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Are sustainability documentaries really that radical?

Becky Hutner’s new documentary ‘Fashion Reimagined’ follows a designers efforts to create a purely sustainable clothing line. But are these kinds of projects more self-congratulatory than profound? 

Fashion designer Amy Powney has made a name for herself as the creative director of Mother of Pearl, a sustainable, London-based luxury brand.

Powney has been vocal about her sustainability goals since taking the helm, and Mother of Pearl has made a name for itself as an ethical, conscious clothing brand in a sea of fast-fashion e-tailers.

But the luxury fashion company has recently challenged themselves to go one step further, developing sub-label, sustainable clothing made from Global Organic Textile Standard fabric.

Filmmaker Becky Hutner came on board to capture the entire journey, as Powney painstakingly creates a clothing line that’s ethical from the inside out.

The film, ‘Fashion Reimagined’, is successful in highlighting the paradoxes and dead-ends of the ‘green’ industry.

Powney is constantly faced with a ‘lesser of two evils’ scenario when developing her clothes, particularly when it comes to choosing materials. Whether to use wool, for example, without sourcing materials that have harmed animals, or served as a by-product of the meat industry.

If choosing synthetic fabrics (kinder to animals and softer on skin) the question then centres on chemicals and their polluting qualities.

These catch-22s demonstrate the difficulty in calling something ‘sustainable’, and in doing so highlight the extent of green-washing in the fashion industry.

But Hutner maintains a light-hearted and hopeful tone throughout the film, making the environmental conversation accessible to all audiences.

Powney’s positivity assures viewers that combatting the climate crisis is perfectly feasible. To this end, however, the documentary becomes somewhat self-congratulatory, and avoids facing questions around luxury. After all, Mother of Pearl is ultimately a luxury fashion brand.

British Film Institute writer Annabel Jackson describes Hutner’s film as a ‘hagiographic debut’. It’s a rather scathing review, but captures a flaw at the heart of numerous sustainability documentaries.

Perhaps it’s unavoidable that our projects like these become autobiographical celebrations of human plight, but Hutner has a tendency to pin Powney as the one-woman answer to fashion’s environmental woes.

The film sets the tone with striking statistics about the clothing industry. Three-in-five garments end up in landfill within one year of purchase and 2.5 million children pick cotton every year.

Powney then steps in to combat these issues, but her emotional project often strays too far into sentimental storytelling, which feels as much about her working-class childhood as it does about climate change.

As admirable as Powney’s plight is, from growing up in a caravan to winning Vogue’s Fashion Fund in 2017, emphasis on her upbringing shifts the film’s tone to one of elitism and class-struggle.

Her personal journey to producing a conscious clothing line feels at times too easy, ignoring Powney’s own privilege and the sum of money from Vogue that funded the entire project.

In this way, Hutner’s film captures Powney’s project as both too small to face up the statistics it opens with, and too out-of-reach for the average individual wanting to make a difference.

As Oisin McGilloway says of the film, Hutner tunnel-visions on an apotheotic scenario in which Powney has conquered all odds to become a successful designer.

The only common-ground felt between Powney and her audience becomes the climate crisis itself, making it harder to comprehend the gravity of her work.

It’s complexities like these that make environmental media so polarising – and ultimately unsuccessful.

Despite their radical message and commendable intentions, films focused on sustainability could do more to place the average person at the heart of the story. After all, such projects are only as strong as their audience.