be having for the past decade in the fashion business and think again if there is not a deeper root cause. A solid holistic and yet agile design thinking strategy proposes that look beyond to solve the real problem/s.



It is time to have a full length climate crunch as we cannot design a framework before we can realize where we stand. Since the 1880s the average global surface temperature has risen by about 1°C and most of this increase happened in the last five decades. The polar ice caps are melting six times faster than they were in the 1990s; the Arctic Sea in Siberia is refusing to freeze in December 2020, continuous bush fires and hurricanes are hitting where live-hoods are already at stake. Droughts and floods are occurring at increased intensity and frequency. The environmental issues intersect with inequality and so to the pandemics. Understanding what is happening to the climate as well as why it is happening is a starting point however we cannot simply remain responsive to the problems that are incredibly visible, and we have to understand the related social injustice and the fact that climate crisis is hitting those who contribute the least the hardest. In addition, we also have to see what is on the other side of the coin– what the climate and the social crisis are doing to the businesses.

Competitive sustainability is the ability of an economy, its companies and industrial ecosystems to excel relative to international competitors in their transition to sustainable development by using science, technology and intellectual property. The complex adaptive systems and its dynamics also form the base of competitive sustainability and an integrated design thinking is a part of the solution scheme. It is essential to dissect and reconstruct the businesses holistically within the natural boundaries and the challenges of our common human agenda.


As the European Union begins to roll out plans to revive its economic blow inflicted by the pandemic, the fashion industry has affirmed that the only good post-COVID-19 recovery for the fashion sector is a “green” recovery which is sure to become EU`s competitive sustainability strategy. The goals outlined in the European Green New Deal, including a minimum 50 percent emission toward a 55 percent reduction target for 2030 and carbon neutrality by 2050 require detailed planning, collaboration, leadership and continuous impact evaluation.

The EU Green New Deal is calling for action to reduce reliance of external raw materials and resources, scale up recycling technologies, establish the infrastructure and meet operational needs to build collection and sorting systems, enhance transparency as a part of EU Circular Action Plan, build consumer, industry and governmental collaboration at scale. Developing end-of-waste criteria at the EU level will be a driving force to help ensure that secondary raw materials and post-consumer and post industrial waste are demanded as resources. The definition of a Product Environmental Footprint (PEF) method will ensure accountability of the green claims, unleashing the potential for real disruption traced back along the supply chain. Since June 2018, France is using a labelling system which grades garments from A to E – using A for the most sustainable and this methodology is expected to become mandatory in 2 years. Although not revealed; the factors that contribute to the grade include carbon emissions, water use, chemical toxicity and recyclability.


Access versus ownership business models, extended brands and manufacturer responsibility based “service through products” offers are building loyal customers as well as keeping clothes in use longer are no longer fringe ideas. The textile products consumers buy and love have life left to give; they carry embedded value for consumers and there is increasing evidence of financial benefit for brands and retailers to provide opportunities for recovery and reuse.



The complex adaptive system of the fashion industry with its widespread supply chain is calling out for agility, systemic re-design, climate crunch time, social inclusivity, transparency, accountability, partnerships but most of all a holistic strategic approach to achieve competitive sustainability where all stakeholders, nature and our humanity are embraced and believe it or not it is on its way.





Stay tuned.

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