Fashion pioneers are turning the tide of fast fashion in favour of more ethical and environmentally-friendly ways to produce clothes.
by Julia Migné
Six years ago a terrible catastrophe shook the fashion industry and exposed the damaging side effects of our never-ending hunger for throwaway clothes. On April 24th 2013, the Rana Plaza garment factory, an eight-story building located in Bangladesh, collapsed — killing more than 1,100 people.
This tragedy highlighted the horrendous working conditions that affect millions of workers who play a key role in Bangladesh’s £13bn garment industry. According to the Guardian, garment workers at the time were paid as little as £25 a month whilst working in hazardous conditions to produce clothes for brands such as Primark and other high-street favourites.
Deeply affected after hearing the tragic news, Carry Somers — a fair trade advocate and the fashion pioneer behind the brand Pachacuti — started pondering on what she could do at her level to highlight the environmental and social issues that surround the fashion and garment world.
She came up with a plan and then rang her friend Orsola de Castro to discuss her idea. They both knew that something needed to change within the industry and called all the people they could think of within the sustainable fashion sector to help them formulate what was to become Fashion Revolution.
Sienna Somers, Policy Research and Project Coordinator at Fashion Revolution, explains:
“We just started with a hashtag #WhoMadeMyClothes and the first year we had millions and millions of retweets without none of us having any background in social media or campaigns.”
The global movement was born, proclaiming on their website that they wanted “to unite people and organisations to work together towards radically changing the way our clothes are sourced, produced and consumed so that our clothing is made in a safe, clean and fair way.”
“We stand in solidarity with all garment workers demanding a fair and dignified wage. We call on all brands, not just Uniqlo to commit to respecting the lives of their supply chain workers and the natural resources we all share”. #whomademyclothes https://t.co/zigcE9nVIh
— FashionRevolution ID (@Fash_RevID) April 8, 2019
In another part of England, three women had already come to the conclusion that the fashion industry was having a detrimental impact both in terms of the way workers were treated and the way it was damaging the environment.
However, despite knowing about these concerns, the trio still had a strong passion for style and creativity and so decided to launch a grassroots collective, called Stitched Up. According to their website, the group aims at “encouraging individuality, pride and sustainability through fashion and style”.
Based in Manchester, the not-for-profit co-operative is a hub for crafters and makers. Bryony Moore, one of the co-founders of Stitched Up, looks back: “We were all total shopaholics when we were in our teenage years.”
“I think in that time in your life you’re totally experimenting with your own image and so a lot of us, and me included, were kind of going wild in the shops at the weekend, just buying armful of clothes, wearing them a few times as an outfit to go out with and then just discarding it.”
Over time, the three women started realising that their shopping habit and the pile of ‘worn only once to go out’ clothes were feeding a harmful cycle. Bryony went on to favour second-hand clothes and charity shops over high street fashion and from there got into the idea of upcycling.
Stitched Up offers sewing and upcycling workshops, clothes swaps and sustainable fabric sales but also runs education events such as talks and film screenings. One film, in particular, seems to resonate with the public: “The True Cost.”
Filmed in countries all over the globe, the story highlights the impact the fashion industry has on our world by giving a voice to the people who actually make our clothes. The groundbreaking documentary invites its viewers to ask themselves who really pays the price for their clothing.
Bryony explains that film screenings are a great way to kickstart conversations about ethics and the environmental impact of the industry in order to get people thinking about the issues. However, she believes that the message doesn’t always have to “be put up front and centre”.
“Sometimes we just teach people some fun stuff and it just happens that if you do that fun stuff rather than going to buy your clothes brand new then you’re [already] doing a good thing,” she says.
“People have a limited amount of time in life and they have to use the things that they enjoy so you have to make things fun and engaging. You have to make it more fun than the alternative. Otherwise, why would people do it really?”
In Germany, another person was also watching the documentary “The True Cost” and started wondering how he could make a difference. Ali Azimi was shocked to discover that 2,700 litres of water were needed to produce a single cotton T-shirt. This discovery launched him on a path to create an entirely new range of clothes and to launch his own label, Blue Ben.
Ali recalls: “First I started a campaign on charitywater.org. I called it #choosewater #nocotton. In total, I collected enough donations to provide 11 people with water but it was quite tough to find donors. They [my generation] want to interact or get something in return.”
“Sometimes we just teach people some fun stuff and it just happens that if you do that fun stuff rather than going to buy your clothes brand new then you’re doing a good thing.”
“Starting a label was actually more about finding a solution to the problem and using fashion as a tool or a channel for it.”
All Blue Ben products are grown and made in Europe and the company prides itself for the fact that those products are 100% traceable. They are also all made without any cotton but Ali admits that it took them a long time to come up with an alternative to it.
“It was a tough process to develop a new kind of Terry Fabric out of 100% wood pulp” he says. “We are pioneering with this kind of concept and fabric which makes us very vulnerable. It is a huge emotional and financial risk that we took and still facing.”
Back in the UK, another pioneer is revolutionising bridal wear by using wool as her primary product. After a year in working for a fashion brand in New York as part of her fashion degree, Nicola Sherlock-Windle felt uninspired by the fast fashion system. She came back to England and decided to do her final year collection on slow fashion to break out of the model she had witnessed in the US.
She explains: “At the time I met my former business partner she had her own sheep. It was a great collaboration where we were able to combine skill sets. We were able to do the whole process from start to finish. From sheep to finished design!
This was not fast fashion, we are talking as slow as it gets here by even using hand trimmers for shearing the sheep! Even though I have now gone solo after 15 years of partnership, the ethical ethos still stands and I source my wool as local as possible.”
Contrary to the fast fashion industry, which seems to produce new designs at an incredibly fast-paced rate, Nicola says that “good design is timeless”. When she looks at the design she made when she started 15 years ago, they still look as fresh as they originally did.
She has noticed that slow fashion is definitely becoming more of a thing recently and has witnessed a shift in her customers in recent years. “I get people who are concerned about the environment and are opting out of mainstream bridal fashion,” she explains.
“They want something that is eco-friendly and that they might be able to wear again. They are not into spending loads of money, they only want to spend a certain amount on a dress. They are being careful in their choices and they care about where it’s from and that the animals are treated well.”
Consumers are indeed more and more careful about the way they are spending their money and how their fashion choices might impact on the planet. This trend is definitely gaining momentum in recent months with Emma Watson becoming the ambassador of the Good On You app.
The app describes itself as “the world’s leading source for fashion brand ratings”. They pull all the information about brands together and provide potential customers with an easy-to-understand score that rates how ethical, animal welfare conscious and sustainable each brand is. With just a few clicks, it becomes easy to get a sense of what different brands are doing and to make a well-informed choice on where to buy clothes.
— Good On You (@GoodOnYou_App) April 11, 2017
Fashion Revolution also puts the spotlight on the transparency and traceability of brands within the fashion industry. Sienna explains: “For the past three years we have produced a Fashion Transparency Index which will rank some of the 200 top fashion brands in the world based on their policies and their procedures around environmental and social standards. Every year we see a massive increase in what they are disclosing and what they are doing about those social and environmental issues.”
A recent breakthrough was notably the publication by Chanel, which is famously discreet of its operations, and their first ever social sustainability report. This report is a big deal in the fashion industry as it highlights for the first time where Chanel gets its raw materials from, who they are working with and what their carbon emissions are.
“Five years ago if anyone had said that Chanel was going to disclose this information we would have been absolutely shocked,” adds Sienna. “We’re starting to see not only the fast fashion brands starting to pick up on sustainability but also the luxury brands too!”
Across the world in India, a journalist turned fashion designer is also championing the importance of sustainable fashion. Meghna Nayak, the founder of zero-waste fashion brand LataSita, became very aware of the amount of waste the fashion industry was causing in her country and the terrible ways garment workers were treated.
She explains: “When we think of unethical labour we think of these massive sweatshops. The sweatshops are the worst, yes, but that’s not where it stops. There are hundreds of smaller workshops dotted throughout my city which I’ve seen with my own two eyes and there are no standards of treatment for workers. Forget health and safety, this is the modern-day version of the slave trade.”
“Workers have very long hours, unfairly low wages and most of these young men are all coming from the outskirts so they have very long commutes to the point where it makes more sense for them to just sleep there during the week than go back so there is no quality of life whatsoever.”
Meghna remembers reading an article a few years ago about Beyonce’s new clothing line which was manufactured in Sri Lanka and how shocked she was at seeing the miserable salary those people were getting. “I pay my tailors and my workers more than Beyonce’s tailors are paid! I found this ridiculous because I’m just a one-woman-show it’s not like I’m a millionaire.”
The Bengali designer takes pride in having her tailors in the same space as the clothes she sells. Customers have access to them and can ask them any questions they wish and they get paid slightly above market rate. They also only work from 10:30 a.m. to 5:45 p.m. (trains typically leave at 6 p.m.) to get back home to spend their evening with their families.
“In this tailoring industry here in Calcutta, there’s a very high turnover. It’s very common for people’s tailors to leave without any notice,” Meghna adds. “My tailors have been with me for over four years and I really think that one of the facts is that they get their evenings at home with their family.”
The issues linked to fast fashion both ethical and environmental are often hard for European or American customers to notice as the production often takes place in far-away countries. Ali from Blue Ben, however, emphasises that we are all starting to actually feel the consequences of our throw-away culture.
“The more the environment is polluted there and the climate change destroys the livelihoods, the more people have to come to us. Where else should they go?” he asks. “The solution can certainly not be to stop everything there overnight after we have made these countries dependent on our consumption. But to shift even more production there, we think is also wrong.”
But Blue Ben doesn’t want to just leave countries like Bangladesh behind and that’s why they launched DRIP BY DRIP, the world’s first NGO founded to tackle the water crisis in the fashion and textile industry.
“DRIP BY DRIP was born out of Blue Ben with the vision to tackle the water issue in a second way. Instead of just saving water with our fabrics we also wanted to take responsibility for our past, meaning trying to help countries like Bangladesh to clean their wastewater. This is how Drip by Drip came to life.”
“It is the ‘Water Giving’ part of Blue Ben. We also realised that there was no NGO or organisation that tackled this big problem in these countries. So it was inevitable for us to stay with the idea of building such an organisation from scratch.”
Water is something that Meghna considered carefully when launching her own business. She did all the research looking at the impact of bamboo fibre and organic cotton but realised that they both required a huge amount of water. Upcycling then came to her mind as the best alternative to leave the smallest carbon footprint possible and still maintain her environmental credentials intact.
Used to being a very westernised Indian teenager, Meghna had never given sarees many thoughts and as a kid, she didn’t even want to wear them. Little did she imagine that she would end up launching a business upcycling them one day.
Her light bulb moment came when she turned to her mum for thoughts on what her sustainable business could be. Her mum extracted a few sarees from a cupboard and told her “Why don’t you experiment with these?”
“This to me was a revelation! Basically instead of looking outward,” explains Meghna, “I started looking inward to my own country for inspiration and I looked so far inward that I looked inside my mother’s closet literally.”
The global rise of upcycling also seems to be followed quite closely by a new enthusiasm for second-hand clothing. Fashion Revolution’s recent consumer survey of 5,000 people aged 16-75 in the five largest European markets showed that since 2016 the second-hand clothing industry has increased by 22.5%.
“This is kind of astonishing really,” says Sienna, “because I think traditionally a lot of second-hand clothing charity shop shopping had a very negative connotation and [shopping in charity shops] was deemed to be not as much of a value as buying something new. I think there is a shift and a paradigm towards moving towards second-hand clothing because of environmental reasons.”
Nicola also thinks that this shift is important and believes that habituating children to the idea of buying clothes from charity shops is essential to change the current mindset that encourages teenagers to buy a different brand new outfit every time they decide to go out.
“I have a model with my kids that we shop in charity shops for our clothes and if we want something new we will pick a more ethical brand,” she explains. “They’re just totally happy with it! They’re getting older now but they’re still totally happy with it because it’s just the way we do it so they just follow suit. I think you just have to teach your kids that you are not a throw-away type person.”
In addition to second-hand clothing, textile recycling is also flourishing. Bryony has noticed that a lot of exciting research is currently being done around recycling textile fibres which is basically “taking clothes and shredding them down to chemicals that you can then recycle into new textiles”.
Universities in the UK also seem to become slowly more aware of the importance of sustainability within the fashion industry and degrees are starting to incorporate it within their fashion training.
Bryony adds: “Last year we had four times as many student enquiries to help with projects to do with sustainability or the repair culture. That shows how much the universities are, really slowly I have to say, starting to incorporate that into fashion courses and design courses which I think is amazing.”
While it’s great to see universities and brands jump on the bandwagon in terms of ethical and sustainable fashion, other stakeholders need to get involved as well for a global change to happen.
“Our findings from our consumer report was that people think that it’s not only the brands that need to be doing something,” says Sienna, “it’s the governments and policymakers.”
That’s why Fashion Revolution works with policymakers and other stakeholders to make sure that different voices are being taken into account. It’s crucial that customers start asking the right questions explains Meghna but “it’s all very niche and it needs to blow up”.
“It needs to be more widespread and that’s why we need top-down governmental laws! If we could just have some laws in place for instance about the production of cotton that itself would have a huge impact.”
Regulations and news laws by governments have the potential to bring on global change but we, customers, still have the power to force them to take notice. What we decide to buy sends a message. Just look at the recent boom of veganism and how it’s already impacting on the food industry in the UK, with beloved brands such as Greggs even launching vegan sausage rolls.
So if you’re wondering what to buy, Ali recommends that you ask yourself the following questions: What is the story of this product? Why was it made? What is for? And just remember that: “In the short run we as customers, small brands and activists could lead the way.”