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Why we need a fashion revolution – now

As Fashion Revolution Week kicks off today, its organisers tell us why we need to ditch the apathy and start caring about clothing

On Wednesday April 24, 2013, the garment industry faced one of its biggest-ever disasters as the Rana Plaza complex collapsed in Bangladesh, leaving over 1,100 dead and over 2,500 more seriously injured. The collapse shed light on the appalling conditions faced by garment workers that churn out fast fashion for high streets worldwide – it was soon revealed that these workers would work 12-hour days to earn a salary of only £25 per month.

As details trickled out, various brands were named and shamed for their exploitation of these services. Sexism in the factories was also revealed, with one female worker explaining how the women would be made to “dance like puppets”, their complaints ignored. These conditions struck a chord with Orsola de Castro and Carry Somers, both of whom had spent time developing their own sustainable brands and who saw Rana Plaza as a catalyst for change. Their response was Fashion Revolution, a movement challenging conditions in the fashion industry and raising awareness of fast fashion’s human and environmental impact.

Despite their clever use of hashtags to unite inquisitive consumers, the duo are keen to point out that the movement isn’t just online. The message of Fashion Revolution has come to high-profile events in the European Union, G7, United Nations and COP21, and this year there will be a week of events, starting today with a special fashion Question Time in Parliament. Progress is being made, but with the recent shift towards see-now buy-now once again increasing the pace of the industry, there remains work to be done. We talked to the founders of Fashion Revolution to see what they have planned for this week, and what they think of sustainability in the modern fashion industry.

What are the problems you’re looking to address with Fashion Revolution?

Carry Somers: There are vast social and environmental problems, and we believe we can’t address them until we have a more transparent industry. We know the industry is exploitative and environmentally damaging, but before we can address those issues we need more transparency.

Orsola de Castro: We’re seeing a new culture around fashion which instigates this huge consumption. It’s becoming more untraceable – the more brands move production to developing countries, the less we understand it. On top of this, we’re seeing a generation disinterested in spending time doing anything. So we have fast fashion: quickly buying, quickly disposing. We need to encourage a connection between the people who make our clothes and a change in the way we buy our clothes. As a result, we can slow down the beast and start appreciating fashion for what it really is, which is a wonderful industry with a potential to lead.

“We think fast fashion is like a one-night stand, and the rest is more like a committed relationship” – Orsola de Castro

What can the average consumer do to rectify these problems?

Orsola de Castro: The consumer needs to feel there’s a massive problem, but it’s difficult to say what each consumer can do, because we’re talking fashion and everyone has a different style and different interests. Sustainability in fashion, sustainability in general, is complex. We should celebrate that complexity and appreciate there’s something in this for everybody. From making to campaigning, there are hundreds of ways to be involved – for example our #Haulternative, a response to YouTube haulers. It’s a simple, downloadable pack which will change ideas on how to enjoy fashion without leaving a lasting impact on our people and planet.

Carry Somers: Also, ask that question – ‘Who made my clothes?’ Everyone can do that. All the clothes we’re wearing have a label, a country of origin. We need to apply pressure. It’s a question which brands should be able to answer, and currently, they either can’t or won’t. That’s our main focus, to apply pressure and ask brands to publicly acknowledge their supply chain. People can do it on social media, email or ask a shop assistant, but it’s about changing the mainstream to see a more sustainable industry.

What made you decide to start Fashion Question Time and take this initiative to Parliament?

Carry Somers: We had a Fashion Question Time last year, and it was a very successful event. We worked very closely with Mary Creagh MP, and after the event last year she said she wanted to make it annual, in order to set a roadmap for the British fashion industry and for its overseas suppliers. We have to see what changes need to take place and what policymakers can do, so that was really how the event started. This year we have around 150 guests attending, and we’ve got an even bigger room and, again, a high-profile panel. We’re really starting to tackle some of these gritty issues and see what MPs and citizens and brands can do about them.

Orsola de Castro: The other thing about Fashion Question Time is that we’ve got a very varied audience. We’re not fearful of inviting anyone, from press through to young designers, because the attitude of younger brands has changed recently. I’m practitioner-in-residence for Central Saint Martins’ MA, so I work with some really hot young talents, and their interest and commitment in working sustainably has more than trebled over the last five years. We’re seeing the winner of the L’Oréal Prize work sustainably, and we’re seeing initiatives like Selfridges’ Bright New Things, which was won by Katie Jones. I’ve been mentoring Jones for years, and she works completely sustainably. Then there’s Kiko Kostadinov, one of the coolest young guys. He’s about to sign a two-season deal with Dover Street Market, and he wants to work sustainably too, so the most exciting names in London right now are tackling the issue.

The same thing is happening in New York, Japan, potentially even Hong Kong – the new breed wants to be low-impact and it wants to be political. Magazines such as 1Granary have been covering sustainable solutions almost consistently for the last year, so these designs and this communication merge into a fashion that is sustainable. This is what Fashion Revolution does best – it brings together those voices. It’s about joining the dots and collaborating creatively in terms of policy in order to make change happen.

“Ask that question – ‘Who made my clothes?’ All the clothes we’re wearing have a label, a country of origin. We need to apply pressure. It’s a question which brands should be able to answer, and currently, they either can’t or won’t” – Carry Somers

The fashion system is shifting towards see-now, buy-now. What do you think of this?

Orsola de Castro: In many ways it’s the best thing that’s ever happened, because it creates a huge split between enormous fashion and young designers. There’s no way that a Christopher Raeburn or a Faustine Steinmetz can be ready to sell right now. This will change the whole panorama of the fashion weeks, because now we need an alternative. This is an impossible feat to achieve. For a young designer, the period in between being seen by buyers and having their collections ready is vital. It’s when you talk to your seamstresses, or tweak your last patterns. It’s when you learn your craft. That’s when you are a fashion designer. In terms of fast fashion, it’s made it even faster, of course. It used to be that you had to wait at least, what, two weeks? Now you don’t have to wait at all. We think fast fashion is like a one-night stand, and the rest is more like a committed relationship.

Can people buy sustainably on a budget?

Carry Somers: A few years ago, a survey entitled ‘See Through Fashion’ found that people would be willing to pay an extra 5 per cent for their clothes if there was a guarantee that the workers had been paid fairly and were working in paid conditions. It’s generally accepted that it would put as little as 25p on to the cost of garment made in Bangladesh to pay the producers a living wage and to make sure that all factories met the fire and building safety standards. So we’re not talking very much. When people go shopping they’re very likely to go and buy a Starbucks afterwards, which would be the same 25p on to all the garments in their bag.

Orsola de Castro: And let’s not forget about luxury fashion, which is often produced in factories just around the corner. The luxury market is renowned for being, potentially, even worse for paying the living wage. Are you really telling me people can’t afford to pay 70p more for a designer bag?