Thursday, 23 November 2017

Personal style meets personal values: the Ethical Brand Directory's Conscious Christmas Showcase

Happy Black Friday everyone! Since shopping is at the forefront of everyone’s minds at this time of year, I’ve written up a shopping event and panel discussion I attended that focussed on centring your personal style and personal values in the purchasing decisions you make, rather than being persuaded to panic-buy deadstock according to the whim of advertisers. 

"The more you know... the harder it is to shop!" Roberta Lee jokingly summed up the panel discussion at the Ethical Brand Directory's Conscious Christmas Showcase. It felt relatable (no high street impulse buys for me any more), and reflected the feelings of 'overwhelm' that can sometimes come with trying to make more ethical or sustainable life choices, but the whole event was actually a really positive exploration of the ways in which personal style and personal values intersect. 

The Ethical Brand Directory is an online listing for ethical brands, including homewares as well as fashion and beauty, that is searchable by the products you need and the causes that are dear to your heart. The Conscious Christmas Showcase was an opportunity to check out stylish designs and innovative fabrics, appreciating artisanal skill and the wonders of modern technology. Sleek and sophisticated occasion wear from Annaborgia would have paired well with a hand-tooled clutch bag from Embellished Truth, while cosier Autumn/Winter looks were represented by super-soft bamboo sweatshirts from Lyme Terrace and adorable printed scarves by Where Does It Come From?. Starseeds were following up their collections of bamboo and organic cotton active wear with workout clothes made from recycled coffee grounds, while Fresh Lifestyle had come up with packaging that would prolong the life of their natural skincare range, and which customers could return in exchange for discounts on future purchases. 

Stylist and founder of the Ethical Brand Directory Roberta Lee was joined for a panel discussion by Claire Couchman of Couchman Bespoke, a tailor specialising in alterations and bespoke menswear made from sustainable fabrics, Lucas Windhager from Alive, an online Vegan accessories boutique, and Olivia Pinnock, fashion journalist and founder of The Fashion Debates, a series of panel discussions focusing on ethics in the fashion industry.

Claire and Roberta discussed a topic close to my heart; how alterations to your store-bought wardrobe (and even the occasional bespoke piece if you can sew or can afford it) can be a key element of being a conscious consumer. Roberta explained that personal style and fast fashion are often at odds with one another; we make impulse purchases without thinking about who we are and how the clothes we buy will fit into our lives. Personal style is about knowing who you are, and when you know this you won’t buy so many things that end up being discarded. Ethical shopping and living doesn’t have to mean going without, it’s more about keeping the things we do buy for longer. 

Claire discussed her plans to work with ethically made fabrics as much as possible, but emphasised the sustainability of bespoke clothing: consumers can have input into the design, so their new clothing will work well with their existing wardrobe. A bespoke piece of clothing should fit perfectly, promoting confidence and body positivity. Roberta pointed out that throughout history, people have gone to dressmakers and tailors for bespoke clothes, and would have expected to get clothes altered to fit. It’s only recently that we have fallen out of love with alterations (although Roberta is still a big fan of getting her clothes altered). It seems like a big jump for consumers to go from the immediacy of fast fashion to the delayed gratification of bespoke clothing or alterations, but Claire emphasised that even if you buy the most expensive brands from a department store, you are still buying a generic size, and compromising on fit. Getting your clothes tailored to fit you is a great way to support a local seamstress or small business, and you’ll be following in the footsteps of plenty of people in the public eye. Clothes don’t magically fit celebrities better than anyone else; they get a lot of custom alterations done!

Roberta talked about her “evolution” into a more ethical consumer, and the difficulties she’d found when trying to make better choices. In her discussion with Lucas she brought up the issue that vegan, cruelty free and eco-friendly brands aren’t always the same thing, and asked Lucas how he chooses brands for Alive boutique that don’t contradict one another. Lucas had chosen not to include PVC or polyester products, as they are vegan but not eco-friendly. His customers expect his boutique to adhere to their values which he described as “fortunately - or unfortunately - more important than money!” The carefully curated collection in the boutique is an authentic reflection of Lucas’ values, but he stressed that there was only so much one person could do, and Olivia heartily agreed: “no one can be 100% ethical!”

Olivia spoke about the joys of embracing your personal style and finding your community through the clothes you wear. The internet makes finding independent businesses and style influences so much easier, and consumers no longer have to rely on the brick-and-mortar high street stores for their fashion fix. She emphasised the importance of not writing off the high street completely though; Olivia and Roberta (and most of us in the audience, I imagine!) still own high street clothes, but are planning to keep them til they wear out, rather than throwing them away in a futile gesture that will only add to landfill. There are also plenty of people who work in fashion who don’t want their work to be seen as disposable, and are working to change the industry from the inside. 

As well as emphasising aspects of our personality, clothes also reflect what we believe morally and ethically, and what we want our lives to be about. As more attention is drawn to the harm done by the fashion industry, to people and the planet, the harder this is to ignore. As the panel pointed out, it also makes good business sense to put sustainability at the heart of fashion, otherwise brands will lose customers in the short-term, and will run out of raw materials in the long-term! Roberta and Olivia agreed that it was more productive to respect the things that companies are doing to improve the fashion industry, and ask for more of the same, rather than just criticising them for the things they aren’t doing yet. They acknowledged that far-reaching change, from within the industry as well as outside, was needed. With less brand loyalty amongst consumers, brands with a more positive ethical identity could encourage consumers to switch to buying their products, which might encourage more brands to improve their practices to keep up. 

There were lively audience questions and comments, which made me reflect on what a wide-ranging and complex topic this is! For an industry with a global supply chain and many different manufacturing processes, improvement in one area of production is always going to highlight problems in another. Supporting brands that are doing good, and switching our shopping habits from trend-driven impulse buys to thoughtfully planned purchases that will make us feel good every time we wear them, are sensible ways to make a positive change. 

It was a pleasure to chat to the founders of the ethical businesses that were showcasing their products; they were all passionate about fair wages, quality fabrics and flattering, wearable clothes. Focusing on a capsule collection and understanding their customers rather than trying to scale too quickly and be all things to all people hopefully means that these brands will stick around and attract more like minded shoppers.

Roberta concluded the panel discussion with the quote from Anne Lappe: “every time you spend money, you are casting a vote for the kind of world you want” this quote has become the unofficial motto of the online ethical living community, and if it’s become ubiquitous it's probably because it resonates with more and more people, and it’s worth bearing mind as the holiday season becomes an endless stream of shopping events.

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