Ethical fashion needs a rebrand

Eco Sessions The Crisis of Stuff Event, London 2016

For the first in the London series of ManifEco's EcoSessions, Kate Black pulled together a panel of ethical industry faces to discuss 'The Crisis of Stuff' which was hosted at the Dalston branch of London's favourite vintage store, Beyond Retro. Fashion Revolution founder, Orsola de Castro, textile designer and academic, Rebecca Earley and Beyond Retro CEO, Steven Bethell joined Kate in discussing the the fashion industry's current epidemic of glut. With over 150 billion garments manufactured each year, we are consuming fashion at a rate we can't sustain, so what are we doing to change it?

Ethical fashion needs a rebrand

After a hour of heated discussion, it was clear that despite the subject matter being torn into three directions, one thing is for sure; ethical fashion needs a rebrand. The economical values and even the immediate strategy for achieving a sustainable fashion industry might be hotly debated, but it's our cultural perception that is stunting any development.

Educate, educate, educate

If there is one thing that all three exerts agree on it's that the general public's understanding of how to discard clothes is still very limited. From Steven's point of view "the first crisis of stuff is that people are just discarding [clothes] and not recycling them". In America alone less than 30% of clothes are recycled, which, Rebecca agrees, "in an age where we have the technology to recycle mixed fibres" this just shouldn't be the case. With only a third of the carbon footprint of a garment happening in the production stage, an after-life strategy for clothes is absolutely critical. From recycled fibres to vintage clothes to up-cycled garments, consumers need to close the loop on the lifecycle of their clothes.

The misinformed perception that some clothes do not have an after-life is something Kate is also concerned about. At a textile waste conference in Canada she heard some research conducted "with young women and moms about what they would do with their unwanted textiles. They found out women that were buying on the high-street were embarrassed to recycle it because they thought it was 'crap'. So right of the bat, the perception when they bought it, was it did not have an after life".

Orsola believes this perception is a cultural responsibility. We have raised a culture that deems shopping a 'hobby' and have never been asked to question the history of their clothes. "The fact that we can recycle fibre means the process is reversible, it's completely reversible, but this is cultural and cultural is a movement, it changes... I believe it is possible to teach another culture, teach another message. I think we've already seen it, with people who are bored with just buying clothes and spending more on experiences." Orsola also believes "our solutions are as individual as the people that we are" meaning there is the drive, knowledge and passion to generate change, we just need to harness it.

Fashion is political

Around the world legislation in the fashion industry still needs a lot of reform, in terms of import, export, disposal, working conditions, environmental impact and many more. But that doesn't mean the desire to change amongst people isn't alive. No matter where you look back to, fashion is and has always been a reflection of the time. Orsola describes how in China, to wear second hand clothes is bad luck so culturally not something people are 'allowed' to do. However her fashion students at a Hong Kong university desperately want to up-cycle which is their form of rebellion. "I think we are looking at a magical moment where fashion is politicised and where fashion has won quite a few battles. Look back to the peace sign on jeans, when hippies wore it in protest of the Vietnam war... Fashion is linked with strong messaging, so just imagine if responsibility became trendy and desirable."

Rebecca believes we should take this voice one step further. By teaming up with the big business leaders of the fashion industry, the messaging in your product development can impact how businesses use sustainable methods in a much more direct way. Instead of always pushing back on the industry, work together with the people who hold the keys to some of the biggest impact in the industry.

We have the technology, now what?

We have an abundance of 'stuff'. That is for sure. But how do we use innovative design to use it and close the loop? All three speakers have worked with big brands in selling upcycled products and using remnant fabric to produce new clothes but it is tapping into those big high street brands that Rebecca believes is the key to seeing the most immediate change; "rather than growing cotton and making a garment, have several people wear it and then discard it, compost it, burn it and landfill it, now you can regenerate it. The chemistry exists to recycle every kind of fibre type, molecularly dividing it up. So you're beginning to see factories that manufacture the clothes feed that regenerated stock back through... If the brands looks at the material resources in terms of savings we won't have the impact from growing cotton, we'll have closed loop chemical impact, which will be contained."

Rebecca's ideas are realistic in that we are generations of shoppers who have developed bad, fast-fashion habits. These aren't habits that we will see die quickly. But then again, why do they have to if we're reducing the massive environmental impact it takes to produce a garment from seed? Not all garments are built to last a lifetime. It's about the 'rhythm' of clothes and finding a balance between all of these methods.

Making ethical fashion sexy

In the closing lecture of the Copenhagen summit this year, the message was to make ethical clothing 'sexy'. As humans we have always looked up to hero's and role models. For this generation they come in the form of a celebrity culture fuelled by social media. So, should the ethical fashion world give people what they want? Should we embrace how people are responding to information and use the powerful celebrity status as spokespeople for the movement or should we encourage idealistic thinking and run the risk of never seeing change? Well, I think the answer is both.

I truly believe that the world is changing far faster than we think. If social media and even the Internet is still in it's infancy, the way we are interacting with information is also very volatile. Over the past ten years alone we have seen worries over the impact technology has had on the print industry, music and shopping. But after the initial excitement of a Kindle, Spotify and Asos, we have also seen people return to indie publishing, vinyl sales flying through the roof and people still pounding the high street. In order to glamorise ethical fashion we don't need to adopt the Kardashian's or even Leonardo DiCaprio image, but we might look to people like (the already proactive) Emma Watson. A desire for long term change and short term solutions can co-exist.

Change has to come from all angles. Orsola and her team at Fashion Revolution use ideology to keep pressure on the industry to make change we may not see for generations. Whilst Rebecca is looking at science and practical methods we can adopt now to see an immediate impact. The economy would of course collapse without the concerned entrepreneurs like Steven to encourage healthy consuming but ensuring responsible practise.

This boiling pot of ideas is what makes the ethical fashion movement so exciting. We are all working for the same result but each take a very different journey. The movement is a very fine balancing act that would collapse without each other.

Find out more about EcoSessions and future talks in London and New York on their website ecosessions.co