Reflecting after Fashion Revolution Week and looking forward to the future of sustainable textiles, a long read.
As we reach the end of another Fashion Revolution Week we are left reflecting on what has changed since the movement began, following the collapse of the Rana Plaza seven years ago and looking to what the future might, and must, hold.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with the Fashion Revolution movement, here’s a little summary:
In 2013 a garment factory building in Bangladesh collapsed and killed over 1,100 people. Approximately 2,500 others were injured.
The majority of those in the building were young women and they were making clothes for some of the biggest fashion brands in the world.
It later appeared that cracks had started to appear in the walls of the building and workers had expressed concerns to management. The pressure of order deadlines and quota fulfilment caused management to make workers continue working inside, threatening to withhold pay if they refused to work.
29 global brands were identified in the rubble including Mango, Primark and Matalan.
Following this approximately 250 companies signed two new initiatives, the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, and the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, both of which were designed to improve safety dramatically in 2,300 factories supplying western brands. However, there are still some key brands who have refused to sign them including Nike, IKEA and Abercrombie & Fitch (which although sounds like a #tbt is actually still producing millions of garments).
This incident led to the launch of Fashion Revolution, a non-profit organisation which has grown through calling on consumers to demand a fairer and more transparent fashion industry, as well as hosting events and initiatives that have been endorsed by celebrities.
The campaign began by adopting a simple hashtag #WhoMadeMyClothes? to encourage consumers to ask more questions about the supply chain of their clothing, and to demand retailers a) share more transparent information and b) work harder on sustainable solutions. The use of the hashtag still continues, not just during Fashion Revolution Week either.
So where are we now?
In our opinion, not that far from where we started. Let’s start with the positives:
We have seen a huge increase in awareness of the horrors of fast fashion, and for people questioning the ethics behind their garments. We have seen a huge surge in the demand for second-hand clothing and clothing rental companies with apps like Depop and Hurr providing a great diversity of styles at a reasonable price. A study by WRAP last year found that 77% of people in the UK want to shop second-hand; the number that actually do is likely much less and it’s probably an appetite for “bargains” rather than a thought for sustainability that acts as the main driver. Nevertheless, another market research survey found that 94% of people said they would be more keen to shop second-hand if they saw celebrities or influencers doing it. Such is the world we live in. Having said that, thankfully we have seen celebrities, and pretty prominent ones too, become proud outfit repeaters.
Now the negatives: Brands are still. Not. Playing. Fair. Within hours of hearing that non-essential shops would be closing here in the UK due to COVID-19, news emerged that Primark has not paid for factory orders that have been completed for fear they won’t sell stock. Under no circumstances would ordering something, having it made, and then just not paying be ok. If this happened between consumer and brand, the brand would be torn to pieces.
There is still a lack of knowledge around, a purposeful ignorance of, and the demand for fast fashion. For example, six years on from the Rana Plaza event, between episodes of itv’s Love Island 2019 series last year were Missguided adverts for a sleek black bikini selling for just a single pound. Yep, that was it’s USP: a bikini costing only £1. It does not matter if you are purchasing in bulk, it does not matter if you are using cheap fabric, it does not matter if you can subsidise from profits on other items, you cannot make a bikini for a pound if you are doing it fairly. Ignoring everything else, the price of labour for making that bikini should be (and under fair circumstances is) more than £1. Their comment was “We launched the £1 bikini as a promotional item to celebrate 10 years of empowering women to look and feel good without breaking the bank.” The bikini sold out in every size – from 4 to 24 – within 45 minutes of each restock.
The same people who rushed to buy the £1 bikini are likely also those who buy cheap t-shirts with feminist statements on, and this isn’t a dig (well not really) as it’s really the brands who are to blame. Your biggest statement isn’t what people can read on the front of your t-shirt, it’s the statement you make when you spend your money. By buying cheap, you are short-changing a woman somewhere in Africa or Asia, not on purpose of course, but simply by spending your money with a brand that designs these products, endorses the way they treat their partners which more often than not are mostly women.
This week Fashion Revolution ranked H&M as the most transparent brand. What?! Now we have H&M flashing this everywhere, when actually they’re probably one of the biggest greenwashers. A regular argument amongst the eco-fashion community is whether H&M do the right thing. For such a prominent high street brand to be promoting a conscious collection and talking about sustainability is great, it opens the topic up to new audiences. But, lies, it doesn’t mean that they’re paying their workers, it doesn’t mean they’ve reduced waste, it doesn’t mean the dye from their clothing isn’t polluting waterways, and if you look closely, it doesn’t mean that they’re using sustainable textiles either and the conscious collection often has pieces that are made up of only a % of sustainable fibres. Last week’s transparency announcement by Fashion Revolution comes as a disappointment as they have essentially given an award to a company that just has a big comms budget. Transparency is NOT sustainability.
It’s not just clothes
Take two minutes right now to think about everything that’s made of fabric in your home. Bedding, furniture upholstery, curtains, tablecloths and napkins, dishcloths, facecloths, carpet, towels… Now think about things outside of the home. The seats of buses, trains and cars, tennis nets, yacht sails, ribbons on gift bags, tents. All those random things are made of some form of textile, and in their most common form, are made of a material that takes huge amounts of energy to make, is not recyclable and will take thousands of years - if not forever - to break down in landfill. It’s almost impossible to fathom the amount of textile waste from our own lifetime, nevermind the number of years that humans were using and discarding textile items before recycling was possible.
The future of fabric
So one thing is very clear: we need to rethink the future of fabrics. There have been great strides made into developing sustainable fabrics, from recycling ocean plastic into textile fibres, to making “wool” from eucalyptus. There’s no doubt that these can still be improved, turning plastic from one form into another doesn’t fulfill our personal criteria of true sustainability, but it’s a start. Sure, there’s still a lot of water used in making plant-fibre textiles, but significantly less than producing synthetic fibres. And, we can’t actually be totally sure about the lifetime and end of life processes for these new textiles, because they’re new!
Upcycling has become a bit of a trend amongst sustainable/ethical lifestylers too. That old t-shirt? The perfect cleaning rag! That piece of hem you cut off the too-long curtains? The perfect tie-backs! That old dress that now shows a bit too much boob? The perfect skirt! That 70’s floral fabric on a second-hand chair? The perfect vintage hairband! That random offcut of carpet? A knee cushion for gardening (ok that one’s a bit niche).
What does this have to do with skincare?
When we started Conscious House London, naturally we wanted to provide our gorgeous, sustainable skincare products, but there was one component that had a glaring gap when it came to sustainability: fabric accessories. Face cloths and wipes, sponges, cotton pads, all of these little disposables that somehow hadn’t received the same waggling finger as carrier bags or bottles of water. Sure, flannels and facecloths aren’t really disposable, but they’re still not really designed to last, and are typically made of polyester fibres which not only result in the regular rinsing of microplastics down the drain (and eventually into the ocean) but also will take hundreds to thousands of years to break down in landfill. So we wanted to provide an alternative.
Our fabric products are all made out of 100% plant-fibre. Our face cloths are made of eucalyptus fibre, which is a very fast growing plant making this a wonderfully renewable material. Our soap pouches are made from the jute plant which again is very fast growing, maturing usually within 6 months, and requires very little in terms of processing to produce the fibres. Using plant-fibre textiles means that these products are completely biodegradable and compostable. In the next few months we’ll also be launching reusable make-up pads made from organic cotton, a more commonly known and used plant-fibre textile. Using organic fabrics means that there is no use of chemical pesticides, herbicides or plant food, water has been conserved and the growers have taken care of the soil and land between crop cycles, making the farming process much more sustainable.
It is true that even using more sustainable textiles has an impact, no consumption is always going to leave a smaller footprint than sustainable consumption. But it is inevitable that we consume, and so if we must consume, we must consume better, and to consume better there must be better options, and to make better options more accessible, we, as a community of consumers, must choose better to encourage better.