One of my favourite things about the ethical fashion community is finding out the 'origin story' of new brands and businesses; the lightbulb moment or slow realisation that led a person to their understanding of just how broken the current fashion system is, and their decision to do something positive to fix it.
For Roberta Lee, a stylist and self-confessed "former fast fashion junkie", it was the realisation that brands making beautiful clothes with ethical values and sustainability at their heart were much harder to find than their fast fashion counterparts. Tired of wasting time searching online, she set up the Ethical Brand Directory, a site that showcases stylish ethical brands and the people behind them.
The Ethical Brand Directory Live event was an opportunity to hear from ethically-minded entrepreneurs who don't want to compromise on style or sustainability, and to hear words of wisdom for anyone who wants to be a more ethical consumer.
Roberta Lee chatted with Bel Jacobs, a fashion journalist who now focuses on ethical fashion and sustainability.Bel emphasised the importance of buying from ethical brands if we want to see them succeed, and how worthwhile it is to keep increasing our knowledge of the subject, as it inevitably leads to us making positive changes in other aspects of our lives as we become more environmentally- and ethically-minded consumers.
I'm always impressed by the positive and supportive atmosphere the ethical fashion community has created on social media, so I was really pleased to hear Bel talking in terms of respect and compassion for everyone, including ourselves. While she was fashion editor at the Metro, she promoted trends that she now considers unethical, and she described the guilt she felt when she first learned more about ethical fashion. Roberta agreed that we need to make more thoughtful choices once we know more, but throwing away all our high-street purchases doesn't help as that only adds to the problem of clothes going to landfill.
Bel spoke about the need to reach out beyond the sphere of people who are already enthusiastic about ethical and sustainable fashion, wondering "how can I have more dialogues without freaking people out?" She had managed to get a discussion going about fur at a mainstream fashion event, which felt like progress, but had noticed how defensive people could get if directly confronted about their unethical fashion practices. She thinks gentle conversation is the way forward; we are all on a journey towards becoming more ethically-minded consumers, and we are all at different points on that journey, discovering more as we go along. Bel described the ”epiphanies” she had experienced that had led her to change her diet and lifestyle alongside her fashion habits.
When Roberta asked "how can we have a meaty discussion (without the meat)?", Bel was full of useful suggestions; she emphasised the power of social media in getting a positive message out to more people, and letting products speak for themselves. Beautiful design will appeal to customers in a way that scare tactics won't: too many dire warnings about the environment, and people will feel overwhelmed and won't do anything. She also spoke about the importance of collaboration over competition, especially with other women who are setting up other ethical businesses. At first Bel felt disheartened when she saw that someone else had set up a similar online ethical magazine to the one she was working on, but realised she could see the differences in their ventures as well as the similarities, meaning there was potential for wider audience reach and collaboration.
Roberta reminded the audience that comparison can be a confidence killer, to remember our purpose and see the success of others as an opportunity.
Bel was honest about the distance that ethical fashion brands have to go to compete with high street chains; she and Roberta discussed the necessity of being able to make a profit as an ethical brand. Even though the current fashion system isn't working and has led to great environmental destruction, the founders of ethical businesses still need to make a living so that they can continue to have an impact and disseminate their message. Bel also emphasised our power as consumers, advising us to ask established brands to make the changes we want to see, and encouraged us to complain more!
We heard from two ethical business owners: first up was Julie Kervadec, the co-founder of AmaElla lingerie, an underwear and nightwear brand that launched their first capsule collection of organic cotton clothing with a crowdfunding campaign.
Julie listed the top three selling points of her brand: the fabrics are responsibly sourced and earth-conscious, they are free from toxic dyes and chemicals, and the brand is focussed on long lasting quality. Her business idea was inspired by the lack of good quality, beautiful organic cotton lingerie available. She and her business partner were both frustrated with their corporate careers and wanted a more meaningful life. She had worked as a buyer for fast fashion brands and had experienced bad practice, so she wanted to set a higher standard with AmaElla.
Julie discussed the pitfalls of starting up a new small business with Roberta: the need to be resilient because everything that could go wrong, will go wrong! She described the challenges of finding factories to work with when she wasn't an established brand and wanted smaller minimum orders than high street shops, and the technicalities of textile manufacturing that can lead to product development taking longer and costing more money.
Ethical and sustainable business practices are at the heart of AmaElla for Julie: she has visited the factories she uses for manufacturing, and has checked every aspect of the supply chain, so she knows that every piece of trim on her products has been sustainably sourced. She operates a paperless office, and even cycles to work! She uses official organic cotton certifications for her products, and keeps consumers informed by detailing the company's story in their website. She is hopeful for the future of fashion, and described her dream of an industry where far more products are made to order (similar to the pre-order model of a crowdfunded collection) so fewer materials are wasted, and less unwanted clothing ends up in landfill.
We also heard from Charlie Ross, the founder of Offset Warehouse, who was shocked to learn the realities of the fashion industry while watching a documentary as part of her fashion degree. She wanted the fabrics she used and the clothes she made to be beautiful, but she knew that couldn't come at the expense of people or the environment. On top of her regular studies, she began to research the textile industry, to find out how and where she could source fabrics that had been manufactured without exploiting anyone. At the end of her degree she put her research online, and was amazed by the response it got; she was inundated with requests for help with buying ethical fabrics. Often these would-be customers wanted fashion forward fabrics in smaller amounts, so realising how much her expertise was needed, she set up Offset Warehouse. Roberta emphasised how important good fabrics are when it comes to making desirable clothes, but it is often the area of fashion that we think about the least. Charlie agreed; as well as sourcing ethical fabrics that don’t compromise on beauty, she is also obsessed with new fibres and the technology behind them. Surprisingly, H&M is the biggest buyer of reconstituted polyester and organic cotton (although it’s still only a small percentage of their total output), and zip manufacturer YKK is using reconstituted plastic in its products. In order to ‘close the loop’ of production and stop waste going to landfill, new fabrics are being developed using coffee grounds, banana fibre, reconstituted microfibres (from the washing of polyester) and even hagfish slime: the secretions of a deep sea creature that has elastic properties!
Akhil Sivanandan, the founder of Green Story, joined the live event from Canada, and gave a presentation on how businesses can increase sales by emphasising their green credentials in a way that draws the consumer in and makes them feel connected. Echoing Bel Jacobs’ point about the unhelpful nature of too many statistics, he outlined the reasons customers might not make a purchase based on the company’s ethics or sustainability: a lack of understanding about the specifics of a vague claim of ‘sustainability’, a lack of understanding about the impact their purchases might make, and the price of the product being sold. Although most consumers have good intentions about buying ethical or sustainable products, most of the time that doesn’t translate to actual purchases.
Akhil advises his clients to calculate the environmental impact of the raw materials and utilities they use, and compare this to a less sustainable business model. These studies are unlikely to be of interest to consumers in their raw data form, so by converting this into units of measurement a customer will understand it’s possible to draw them in and get them thinking about the impact their purchase will make. This makes perfect sense to me: “1 ton of C02” is a fairly meaningless measurement to me, but by reframing it as “20 cars off the road for a year”, I would feel that my purchase was going to have a positive effect on the world. Centering the environmental impact of a sustainable business is also key to success in terms of sales; emphasising ethical credentials in social media or marketing will draw more attention.
Although I’m not running an ethical business myself I found the presentation really interesting, and made me think about what drives my online purchases; according to Akhil, the average consumer only looks at each product for 7 seconds! I really liked the idea of interactive visuals illustrating the impact a customer’s purchases will make; it’s easy to feel powerless as a consumer and this can lead to inaction, so hopefully this positive message will leave consumers feeling more empowered.
The final speaker was Vicky Smith, the founder of Earth Changers, who spoke to us about ethical tourism, appropriately enough it was World Tourism Day! Vicky pointed out the parallels between the worlds of fast fashion and package holidays; both are global industries that employ huge numbers of people, and both are responsible for pollution and the exploitation of workers. She set up Earth Changers to research and promote positive impact tourism, after working in the travel industry for 20 years, and realising that holiday-makers were almost completely detached from their environment while on a package holiday. Working on community development projects gave Vicky a good understanding of how conservation tourism could support local environments, but sadly what should be a force for good usually isn’t. She wrote her thesis on the online volunteer tourism industry, and exposed the exploitative practices of a number of companies, and their negative impacts on the communities they claimed to be helping. Vicky emphasised the importance of thorough research when it comes to ‘voluntourism’: there are great grassroots organisations to volunteer with, but it’s not always easy for consumers to know which ones to trust.
Earth Changers is growing slowly and organically; Vicky’s definition of ethical is that every decision in the supply chain should be made with environmental and social impact in mind. This is logistically complicated, and a lot of people don’t want to think about these complex problems while they are on holiday! However, it is worth thinking about: almost 10% of the world’s GDP comes from tourism, 1 in 10 jobs worldwide are in the tourism industry and it is a huge growth area. 2017 is the international year of sustainable tourism, but making sustainable holiday choices isn’t as simple as choosing not to take a long-haul flight. Tourism is an important source of income for many countries, and people aren’t going to stop going on holiday, so Vicky gave us her top tips for sustainable travel: Book a local hotel directly, take public transport and frequent local businesses!
As well as finding the speakers interesting and inspirational, I also really appreciated the message of respectful advocacy for the causes we believe in, and letting beautiful and useful products speak for themselves! Online resources like the Ethical Business Directory are so helpful when it actually comes to finding these fab new businesses, so in keeping with my promise to put my money where my mouth is, this will be my first stop when I need to replace any of my old clothes.