If you’re a bit of a mindless consumer when you’re out, shopping and buying lots of new clothing and accessories for your wardrobe, well this week we’re going to change all that. Hopefully we are going to turn you into a more conscious consumer when it comes to fashion.
I’m super excited to bring my guest Melinda Tually onto the show this week. Melinda is the director of Ndless: The New Normal, and she is also the coordinator for Fashion Revolution in Australia and New Zealand.
Melinda advises brands and retailers on responsible business and supply chain strategy, social and environmental risks, communications, partnerships, and sourcing. The Fashion Revolution is a global movement calling for greater transparency in the fashion industry and Fashion Revolution Week runs from April 24th-30th 2017.
Melinda opens our eyes to what is happening in the fashion industry and how we can be a part of helping it to change for the better.
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What is wrong with the fashion industry?
The fashion industry has been largely and I would say intentionally quite opaque, and it’s been hard to find your way through and identify all the players in the fashion supply chain. Visibility of the supply chain is incredibly important.
The reason that the Rana Plaza collapsed in Bangladesh in 2013 was because that garment facility on the top floor was ‘flying under the radar’. After the collapse, brands that had their labels found in the rubble where also at pains to explain that for some of them they didn’t know that their clothes were being made in that facility.
We now know that this is no longer an excuse and brands must have visibility, but it goes to show you how opaque the industry is and if you can’t see the issues then you have no ability to remediate or mitigate the risks that those issues bring up.
It’s an incredibly complex industry with deep supply chains that can involve hundreds of different suppliers. Over a hundred different hands can touch an item of clothing before you get it. From the cotton field through to the packaging and assembly before it hits the boat, items of clothing can travel to many different countries in all their different stages before it reaches you.
Another big issue is that now we are seeing a race to the bottom in terms of the dollar price we pay for garments. This leads to unsatisfactory conditions for workers where the production turn-around times are incredibly reduced, and there is pressure on them to deliver to this insatiable thirst for newness that these brands push on people.
Many workers are living on minimum wage or less because they’re taking the hit for those cheap prices that we are paying at the till.
What is Fashion Revolution and why it was established?
Fashion Revolution is a global movement and we’re advocating for greater responsibility in the fashion sector. By this we mean greater transparency, traceability, and more responsibility for the environmental impacts of the industry.
It is one of the most polluting industries in the world after agriculture and oil, and the toll on raw materials is vast. It takes a few thousand litres of water just to produce a cotton t-shirt and over ten-thousand litres to produce a pair of jeans. The carbon footprint and chemical pollution is vast also and we’ve seen some incredibly sad results of destruction of the environment. We see deforestation and a lot of people don’t realise that trees go into our clothing as well, as well as the drying up of large seas due to irrigation from cotton farming.
Fashion Revolution was the result of the Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh on April 24th 2013. When the building collapsed, over 1100 people died and more than 2500 were left injured, some of them permanently so and will never work again. That is what spurred our two founders; Carry Somers and Orsola de Castro who were both fashion designers in London, to say ‘enough is enough’. This is the largest loss of life that the fashion industry had ever seen in its history. It wasn’t the first accident and it hasn’t been the last, but the sad truth of the accident was that it was both preventable and predictable.
They decided that they couldn’t let this accident go by, they wanted to commemorate the lives that were lost, and create a new conversation around fashion and what the issues are. At the same time, they wanted to celebrate the great brands and designers that are changing the industry for the better, have healthy supply chains, and focus on sustainability, labour rights, and ethical sourcing.
They coined Fashion Revolution Day to be held on the anniversary of the collapse, the first one was on April 24th 2014. Now it is Fashion Revolution Week and it’s grown due to the demand. It’s a grass roots movement with volunteers in over 90 countries around the world, and there’s been quite phenomenal growth in consumers wanting to know who made their clothes. We also see the brands and designers responding and wanting to tell their stories, and wanting to show and work hard on their transparency.
We have a campaign on social media every year and thousands of events that take place on the ground around the world. The social media campaign asks people to turn an item of clothing inside out, jump online and ask their favourite brand #whomademyclothes . We see brands talking back to consumers and it’s the first chance that we see of people being able to reach huge global businesses and brands. They can show those brands that they care about where that pair of jeans came from, and to be proud to keep wearing those items and keep shopping that brand, they need to know the story behind those clothes. I think it’s been a great tool to demonstrate to the industry how many people do care.
We collect and collate the data each year and we can show the growth of the movement and the increase in people asking the question. We can demonstrate to the industry that they need to start working on this as a priority. We’re in the age of transparency, you can’t get away from it with the presence of social media and online documentaries, YouTube etc. Those stories that were always behind the curtain, now they can be told immediately and the awareness can spread immediately. The sad realities of the industry are being communicated around the globe at a fast pace.
We’ve been able to foster a positive conversation and raise awareness positively, it’s not a ‘name and shame’ movement. We’re not out to accuse brands of anything but we’re certainly trying to show them in a positive manner that it is necessary to fix their supply chain.
For those who are keen to eco-fy their wardrobes, what steps do you suggest they take? Why is it important that they understand Who Made Their Clothes?
It comes down to your value system. Do you think that it is important for people to be treated fairly and with respect and dignity, and that they should also be able to afford to send their kids to school or have access to urgent medical care if they need it? Even for them to be able to earn a basic wage so that they can feed themselves properly? A third of garment workers in the world are malnourished. These are the people making your clothes, and if your value system tells you that they deserve better than that will drive you to be more conscious with your purchasing decisions.
At the end of the day if you are someone who is into organic food or environmental cleaning products, then you’ve generally taken the time to do the research. You need to apply the same rule to fashion, it’s the same consideration. There are chemicals in our clothes and our skin is the largest organ of our body so we ingest what we wear. So, if you care about what you eat because of the effect on your body, then you should care about what you wear as well.
Clothes are laced in chemicals, leather can be treated with Chromium VI and our cotton is treated with pesticides and fertilisers. The fashion industry is responsible for over 25% of global pesticide and insecticide use. Huge volumes of chemicals go into what we wear. I often find that people are very diligent with what they eat but perhaps don’t realise that there are the same sort of risks in the clothes that we wear.
Research your clothing labels. Lots of brands now have a section on their website where they talk about their sustainability and ethical sourcing initiatives, their chemical management, their environmental footprint, and their commitments to certain ethical labour initiatives. Those brands that are doing things will have that on their website. It’s hard to apply a level of thoroughness in whether what you’re hearing or reading is resulting in positive impact, but certainly where there are brands saying nothing, that’s a good reason to think that perhaps nothing is being done.
I would also advise looking at the fibres that you wear in terms of longevity and care. The garments in the lower price range tend to be made of textiles of lower quality but may not last the distance. If you’re someone who is considerate about what you’re wearing, then you want to buy for the long-term. Move away from that sense of disposability and fast fashion where you only wear things once or twice, either because you think you don’t need to wear it again or because it stretches and falls out of shape because it’s cheap and not well made.
If you start looking at those materials and how to care for them properly, you’ll extend the use of that garment for much longer. It’s when we carelessly purchase through impulse buying and then carelessly wash them without considering what the instructions say, that we create waste. If you know that you’re never going to step foot into a dry cleaner and you’ve never hand washed in your life, then don’t buy items that need that care. Choose something else that will last the distance.
Where do you see the fashion industry heading in future? What needs to change for it to become truly sustainable?
I think that the industry is headed for greater transparency. We’ve seen over 90 brands and brand groups publish their factory lists now. The reason that this is important is there are Non-Government Organisations (NGOs) on the ground and if they know where a brand is producing, they can validate any claim that the brand is making and speak to the workers to make sure that they are being treated fairly. Transparency is on the rise and we will see more and more supply chains being published.
Environmental considerations are key and it is one of the biggest drivers for brands. Whether they’re moving to organic cotton rather than conventional cotton to eradicate the need for pesticides and insecticides.
Over 100 million trees are lost to the fashion industry every year through cellulosics which are fabrics like nylon and rayon which are used a lot by supply chains. It’s quite incredible and no-one really realises that clothes can come from tree pulp. There are initiatives now to only use sustainably harvested plantation sources rather than native forests.
Likewise, leather sources and their chemical treatment is one of the hot topics of the industry. There are various programs; Greenpeace have their Detox campaign, where brands are signing up to eliminate hazardous chemicals because of the effect on the consumers and the workers. The amount of cancers and lung disease in tannery workers and cotton farmers is incredible. Then of course there is the environmental impact of these chemicals.
Many facilities in the developing world where a lot of our garments are made do not have proper effluent treatment facilities so the chemicals are being washed into the rivers. That water gets used downstream as irrigation on food crops so not only is it harming the workers in the facility themselves, but also the general community who is reliant on that water for their agricultural production.
The impact from chemicals is fourfold and so I think we’ll see further cleaning up of the industry and elimination of chemicals, alternative textiles such as organics, and the growth of the circular economy. This is simply about regenerating existing materials so that they move away from the linear approach, which is the dispose model, to ways to reuse what we used to consider waste and upcycle and redevelop that into a new product. There is a lot of investment in technology around the circular economy now and trying to reuse existing materials.
Take back programs are happening more where you can donate your unwanted items back to the store. I think that soon you will see the customers of today being the fabric suppliers of the future, because the fabric that we take back to recycle will be used in new products to sell back to us.
One thing that I believe will happen much slower is development on worker rights and wages, and conditions in factories. I think that we need to be louder as a movement and for people who are conscious to call for greater standards for the people who are making our clothes.
Across the board, the cheaper our clothes are, the less money that the factories get. This means less wages that the workers get. It’s a huge issue and regardless of whether you pay $10 or $100 for a shirt, unless that brand is telling you otherwise, there’s no guarantee that those workers are taking a higher wage for a higher priced product.
Another positive change is brands that make to order rather than the traditional mass production. The speed to market also allows brands to respond quickly. If one item is not doing as well as another, they can cut production to it and just focus on producing the one that is popular and moving. We have already seen brands doing short runs so that they are not over-producing and wasting textiles.
Where can we find out more about Fashion Revolution and join the cause?
Head to our Fashion Revolution website. We are also on social media and you can follow us on Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook. We have tons of resources on the website, whether you’re wanting to talk about Fashion Revolution at your school or university, or if you’re a brand and you want to share your stories. We also have guides on how to be a Fashion Revolutionary for general fashion lovers and wearers.
There is lots of information and resources on the website on how to get involved. The True Cost is an incredible documentary and there’s further screenings around the country again this year or it is on Netflix. I encourage everyone to watch that film; it is a real eye-opener and an incredible insight if you’ve never even thought about where your clothes come from, who made them, or how they are made. It is a compelling film that is done very well.
If people jump online and take part in Fashion Revolution Week then that’s great because we want people to ask the brands that they love #whomademyclothes and show that brand that they care. If you do receive a response, tag us so that we can see it, and thank that brand because it’s quite a new conversation in terms of the history of the industry to be able to talk about these issues. Traditionally the brands haven’t spoken publicly about it so it’s a big win if a brand responds.
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