Sarah is the Head of Policy at Fashion Revolution. This conversation between Sarah and Intent Editor, Sigrid McCarthy, took place in London in May 2018.
Were you involved in Fashion Revolution at its inception in 2013?
Yes, I became involved during the Summer of 2013. At the time I was working at the Ethical Fashion Forum, which used to hold a conference every year in July called Source Summit. This event brought industry together from around the world to discuss sustainability in fashion; it was there that I started chatting to Carry Somers and Orsola de Castro about what would eventually become Fashion Revolution.
The original idea, which we didn’t have a name for at the time, was to organise an acknowledgment of the Rana Plaza garment factory collapse each year on its anniversary (24 April) as a way to remember the victims and ensure the story was more than just a news cycle. We wanted to use this tragedy to spur on faster, bigger, systemic change and to facilitate an international conversation. Carry and Orsola asked me whether I would be open to being involved on behalf of the Ethical Fashion Forum, so I began volunteering at Fashion Revolution alongside full-time work. This lasted three years until I transitioned to full-time at Fashion Revolution in May 2016.
Do you believe the garment industry has experienced significant, meaningful change since the Rana Plaza factory collapse? Not just in terms of consumer awareness but also in the behaviour of businesses?
Yes and no. I do think that transparency, in terms of the principal and the approach, has become almost the rule rather than the exception. It has become a new norm for businesses. There are still many brands, retailers and others in the industry that are not working in a transparent manner, but certainly among the leaders transparency has become the way of working. This shift has been growing over the past five years.
Is this shift due to businesses now seeing the benefits of operating transparently, or because there has been increasing pressure?
It is a combination of the two. Rana Plaza was a watershed moment for the industry, a real wake up call. Although we all knew that the prevailing auditing approach was broken and not really fit for purpose anymore, the Rana Plaza collapse demonstrated this in a terrible, tragic and very visible way. At one point in time, the building was certified by the Business Social Compliance Initiative (BSCI) and yet still collapsed. Obviously there is a complete communication breakdown and a verification monitoring breakdown too.
Brands have a genuine fear of being caught in that situation again and want to ensure that something like that never happens again. If they are going to solve the problems that continually lead to factory accidents, then they have to try something different and collaborate a lot more. Transparency is very much about collaboration, or opening yourself up to collaborating with other stakeholders and peers…Anyone with information that can be helpful for that company in question. So I think that is partially the impetus, a way for people to reach out and acknowledge that they need help solving these problems.
The increasing pressure from consumers, civil society groups and, of course, Fashion Revolution has also been a factor. We’ve had other campaigning efforts over the years which have added to this movement, including The Transparency Pledge which was really effective in moving the needle.
Some fast fashion companies invest significant resources into industry research and development (R&D), with a focus on innovation and sustainability. These same brands, however, continue to ignore the overall environmental and social impact of their core business model and production methods. Do you see scope for fast fashion brands to drive positive change in the industry?
These brands aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, so they have to be part of the solution. They hold a huge amount of responsibility for creating the industry that we all live with today. They are also a massive source of employment for people who need jobs and financial emancipation in developing countries. Of course they should be striving towards providing good jobs, not just any jobs. They should be decently paid, fair wage jobs. Ultimately these brands have a responsibility and we need them to help drive change by investing in R&D and developing worker and community empowerment programs. This is critical.
On the other side of the coin, they do need to be addressing the issues of their underlying business model and at this stage it is pretty much remaining business as usual. The fact of the matter is, the industry uses too many resources, produces too many products and we as customers buy too much. And these brands continue to sell this narrative through marketing and the cheap prices we’re offered.
Now that needs to be tackled in a number of different ways. They are already investing in innovation, but at the end of the day they will also simply need to produce less stuff and slow down the rate at which clothing is made, bought and disposed of.
“Rana Plaza was a watershed moment for the industry, a real wake up call. Although we all knew that the prevailing auditing approach was broken and not really fit for purpose anymore, the Rana Plaza collapse demonstrated this in a terrible, tragic and very visible way.”
The conversation regarding circularity is exciting, but also seems premature. Almost as though we are jump cutting to a future that cannot yet be realised. Is it disingenuous of brands to communicate their engagement in the circular economy at this stage, when the recycling technology needed to achieve circularity is so far off?
This is why we confronted H&M a few years ago when they launched their recycling campaign. It is frustrating, because they were basically telling their customers that they would collect their old clothes and recycle them into brand new fibres and garments, when that is actually not the case. That technology doesn’t exist at scale yet. They were misleading their customers about the reality of what happens to their clothes when they get rid of them. Yes, some of the garments collected do get reused or recycled, but most of them don’t. They are often incinerated or dumped on other countries that are now beginning to ban the import of secondhand clothing. Or garments are downcycled into rags or stuffing, which is great, but inevitably these textiles will end up in landfill. To their credit, H&M did clarify how they’re communicating their recycling efforts so that it’s now a more accurate depiction of the reality.
We want people to be educated about the solutions that could potentially exist in future, and circularity is going to be one of the solutions. But we don’t want brands to mislead their customers or present circularity as some sort of panacea. This risks customers believing that they can continue to mindlessly consume, because there is a magical solution out there. Even if this solution does exist in the future, I’m still not convinced that it is going to be an ultimate utopia. We also need to consider the importance of designing products in new ways; of simply making less stuff and using fewer resources.
Tapping into the psychology of consumption and the need for everyone to understand their own values in order to engage in these issues, what does ‘ethical fashion’ mean to you?
I subscribe to the Ethical Fashion Forum’s original definition of the term, which is fashion that minimises its impact on the environment and maximises its impact on communities. At this stage I’d even go a little further by saying that ‘ethical fashion’ is fashion that restores the environment and maximises benefits to communities. For me it’s both of those things in tandem.
When shopping, what do you look for? Are there particular certifications you trust, do you only wear vegan products or secondhand or…?
It is still really hard for people shopping. I’m certainly not perfect, and my friends always ask me which brands they should support. I wish it was that cut and dry. When I am shopping I always try to buy from an independent designer or brand that has committed publicly to working in a more sustainable way, whatever that might mean. Certain issues in particular are more important to me, notably whether a brand has taken care of and provided opportunities for the people making their clothes. I don’t think that necessarily requires a certification, though obviously that helps you trust the brand more. It gives that extra level of verification.
I often buy Fair Trade certified products, or artisan made products, or at least from brands that tell the stories of the people working in their supply chain. I also often look for organic certifications, notably the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), because I believe that GOTS is a rigorous certification when it comes to environmental impact. I also support BlueSign as I know it is a rigorous chemical certification.
Does the UK have strict rules regarding chemicals in textiles?
We have to abide by the European Union (EU) laws, which are comparatively robust to many other countries. That said, there are still loads of nasty chemicals being used, such as chrome in leather handbags. The use of chemicals is one area though where I feel brands here have made significant progress, notably since the launch of Greenpeace’s Detox campaign. Most brands now seem to have a restricted substances list but, again, there are still many chemicals that we are unknowingly wearing on what is our largest organ: our skin.
How do you think Brexit will affect the garment industry?
For so long, the conversation has been about how we need common standards and how we need harmonisation. Well, that’s exactly what we had being part of the EU. We’re now waiting to see what Brexit will mean for British business and trade; what it will mean for campaigners who are trying to move the industry forward. It is going to be tricky and obviously at this stage it is all speculation, but I do think we’re fortunate to have the legacy of Theresa May’s Modern Slavery Act, as well as a government that still seems quite committed to the environment. They are pursuing the ban of diesel cars by 2040 and the ban of single use plastic, which is currently a huge environmental issue.
I think it is good that the government, even if they are lowering some standards and pursuing privatisation of our institutions, that some things won’t change too drastically post-Brexit. The next five to ten years will be an interesting time, to see how all of this plays out.
Fashion Revolution has a positively framed message and approach to driving change. How do you strike a balance between educating the public on the many atrocities while also inspiring them to do better?
When talking about the tough stuff, we try to always leave people with something they can do better. People will very happily hear the problems but unless they’re given a tangible solution or way of improving their impact, they’ll simply shut down. Even if it is the tiniest little thing like sewing a button back on, we always try to encourage people to make an effort. We also try to encourage people to go a little further by signing a petition, attending a demonstration or writing directly to a brand. Something that gets them active. It is the same thing with brands or policy makers…everybody is human and wants to do something positive for the world, it is just a matter of giving them options and showing them that it is possible to make a difference.
“When we have access to everything all of the time, that ‘stuff’ becomes a lot less valuable. I see this in many of my friends who have never really thought about their impact before. They now realise they don’t need five crappy things, they just need one good thing.”
Are there any particular business models or industry innovations that you are interested in?
I love the fact that more brands are working with artisan communities. That is such a tough task, working with ancient techniques or with rural communities that have a completely different socio-economic, cultural and maybe religious worldview. The idea of working with these communities to make their craft relevant in a modern day context is really exciting. I’m so glad to see more of this happening across brands.
I’m also excited by the new businesses models emerging around the sharing economy. The idea of renting clothes, for example, will be interesting to watch…whether that becomes part of the cultural norm. The negative connotations associated with secondhand clothing, at least in the UK, have subsided over the years and it has become more acceptable to wear pre-loved garments.
The likes of consignment stores, clothing libraries and secondhand shops allow this movement to be accessible to students, or those with less money to spend on clothes. This is obviously vital if we’re to ensure the ethical fashion movement doesn’t become elitist.
What are your thoughts on this false economy we seem to have fallen into, where we believe we’re getting a bargain but don’t take into account the longer term calculation? How do we encourage people to be aware of built-in obsolescence and consider notions such as ‘price per wear’?
Durability is a key part of sustainability, and Fashion Revolution strongly believes that ‘loved clothes last’. This was actually the name of our second zine issue, which was focused on changing people’s relationships with clothes. We want people to learn to love their clothes for longer; to take care of them better; to identify quality and durability; to treat their clothes with more respect.
At least in Western consuming countries, things are starting to change. Particularly among the younger generation. We have been hit with the global financial crisis and have less expendable income than our parents or grandparents did. This means we are spending less on amassing loads of goods, because we don’t have much space to store ‘stuff’. We’re living in smaller places and can’t afford to buy our own homes; we’re spending more money on experiences rather than ‘things’. This has started to affect the market and we’re now seeing more news articles about the struggle of retailers, such as Marks & Spencer and H&M, who are no longer thriving the way they used to.
People are starting to get fed up with owning so much stuff, it has become a burden. We don’t want to move house with loads of stuff and even charities don’t want our crap anymore—they’re overwhelmed with product. I believe all of this ties into the ‘wellbeing movement’. People are feeling bogged down with the weight of the world, in so many different ways. People want to simplify their lives. We as humans are naturally changing and becoming more discerning in the way we engage with the world—whether that’s via social media use, who we spend our time with, or how we spend our money.
When we have access to everything all of the time, that ‘stuff’ becomes a lot less valuable. I see this in many of my friends who have never really thought about their impact before. They now realise they don’t need five crappy things, they just need one good thing. The same with relationships—we don’t need five shitty friends, we just need one solid friend who is going to be there for us. We don’t need to go to all the parties, we just want to go to one fun party. We could apply this to all facets of our lives…
In terms of systemic change, what are some of the key things you believe need to be addressed?
Well obviously overconsumption and overproduction are two issues that need to be addressed immediately.
From a policy perspective, we need better enforcement of laws that already exist and are meant to protect our ecosystems and working people. We also need better regulation that puts brands on a level playing field.
In my opinion there are two things that could change things quite drastically, in the very near future. The first is mandatory due diligence, which requires companies to do proper human rights and environmental risk assessment across their supply chains and report on that annually. As well as having robust ramifications for not complying with this mandatory reporting. The second is extended producer responsibility legislation, which basically makes companies more responsible for the stuff they are producing. Especially when it comes to the environmental impact: the waste, the chemicals, the impact throughout their full value chain. Both of these things would have huge impacts on the way the system works.
While consumers do have a responsibility, and should be kept accountable for the decisions they make that affect the environment and communities around the world, I don’t believe the issues we’re facing have been ultimately caused by consumers. These problems have been created by the industry and by the structures that define how business is done. Yes, consumer psychology does need to change, but that is only going to change when industry and government set up systems to allow that to happen.
We’re constantly being bombarded with marketing messages and visuals that we see all day every day. Spend less, buy more, look a certain way, live a certain way… Until we don’t have those messages anymore, consumers aren’t going to drive the change that we need to see. It really has to be the government and the industry, the ones that write the rules.
Are you hopeful for the future?
Yes I am super hopeful! We are all citizens, and we all have elected officials who are responsible—or meant to be responsible—for ensuring that our interests are taken into account in policy making. Therefore, we can let them know what kind of world we want to live in and tell them that we want to live in a world where our clothes don’t negatively impact the environment or exploit people.
I believe that they are starting to listen through having the Modern Slavery Act legislation in the UK, California, Australia… By having mandatory due diligence legislation in Switzerland, France and potentially at the EU level. By having extended producer legislation in Scandinavia and other places. Governments are listening, we as citizens just need to speak up more and make our voices heard.