Sustainability, cocktails and the V&A
On Thursday evening, V&A members and their friends convened in the Members Room for an evening of inspiring discussion about fashion and sustainability (and fair trade cocktails).
The main event was a talk followed by a Q&A from Orsola de Castro the co-founder of Fashion Revolution. Her key takeaway message was that it is down to us to take responsibility for the origin of our clothes.
The origins story
Orsola explained that Fashion Revolution really began with the Rana Plaza disaster. As she put it, when that happened, "we all woke up and realised this isn’t acceptable." She reminded the audience that the garment workers were aware that the building wasn't safe but despite their complaints, they were told that everything is fine and were forced to continue working there.
Since then, The Fashion Revolution site, fashion week and movement have been established around the world.
The focus is on helping consumers and businesses to make ethical and sustainable choices throughout the supply chain. The website has a large range of resources include a Fanzine and a lot of high quality material.
The call to arms Orsola pointed out that every day everyone makes a decision about how they interact with the fashion supply chain. Consequently, people power is enormous and can help to sway both brands and the government. She stated that 150 billion clothing garments are produced every year. 78% of which are quickly discarded. (Following a bit of googling, this stat appears to originate with a 2013 report so the figure may be even higher today.)
To help reduce the environmental impact of this throw away culture, we need to change mindset to one of "mindfully interacting with the clothes". This is a challenge for a culture which has embraced consumerism - particularly when a lot of consumerism is, frankly, fun(!) and where it is often unclear whether an ethical stance in one area is good across the board. For example, vegan leather is good from an animal rights perspective but often bad from an environmental perspective. With so many competing issues for consumers to consider, is it any wonder than so many switch off?
For those who do want to engage, and in particular for people in the fashion supply chain who can make a more immediate impact, there are lots of resources available for free on the fashion revolution website.
The Q&A Several questioners pointed out that Orsola was literally preaching to the converted! But whilst the audience was more able to make responsible clothing choices, the same is not true for everyone and the lure of cheap, fast fashion can be hard for people to resist, particularly if they do not have a lot of disposable income. Orsola pointed out that second hand clothing is the key. It is the most sustainable form of fashion as the goods have already been made and they are simply getting a second lease of life. Teaching the next generation how to alter these clothes to meet modern sensibilities or fit different body shapes can be both educational and fun.
This is definitely true, but it requires a consistent level of input both in terms of education and inspiration which may be hard to achieve. That said, I've noticed mending shops popping up around Soho so maybe this is the start of a wider trend? One of the attendees runs an online clothes swap for kids which enables them to share clothes and get site credit. They are also running an education programme. Whilst this is incredibly laudable, it is would be a shame if the online service cannibalises the local market. When I was growing up, sharing second hand clothes was a more localised process which was often linked to churches and community centres. This avoided any transportation costs but did put a lot of pressure onto people to organise and store the items on a voluntary basis. Also, the items tended to be donated and sold for a small fee in a similar way to a charity shop rather than swapped.
Orsola had many great aphorisms which she sprinkled across the evening. The one which resonated the most was: The future is not designing clothes, it is designing systems. As she put it, swapping and renting clothes are the future. (I completely agree and am looking forward to Rent the Runway launching in the UK!)
One of the big issues with renting is the price point - it is much more applicable for occasion wear which is expensive to buy and store and worn infrequently. For daily items, the model is less useful - but that's where swapping and repair shops can come in. Whilst cheap items can appear more economic, in the long run, investing in quality usually pays off. But convincing people of that can take a while! The Fashion Transparency Index
One of Fashion Revolution's greatest gifts to the world is the Fashion Transparency Index. It is easy to bash fast fashion but in fact many fast fashion retailers have taken major steps to improve and whilst no one has scored over 60% using their methodology, major brands such as H&M and Asos are steadily improving. As Orsola noted, the High Street tends to do a lot better than a lot of the luxury brands.
The Conduit Club
I had the pleasure of going to The Conduit Club for the first time this week as a guest of the wonderful Ubuntu Pathways. Having never heard of them before last week, they are now popping up in almost every conversation I have. The Conduit is focused on social enterprise and social change so it should have been no surprise that Fashion Revolution is collaborating with the Maiyet Collective, the force behind the Conduit, to focus on on bio diversity on the High Street.
Orsola's vision of the future is a high street which has mending and unknown designers building new items and generating creativity again. This environment could support young designers and focus on long term items which last many decades into the future.
It was time for another great Orsola aphorism: Fashion isn’t a one night stand; it’s with you for life!
Packaging We all know that plastic is less than ideal for oceans and the wider environment but clothes need to be stored and alternatives to plastic packaging are hard to come by, particularly ones which are robust enough to withstand being left outside on a doorstep and returned.
The audience had some packaging solutions including clever uses of recyclable cardboard but this can still be less than ideal.
Orsola argued that you can’t make lack of availability be the barrier to finding what want but for startups, there are so many competing demands on time. This can means that tracking down the perfect packaging is something which falls into the nice to have pile. Less than ideal but for sustainable brands to survive, then need to be successful in the first place. Many of the answers lie in incremental improvements and not trying to do everything from the start.
Influencers for sustainability One final thought concerned the importance of influencers to the modern fashion industry and the importance of figures like the Kardashians focusing more on the long term impact of the brands they endorse. This is something that many influencers have become aware of but it is a slow process and depends on consumer demand.
One person who has been particularly impressive in promoting sustainable fashion is Meghan Markle who made a point of making ethical and sustainable choices on her Australia trip and consequently gave many businesses such as Veja a major boost.
This shows that it's not just about influencers, everyone in the public eye has a part to play and the opportunity to promote positive choices in the clothes that they wear.
Orsola's final words of wisdom concerned the question of whether sustainability is a fad. As she put it, "sustainability has been trending for billions of years; excess is the fad which needs to pass."
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