It’s Fashion Revolution Week
These are some of the women changing the face of the fashion industry. Baroness Lola Young of Hornsey, a former social worker, is chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Ethics and Sustainability in Fashion, Mary Creagh MP is chair of the Environment Audit Committee who earlier this year published a report Fixing Fashion, (‘The first parliamentary report with a pink dress on the front,’ explained Creagh, ‘You take your wins where you can.’) and Orsola de Castro is one of the co-founders of Fashion Revolution, the organisation challenging brands about their unethical treatment of people and the planet and asking the question, ‘Who made my clothes?’ They are leading experts in fashion and sustainability – and they didn’t mind being herded out of the V&A lecture theatre after an in-depth panel discussion to have their photos taken for That’s Not My Age. Result.
As part of Fashion Revolution Week, the V&A staged a ‘Fashion Question Time’, chaired by Baroness Lola Young. This event usually takes place at the House of Commons but this year it was moved across London and opened up to the public. Other panellists included: Laura Balmond, project manager at Ellen MacArthur Foundation, Mark Sumner, lecturer in Sustainability, Fashion & Retail at the University of Leeds and Hendrik Alpen, sustainability engagement manager at H&M (who was wearing a jacket made from recycled ocean plastic). An expert discussion on the future of the fashion industry and the need to build a more sustainable future; count me in.
The main message from the experts is that we need to change the system. Fast. In the week that 16-year-old Greta Thunberg (in a speech at Westminster) criticised the UK’s ‘active support of shale gas fracking….mind-blowing carbon debt… and very creative carbon accounting,’ Creagh admitted that, ‘The policy space in this country has been crowded out by the Brexit psycho-drama. We’ve had the Extinction Rebellion protests and Greta Thunberg talking about climate change but we need radical action. We’re at a unique moment when the public are dragging parliament forward. We have a historic and moral duty to reduce carbon emissions. The appetite for change is there.’
The current fashion industry model and the culture of overproduction and overconsumption is not sustainable. ‘The amount of clothes produced is rapidly increasing – and we are using clothes 40% less,’ pointed out Laura Balmond, ‘We need a huge systemic rethink.’ In the UK, WRAP estimates that £140m worth of clothing goes into landfill every year. ‘Everything that we do to the earth, we do to ourselves,’ said Mary Creagh.
The Ellen MacArthur Foundation ‘works with business, government and academia to build a framework for an economy that is restorative and regenerative by design.’ They are big on the circular economy, in this instance, returning unwanted garments by recycling or ‘disassembling’ back into the system. Apparently, brands can process about 70% of the clothes returned in this way.
People power can have an impact. In her introduction Baroness Lola Young recommended that we, ‘Consume less, take better care of our clothes and keep them longer’ – gave myself a pat on the back here, as that is the That’s Not My Age way. And we can also push brands to take more responsibility for their actions, though as the panel agreed, this needs to be backed up by legislation. ‘Technically there are lots of solutions but there’s no motivation,’ added Mark Sumner, ‘ We have the opportunity to change this and legislation plays an important role.’ There is a lot of work going on behind the scenes according to Creagh, but even so, ‘Only 10 major retailers are part of the Environmental Action Plan.’
The panel spoke of the huge diversity across the industry, it’s not just fast fashion brands but luxury brands, too, who need to improve their working practises. Today, Fashion Revolution published a Transparency Index of the top 200 biggest global fashion brands based on ‘how much information they disclose publicly about their human rights and environmental policies, practices and impacts’.
Mark Sumner made an interesting point, ‘The fashion industry has been around for thousands of years. It plays an important role in self-esteem and identity, plays an important part in our lives. But we can’t stick with the model we have at the moment, we need to change. The Modern Slavery Bill is a good starting point but we need more legislation. More innovative structures in place to penalise businesses – the responsibility needs to be across the whole system.’
Not only did Creagh turn up on a bicycle, but she highlighted the wider impact of the current situation, ‘This is not just an environmental emergency, it’s a social emergency.’ Going on to discuss the importance of supporting local communities both in the UK and in the countries where garment manufacturing takes place. She spoke of her Wakefield constituency, devastated by the demise of the mining industry, and the government’s need to take a more joined-up approach. Emphasising the assistance required by small independent retailers when big companies move out of small towns, ‘Look at the taxation system and business rates – property owners screwing businesses.’ And of austerity and child poverty, ‘Incentivise schools to recycle uniforms for families on low incomes. Fashion is not just for the rich, I feel very passionately about that.’
Journalist Tasmin Blanchard is part of the Fashion Revolution team, here she suggests seven ways to get involved.
Photographs by Annie Johnston