Fashion Revolution: Talking Transparency, Consumption and the Circular Economy

Fashion Revolution in San Francisco, 2016. Image c/o Bryan Berry

Fashion Revolution in San Francisco, 2016. Image c/o Bryan Berry

“The fact is, there is no cure other than slowing down currently.” Orsola de Castro of Fashion Revolution speaks about the importance of transparency and the complex desire of consumption.

For over 20 years, Orsola de Castro has foregrounded ethical practice in slowing-down the rate of excess and exhaustion of resources in the fashion industry. In 1997, de Castro founded Reclaim to Wear, a pioneering eco fashion label redirecting surplus materials otherwise discarded by designer and production lines into new clothes. This purposeless stock of material, which would have already gone through intensive manufacturing expenses to create in the first place, would otherwise head to the incinerator or landfill. De Castro was also the co founder and co curator of Esthetica for 8 years, celebrating and promoting sustainable excellence in fashion during London Fashion Week.

In April 2013, the Rana Plaza disaster took the lives of at least 1134 people in the Dhaka District of Bangladesh. It is widely considered to be the deadliest accident in the garment factory industry, and many reports and articles look to the disaster as a catalyst to ask what efforts are being made to ensure it cannot happen again. “Rana Plaza was a predictable and avoidable disaster. We knew we had to do something after it had happened.” A year after the incident, de Castro co founded the campaign - and recently formed charity - Fashion Revolution, with Carry Somers.

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Looking to bring exposure to the makers of our clothes, the oft-opaque machinations and supply chains of big brands, the campaign inspires urgency for an ethical overhaul of the fashion industry. De Castro explains, “It’s an inclusive campaign, but obviously with a degree of anger too.” Fashion Revolution has struck a chord across the industry, from consumers, to brands, educators and designers. But the unprecedented growth and reach of the campaign’s work appears to be due to its core values. “It’s a campaign born out of a need, a desire and push for change, rather than about the blaming or shaming of those accountable. We want to celebrate best practice.”

Environmental tragedies, exposed corruption and industry disasters are inherently political, and often rupture the known façade of repressive capitalist regimes and governments. Unfortunately, it is often only such incidents that incite mass movements for change, “…a human trait”, de Castro says. The politics of consumption in Western society are often governed by the market of desire, rather than essential needs. De Castro refers to the food industry: “With food comes a selfishness over selflessness. We buy organic not because we ultimately feel that it’s better for the planet, but because it’s better for us.

Being selfless buying sustainable clothes won’t happen until we feel better wearing clothes that are better made, afford a better life for the people who make the clothes, and their environment, which of course is our environment too. That sense of interconnectedness, globalisation, which is so obvious within the food chain, is still not obvious in the fashion supply chain.”

Without the intention of shaming, but to address some of the issues of consumption, which is such a plethora of complex socio-economic, historic and political paradigms, an exemplary statistic that Fashion Revolution are directly attempting to make more people aware of, is that in the US, over 35kg of clothing is thrown away each year, per person. That’s a population of over 320 million people. More concerning, and undoubtedly contributing to the industry’s recent evidential damning as being the second worst polluter after oil, is that of all those clothes thrown away in the US, approximately 84% ended up at the incinerator.

De Castro is fully aware of the magnitude and complexity of the issue, recognising that “You need to talk about privileges, beauty, satisfaction, quality, love…other values that are more than just being a shopaholic in order to think about consumption. A big question is how do we make the alternative as attractive?”

Instagram users ask #whomademyclothes? c/o Fashion Revolution

Instagram users ask #whomademyclothes? c/o Fashion Revolution

A significant contributor to the attraction of Fashion Revolution’s various campaigns and research lay in the level of belief that what you’re consuming comes from a tirelessly invested, informative and inclusive resource. “We talk to brands often. We see the effects of the Transparency Index”, says de Castro. Reviewing the degrees of transparency of the top 100 global fashion brands, the Transparency Index 2017 bears unashamed light on the biggest, thus potentially most significant, damaging and exploitative practices in the industry. None of the 100 brands reviewed are providing enough information on traceability, particularly when it comes to accounting for the impact on worker’s lives and the environment.

Out of the possible 250 marks, no brand scores higher than 50%, though notable schemes and available public data distinguishes H&M, Marks and Spencer, Adidas and Reebok as industry leaders on transparency, though there is still a long way to go. “Transparency is a symbolic first step. It’s insane that we don’t know more (about fashion supply chains), and that lack of transparency is the norm”, says de Castro. “But just because some of the better performing brands are publishing their information doesn’t mean it is good, but at least you can find it.”

The New Denim Project answering 'I made your clothes'. http://www.thenewdenimproject.com/ c/o Fashion Revolution

The New Denim Project answering 'I made your clothes'. http://www.thenewdenimproject.com/ c/o Fashion Revolution

Another example of Fashion Revolution’s efficacy in reach can be seen on social media, with the #whomademyclothes campaign, whereby the consumer is gifted agency through the trending authority of the hashtag, emancipating hundreds of thousands of people to publicly inquire big brands’ supply chains and work force. Whilst the movement galvanises peak activity in April each year during Fashion Revolution Week, the question continues to be asked by Twitter and Instagram users around the world all year round (reaching over 1m people in the past week alone).

The circular economy is a bit of a mantra for brands currently, giving the impression they can continue to produce over and over, suddenly without the detriment to natural resources.”

Engaging with consumers on awareness is one step toward a better informed community, however, many brands and global companies are now purporting to be sustainable and environmentally conscious, whilst very little has changed in the makeup of their manufacturing standards. Over the past few years, the circular economy, promoting reuse value as stock is returned to market, is a term gaining a lot of traction. De Castro disputes its potency to absolve companies of unsustainable business: “The circular economy is a bit of a mantra for brands currently, giving the impression they can continue to produce over and over, suddenly without the detriment to natural resources.”

“The fact is there is no cure other than slowing down currently. All the clothing waste that goes to incineration is still there, all the clothing waste that goes to landfill is still there, it’s not biodegradable. We are still in the research moment of the circular economy, but we are not yet there. The technology is getting there, but the majority is still limited when it comes to recycling mixed fibres and breaking down chemicals. By the time the technology is available, we’ll have drowned in our own waste. It’s imperative the next generation are revolutionary.”

PdC