Thursday, 29 March 2018

Five questions we need to ask about the fashion industry

This is my second blog post about the Advaya Initiative's event Toxic Threads: The Dark Side Of Fashion (you can read Part 1 here). I’ve broken down the Q&A session into five key themes that anyone wanting to make a change, either to the fashion world at large or to their own buying habits, should be considering. 

How do we combat our addiction to consumption?

Orsola de Castro’s solution is to start with yourself: be a sustainable consumer by developing an intimate relationship with the things you buy. Under our current capitalist system we don’t have the ability to be 100% ethical, but we can work on changing our mindset. The fashion industry is built on growth and scale, with success measured in profit, so it’s important to encourage brands that are working to develop different models. Orsola also pointed out that the Latin root of the word “consume” originally meant “to wear out” which so rarely happens now! Alex Jones added that brands are producing more than we can consume, and they need to slow down their production. 

How can we put pressure on manufacturers to do things differently?

Dian Jen Lin mentioned H&M, Adidas and Kering as examples of big brands that are pushing their bounds of sustainability, but she also pointed out that small companies are the ones really innovating and producing futuristic fabrics. The panel all wanted to know: why can’t big brands with big budgets do more? Sophie Slater gave the example of her brand, Birdsong London, which is grant- and crowdfunded and can afford to pay London living wage. If she can do it, what excuse do big brands have for paying poor wages? A brand that cannot afford to pay a living wage has a flawed business model. Orsola added that the way the fashion industry is running now is fairly new: overproduction of cheap, disposable clothes has only been happening on such a large scale for a couple of decades, so it’s not a state of affairs that we are stuck with.

How do you know what not to buy?

Orsola spoke on a subject that is very close to my heart: the importance of understanding and recognising good quality clothes. She asked the audience: “Do you know what a good hem looks like?” She suggested new criteria for what would make an item of clothing a great purchase, like the ability to easily alter it, and emphasised an important baseline: fashion should fit! Alex suggested that we should cultivate a new idea of what “retail therapy” is, focussing on whether we support something positive through our purchases. The “feel-good factor” should come from knowing that the things we buy have made a positive impact during the production process. Orsola wondered if we could get our “fix” through waiting for our clothes to be mended/altered, or enjoy the delayed gratification of waiting for a bespoke piece to be made specially for us. Sophie countered the idea that relying on ethical brands might limit our choices: having a smaller pool of places to shop could make your choices more imaginative.

How can we recycle or offset our purchases? 

Orsola pointed everyone in the direction of Fashion Revolution and their Loved Clothes Last zine, which contains upcycling and mending inspiration, but also pointed out the seriousness of the problems caused by our overconsumption of clothes, and the need to find wide-reaching solutions as quickly as possible. Countries in East Africa are banning imports of second hand clothing because it is destroying their textile industries, and if we want to be responsible world citizens we have to learn that we can’t just dump things because we don’t want them anymore. Change is possible, but we are all going to have to play our part, and brands are going to have to slow down! Alex’s sobering reflection was that the problem is so immense that there isn’t an answer right now: there are still clothes donated to large charity shops that cannot be sold on, and huge volumes of clothing is still ending up in landfill. Sophie’s suggestion was to build links between charities with an excess of donated clothing, and small manufacturers like Birdsong. Buying from brands that specialise in slow manufacture by skilled workers using recycled materials has a positive impact rather than just a neutral one. 

How do we match up artisans and young designers?

Orsola shone a light on one of the depressing realities of the fast fashion landscape: we’ve lost a lot of our traditional artisan makers in Europe. Even though artisanal communities are the second largest employers of women in the world they are often unable to compete with the artificially low prices offered by big fast fashion brands. Sophie spoke about the importance of bridging the gap between young tech-savvy fashion students and older mills or factories with skills but no online presence. Dian Jen Lin gave the example of The Sustainable Angle supporting factories with no social media presence. Alex also mentioned how vital it is to support charities like Labour behind the Label and War on Want who empower women in local communities, amplifying their voices as they advocate for fair wages or union representation.

The final reflections of the panel were summed up in Fashion Revolution’s slogan: Find Out. Be Curious. Do Something. Everyone can take action without having to be an activist, and push for a fashion industry that puts positive impact above profit.

Thursday, 22 March 2018

From Suffragettes to slogan T-shirts: could my clothes be considered "protest fashion"?

2018 marks the centenary of (some) women getting the vote, and it sometimes feels like we still have a long way to go in the fight for equality. My colleagues Amy Towle, Amy Trend and Hannah Monkley expressed the same sentiment when they went to the Women’s March in January 2017 dressed as Suffragettes, with a banner that read “Same Shit, Different Century”. A picture of them subsequently went viral, and after being asked to appear at Port Eliot Festival to talk about the Suffragettes, they decided to start a podcast to share the stories they had discovered. Listening to the podcast, it’s been shocking to learn the extent to which women in this country endured police brutality, imprisonment and torture in their fight for the right to vote, but it’s also been fascinating to discover the savvy PR tactics employed by the Suffragettes to convey a striking and coherent message.

The Suffragettes’ colour scheme, devised by Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, of green (for hope), white (for purity) and purple (for loyalty and dignity) is probably familiar to most of us, but they also advised members to wear the fashionable, feminine dress of the time (long skirts and high-necked lace blouses worn over corsets and petticoats). Author Cally Blackman describes how the colours were worn “as a duty and a privilege” and how effective they were at creating a striking spectacle when women turned out in their Suffragette “uniforms” in force. An edition of the Votes for Women newspaper in 1908 declared “The Suffragette of today is dainty and precise in her dress”, and Sylvia Pankhurst was aware that no one wanted to “run the risk of being considered “outrĂ©” and doing harm to the cause”.

I realised that (probably subconsciously, and to a lesser extent) I’ve been using the same thinking to inform my ethical fashion choices. Although I don’t follow every new trend, I always make an effort to look neatly styled in every outfit post, wearing carefully chosen clothes rather than just throwing on any old thing. When I started my blog I wanted people to see my approach to fashion as imaginative but accessible, and something that’s suitable for a wide range of lifestyles and social situations. 

I find the ways in which femininity was performed and subverted by the Suffragettes really fascinating; I touched on the difficult relationship between femininity and feminism in a previous post about my love of vintage fashion. The jewellery in the Museum of London’s Votes for Women exhibition is an interesting microcosm of this. The medal awarded to Emmeline Pankhurst was in the style of military honours awarded to men, so this would have made a striking addition to a genteel outfit. The necklace awarded to Kitty Willoughby Marshall was a simpler design, featuring three coins on a delicate chain, and Louise Eates was awarded a beautiful Art Deco pendant. I love the thought that these were specially chosen to reflect the personal styles of these women, and to thank them for their unique contribution to the cause. 

For the exhibition Suffragettes: Milennial Rebels milliner Claire Strickland recreated hats worn by prominent Suffragettes, and collaborated with photographer Nicholas Laborie to recreate portraits using young women as models. At a panel discussion about the exhibition, author Diane Atkinson raised a thought-provoking point. The large hats which were fashionable at the time, she explained, were a status symbol, and made the wearer look ladylike. Policemen sought to undermine this tactic by ripping the hats from Suffragettes during confrontations, to make them look dishevelled and slovenly. I found this description of violence quite disturbing, but it also showed how even a symbol of sophistication and elegance could be provocative if worn in the right context.

When we think of protest fashion now, we’re less likely to think of millinery, and more likely to think of T-shirts (my colleagues have turned their Instagrammable banner into a T-shirt and tote bag slogan to raise money for the charity Abortion Rights). T Shirts: Cult, Culture and Subversion at the Fashion and Textile Museum addresses some of the successes and contradictions of this simple but effective wearable tool of protest. 

One of the best-known examples of a high fashion protest T-shirt is the oversized “58% DON’T WANT PERSHING” shirt made and worn by Katherine Hamnett to meet Margaret Thatcher in 1984. Hamnett has gone on to create T-Shirts protesting the Iraq War and fast fashion: her “No More Fashion Victims” T-shirt, made in collaboration with the Environmental Justice Foundation, is on display in the exhibition. This slogan isn’t just a neat play on words for Hamnett; she has campaigned against the use of forced labour in the cotton industry in Uzbekistan, and her T-shirts are made ethically from organic cotton. 

It did make me question whether other slogan tees in the exhibition were just empty words; Dior’s “we should all be feminists” T-shirt looked fabulous, paired with their zodiac-embroidered maxi skirt, and a percentage of the sale price is being donated to the Clara Lionel Foundation (set up by Rihanna). However, the shirt itself retails at almost £500, and Dior’s parent company LVMH do not disclose any information about their supply chain.

 Also featured in the exhibition was the “this is what a feminist looks like” T-shirt produced by the Fawcett Society, which was criticised for being sourced from a factory that did not pay a living wage. The exhibition addresses the environmental impact of making cotton t-shirts, and points out that “our consumer choices are social and political acts”. Two T-shirts from ethical brand Lost Shapes are on display, playfully illustrating two contrasting viewpoints for the conscious consumer. 

I’m not a great T-shirt wearer (I prefer a slogan tote bag), but I have been thinking about how the contents of my wardrobe could be considered “protest fashion”. In her book “Folk Fashion”, Amy Twigger Holroyd explores the idea of refashioning or making clothes as a political act: “I am aiming, as much as I can, to disrupt the dominant paradigm of industrial production and overconsumption in fashion, and to contribute to the construction of an appealing alternative”. My friend Ludi, who took up sewing to make the sort of clothes that aren’t available in her size on the high street, had similar feelings in a post on Facebook: “I think learning to sew is body-positive and powerful and politically interesting”. I think I’ll be returning to this topic in a later blog post!

At a time when consumer culture is doing more harm than good, perhaps it’s once again to see our everyday clothes as tools we can use to campaign for the sort of world we want to live in. Making thoughtful, ethical choices instead of impulse purchases and rocking our vintage bargains and refashioned finery, we can start to turn the tide on overconsumption.

Thursday, 15 March 2018

Ethical Wardrobe Basics: bamboo leggings, sustainable socks and recycled tights!

Since I started my blog last year, I’ve been planning clothes purchases more carefully, and this has mostly involved finding alternatives to high street “basics” to replace tops, leggings and underwear as and when they wear out. 

Although ethical fashion has been receiving a lot more mainstream attention recently, it’s still perceived as quite niche, with an assumption that it’s attached to a particular style rather than being a shopping option that’s available to everyone. While it’s lovely to invest in a statement sustainable piece, especially if you’re putting together a capsule wardrobe, for most of us it’s the base layers and basic wardrobe staples that get worn and washed the most often, and get worn out the quickest. 

In my search for ethical clothing online I’ve found an amazing selection of brands producing good quality, wearable clothing that seems to suit a much broader range of personal styles than fast fashion’s monotonous options. I’m focusing on leggings, tights and socks this week, but in future posts I’ll be recommending t-shirts, vest tops and pants! 

My ideal pair of leggings is soft and comfortable, high-waisted and completely opaque, made from a fabric that doesn’t fade or “pill” (develop those little bobbles that make a garment look worn). Whether you’re wearing leggings for leisure, exercise or fashion there are some great ethical options out there.

Classic leggings
Thought has a range of bamboo basic leggings in different colours that make a great wardrobe staple if you wear a leggings a lot. The pair I bought have washed and worn really well, and the bright colour hasn’t faded. These leggings are sized generously, so if you’re between sizes I’d recommend buying the smaller size for a wrinkle-free fit.

Other brands to try: People Tree make an “essentials” range that includes organic cotton leggings in classic black that will work perfectly as a base layer or for yoga. 

If you’re a fitness aficionado, there are some great sustainable alternatives to your synthetic sports kit. Bamboo is a naturally moisture-wicking fabric, so you can stay cool and comfortable while you exercise. BAM Bamboo Clothing make an extensive range of plain and printed yoga leggings (sold at different price points, but there is usually a selection on special offer). These are thicker and less stretchy than classic fashion leggings, and the sizes come up a little smaller, but durability is important for sportswear, and the wide double-thickness waistband means your leggings won’t roll down or dig in as you move around. 

Other brands to try: Starseeds specialise in eco-conscious sportswear with a special ingredient: coffee! Adding post-consumer coffee grounds to their recycled polyester gives their Coffee Date range added odour-control properties.

Footless tights and hosiery
If you prefer footless tights to leggings, you should check out Australian brand Boody, who make sleek, seamless basics with a high bamboo content. Their leggings are knitted in the round like tights, with a diamond shaped gusset and wide, soft waistband. They have the slight sheen of 100 denier nylon tights but are much more breathable. 

Other brands to try: Swedish Stockings are the first sustainable hosiery manufacturer, making new tights out of... tights! Their innovative technology has created a virtually closed-loop system, and they are constantly working on ways to ensure that every part of their production process is as sustainable as possible. 

I’ve been keeping a Wardrobe Diary this year, and I’ve realised I know virtually nothing about my socks! The only item in my wardrobe that never has a label sewn in, once I’ve thrown away the cardboard packaging I have no idea where I bought them, let alone what they were made from, or whether they were made ethically or sustainably. I bought plain black ankle socks from Thought and Boody, but Thought also produce a range of colourful patterned socks, if that’s more your thing, and Boody make a range that includes trainer socks and “invisible” shoe liners if you don’t want to wear ankle socks in the summer. Leggings, tights and socks are even available from Amnesty International's online shop if you want to give money to a good cause while buying your clothes.

Not all these brands have exactly the same ethical credentials, but each brand has a section on its website outlining the steps they have taken to create an ethical or sustainable product: paying workers fairly, using more environmentally friendly materials, or using post-consumer or recycled materials. We all have different criteria for our wardrobe staples, but hopefully a wider variety of options will enable more and more people to choose ethical clothing.

Thursday, 8 March 2018

How to reduce plastic pollution by rethinking the way we wash our clothes

Reducing the amount of plastic we use seems to be top of every eco-conscious agenda at the moment, and with good reason. Whether we’ve been spurred into action by the shocking footage of polluted seas in Blue Planet 2 or by litter in our own communities, there is no denying that our reliance on single-use plastic has grown into a huge problem. While bottle deposit schemes and a return to more easily recycled food packaging like aluminium or glass are all moves in the right direction, it’s easy to overlook another source of plastic pollution; the microfibres from our clothes.

Synthetic fabrics like polyester and elastane are essentially a type of plastic, albeit in a less noticeable form than a drinks bottle or food packaging. When we wash synthetic clothes, microfibres can be washed out of the fabrics and into the oceans, as they are too small to be filtered out at water treatment plants. This article about microfibre pollution in the oceans will give you plenty of in-depth information, if you want to know more.

Even if you prefer to wear natural fibres (I’m not too keen on synthetics as they are not breathable), they will usually be mixed with elastane for stretch garments like underwear, leggings, vest tops or anything figure-hugging. Elastane replaced the latex-based elastic used in the first half of the 20th Century which was notoriously perishable; elastane’s high performance, long-lasting fibres has saved countless people from the embarrassment of a broken knicker elastic!

For a week of my Wardrobe Diary, I focussed on whether my clothes were made from fibres containing plastic, and the results were quite striking. I wear a lot of cosy, stretchy base layers in the winter and these all contain elastane. Quite a few of my vintage dresses and sweaters are polyester, and I’m not keen on the idea of giving up on stretch underwear in order to go plastic free!

Throwing away clothes that contain fibres we’ve come to rely on for their comfort and convenience isn’t a solution, so what can we do instead? A couple of innovative solutions are available; the GuppyFriend and the Cora Ball.

The GuppyFriend is a fabric bag designed to trap microfibres before they leave your washing machine and enter the water supply. A reasonable load of laundry fits comfortably inside, and it doesn’t affect the way the machine washes your clothes.

The Cora Ball is designed to catch fibres as the clothes move around your machine. I haven’t bought one yet as the GuppyFriend seems more suited to my washing needs. The Cora Ball site advises against using in a delicates wash or with strappy tops or tights, but would be great if you are regularly washing fleeces or other fluffy synthetic items.

The idea of developing attachments for the washing machine itself to do the same job has been raised, and I’m sure there are prototypes in the works, but it’s good to be aware of changes we can make now. In the same way that we are all getting used to remembering our cloth shopping bags or reusable water bottles, this is a small change we can make to our regular habits to minimise our negative impact on the environment. It might not be suitable or feasible for every wash, but if we’re washing our Lycra-based sportswear separately anyway, we could probably pop it in a bag first. Every small positive change adds up to a big impact, and this doesn’t require a radical change to habits or lifestyle.

Sunday, 4 March 2018

Toxic Threads part 1: four fashion experts reveal the dark side of the industry

On Wednesday 21st February I went to an event organised by The Advaya Initiative: Toxic Threads: The Dark Side of Fashion. Four speakers, Orsola de Castro, Sophie Slater, Dian Jen Lin and Alex Jones gave short presentations on their experience of the fashion industry and why radical change is needed to make the industry forward-looking again. It would be all too easy to get disillusioned by dire environmental predictions or the seemingly insatiable appetite for fast fashion,so I was heartened to hear messages of hope from people who are determined that fashion can, and should, be better.

First up was Orsola de Castro, one of the founders of Fashion Revolution and, in her words, “a recovering fashion designer”. She spoke about the event that spurred her into action: the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh in 2013, in which over 1000 people (mostly women) lost their lives. Horrified that young women died to satiate our appetite for fast fashion, she also soon discovered that brands knew very little about the factories where they were producing their clothing. She encourages transparency, not as the definitive solution but as the first step. At the moment, most brands can’t answer “who made my clothes?” and that needs to change.

Fashion Revolution is an open source platform offering free educational materials, with a focus on transparency and social issues. Its aims are to educate consumers about  the fashion industry, but also to change our minds about the way people currently view their clothes. We as consumers aren’t appreciating or loving our clothes, which means they get discarded more quickly. 

The focus of Fashion Revolution’s current campaign is the overproduction and disposability of clothes, which as Orsola emphasised, isn’t just confined to cheap fast fashion chains. Luxury brands throw away as many clothes as high street shops, suggesting that clothes that cost a lot of money to buy have little value to the manufacturers. As consumers, we have the power to change this culture, and a good starting point is to only buy what you love, and pay attention to what is in your wardrobe. Clothing isn’t just an issue for those in the fashion industry, it affects 100% of the population! To Orsola, “sustainable” and “ethical” aren’t helpful words, they suggest something niche when these practices should just be part of the culture.
As someone who uses those words to define what I blog about, that’s really given me food for thought; am I limiting myself to “preaching to the choir”; could I reach a wider audience by using different language?

Next to speak was Sophie Slater, the co-founder of Birdsong London. The brand’s motto is “No Sweatshop, No Photoshop”  and they employ small groups of women with rare skills to make their clothes, from hand-knitters to seamstresses. Their mission is to empower women, from worker to wearer, and many of their makers are OAPs or migrant workers, who sign the tags on Birdsong garments so customers know who made their clothes. Their makers appear in advertising campaigns as well, which I thought was a great idea; it emphasises how central skilled artisans are to the production of beautiful, good quality clothes.

 As well as paying a living wage, Birdsong London supports women’s organisations, and they have a commitment to caring for the planet as well as people. They use reclaimed or organic fabrics wherever possible; 80% of Birdsong’s Spring/Summer 2018 collection from reclaimed fabrics; they have a partnership with Traid, to use clothes that don’t make it into Traid’s secondhand shops. I really like their emphasis on small production runs, giving their clothes an element of exclusivity and ensuring that their makers are employed but not overworked. 

Dian-Jen Lin, an “interdisciplinary designer/ researcher” had a fascinating take  on the current approach to sustainable fashion. To her, sustainability is passive, regenerative sustainability would be proactive, so what we need is Regenerative Sustainability Activism. This is going to involve a radical re-thinking of how we apply new technologies to garment manufacture. As well as developing fabrics that are recyclable, or use recycled materials, we could develop clothes that actively give back to the world around us. 

Dian-Jen Lin’s current project is to create a photosynthetic material; by adding photosynthetic microorganisms to fabric, your t-shirt could photosynthesise while you go about your business. In cities, millions of people wearing clothes that use up carbon dioxide and give off 
oxygen could be a great solution to air pollution. She works with The Sustainable Angle, who help to promote and develop innovative new fabrics. From leather alternatives made from post-consumer food waste, to sustainable sequins, you can read more about the Sustainable Angle’s latest event, the Future Fabrics Expo, in my recent blog post or on their website

Designer Alex Noble gave us his overview of the fashion industry and how it has lost its way. In his opinion, the negative aspects of fashion currently outweigh the good, and we all need to work to redress the balance. The good aspects, the parts which allow designers to unleash their creativity and allow consumers to express their identity were the building blocks of the industry, but are now being exploited by multinationals who are only interested in profit.

Alex believes that we as creatives and consumers have the ability to change the industry, through working together in a more egalitarian way. More communication and collaboration is vital, to encourage transparency and to make sure a more diverse fashion industry is able to flourish. He is in favour of a return to small-scale manufacture, emphasising that garment workers are people, not statistics, and that manufacturers should take into consideration the quality of life their products are creating. To embed these values in the industry, teachers and students at fashion colleges should be making sustainability a priority, not a project, and we as consumers have to embrace this change and support small businesses!

I loved hearing such a variety of insight from people trying to change the fashion industry for the better in very different ways. The second part of the evening was a Q&A session, and I’ll be publishing a second blog post in a couple of weeks to share more from the panel, so stay tuned!