A popular anecdote that’s currently making its way around the fashion industry is this: apparently, farmers living in parts of China joke about being able to tell what colour will be ‘in’ next season – by looking at the shade of their rivers.
There’s nothing funny about this joke, of course. But it's an interesting example of why you can’t separate ethical from sustainable fashion. It’s a sustainability issue that rivers are being poisoned, and an ethical one that people living in those areas are being denied fresh water in the name of fast fashion. Unsustainable fashion raises huge ethical issues.
But the big question any activist will have asked themselves is this: Do you work against big corporations and try to push them into undertaking better environmental practices? Or do you work with them? Orsola de Castro is one of these activists. She’s been instrumental in the ethical fashion movement, most recently as the founder and creative director of Fashion Revolution; an annual event which takes place every April in memoriam of the Rana Plaza tragedy.
Orsola thinks the answer is that it’s better to work with the big brands than against them. “I take the view that we need to have a dialogue with all brands in order to encourage change, whether these brands are high street or high end,” she says. “Brands such as M&S, H&M, ASOS, Gap and Puma are investing a lot in sustainable solutions and transparency: this isn't to say that we need to thank them for it – after all, it’s about time – but I believe that acknowledging their work can have a positive effect, as it encourages those brands that are doing nothing at all to follow.”
In 2006, Orsola cofounded a British Fashion Council initiative called Estethica, a showcase for labels designing sustainably, which she curated until 2014. But she’s been at the forefront of this conversation for considerably longer. And while it can seem from the outside that we're just going round in circles – the most we see of retailers facing up to ethical issues within their supply chains is the odd limited-run sustainable collection – Orsola says that behind the scenes, change is happening quicker than we realise.
“The reason why you feel that the conversations are stuck in the mud is because they’re not being well communicated,” she suggests. “In terms of young designers and production we have seen massive change. We are embedding this into the way that they think and we know for a fact, as Fashion Revolution and as practitioners of this side of the industry, that this conversation is moving forward.”
So why, to us as consumers, does it seem that nothing has really changed? “What’s been stuck in the mud is the question of, ‘Is this green, is this eco?’ and this conversation is very, very outdated,” she says. “We need to talk about sustainability for what it is. It needs to be erudite. Sustainability is complex and this complexity should not be frightening or limiting. It should be a source of inspiration. It should ensure that every one of us has a way of taking part.”
As always, the internet has a lot to answer for. As trends have travelled faster and retailers have reached wider audiences, so demand has grown and grown and prices have been driven down. This is why the 80% of garment workers that are women have been forced to work unforgivable shifts for barely any money: factories are forced to cut corners to lower their prices and keep the business of the fast fashion giants who buy from them, and the easiest cost to cut is that of the workers.
But beyond making us buy more stuff, there’s something else the internet is good at: getting us to look at the ugly underbelly of the industries that are damaging the planet and the people on it, whether that's through a viral video or a trending hashtag. “Through the rise of eyewitness exposés from groups such as PETA, which are shared by millions on social media, consumers are starting to understand that leather and wool production are no less cruel than the fur industry” says Elisa Allen, director of PETA UK.
Sustainability is complex and this complexity should not be frightening or limiting. It should be a source of inspiration.
Orsola de Castro
If you have a smartphone – and research suggests that by 2020, 6.1 billion people worldwide will – you can share footage from anywhere. Like from inside factories, for example. Front-line civilian reporting has the potential to hold everyone accountable for irresponsible business practices.
And responsible business practices are not just a nice thing to have to help ethically minded fashion fans sleep at night, they’re increasingly a must-have for investors. Earlier this month, financial services giant Legal & General wrote to 84 global companies to warn that it will vote against board chairmen at businesses that fail to prepare for a move to a greener economy.
Global warming, animal rights and human rights are all tied up together. And looking at the whole picture is a better (if more depressing) way of understanding how our fashion choices impact the world. “Between the toxic chemicals, water, and energy required to grow and transport food for the animals, run the factory farms, dispose of the tonnes of waste they produce, take them to slaughter, transport their skins to tanneries or their pelts to auction – and later on to factories to be turned into coats or other fashion apparel – every part of the process involves treating animals like unfeeling pieces of fabric,” continues Elisa. “These practices are destroying our planet while inflicting unimaginable suffering on millions upon millions of animals.”
Beware of greenwashing, though. A label doesn’t always tell the truth and a recycling campaign that encourages you simply to buy more clothes isn’t even a plaster – it's reinforcing the problem, twofold. Elisa worries that brands are not being honest enough, even though consumers are demanding better. “Fashion houses and brands that continue to use animal skins are undoubtedly feeling the pressure to respond to consumers' demands for compassionate clothing, and consequently they try to hide cruelty behind misleading labels such as 'Origin Assured' and 'Responsibly Sourced'.”
For a long time now, people working in ethical fashion have speculated that the industry is going the same way as food: with increasing demand for transparent supply chains and locally sourced produce. If this is true, it’s happening so slowly that it’s not even visible to the naked eye. “I think consumers and people are a bit selfish," reflects Orsola. “We care about what we put inside our bodies, and now people are just beginning to care about what they put on them.”
It’s easy to watch a 90-minute documentary, swear to veganism and promise to buy clothes you’ll wear forever. It’s a lot harder to see how you can actually make a difference as one human being.
“This is a conversation of such magnitude that people can be dwarfed by it,” suggests Orsola. “But I think attitudes are shifting now. We’re seeing activism as something that really does reap results. People are beginning to understand that small actions have a huge impact. The conversation is becoming more eloquent.”
Hopefully a significant push from the people buying the clothes could result in a big effect on the companies selling them. By making fashion ethical, it will become sustainable, too. Positive change will affect the lives of garment workers, it will affect the animals who suffer for our fashion and it will affect the people who rely on those colourful rivers for their livelihood.