Fashion Revolution Question Time: Highlights

Fashion Revolution Question Time: Highlights | Curiously Conscious
Fashion Revolution Question Time: Highlights | Curiously Conscious

Yesterday was Fashion Revolution Day. It marked six years from the Rana Plaza collapse, which took 1,138 people’s lives and injured a further 2,500 people.

It was the fourth largest industrial disaster in history – and all for fashion.

Out of this disaster came Fashion Revolution, a movement created to make fast fashion brands accountable for their supply chains and production methods, as well as promote better ways to buy and wear clothes.

I love what Fashion Revolution is doing, and am totally behind it. I care how my clothes are made, and their impact on the environment. I also believe we can only create change by putting pressure on our Governments, regulatory bodies, and the big corporations who are doing it all oh so wrong.

Fashion Revolution’s Question Time #FQT

Rather than look back over the progress of the last six years, Fashion Revolution is pushing ahead.

They held their annual Question Time event at the V&A with industry professionals from commercial, charitable, educational and political spaces, and I was fortunate to sit in the audience to hear what they had to say.

On the panel were:

I’d planned to live-tweet the event, but I was blown away by the answers to the point where I knew it had to be a blog post all on its own!

Instead of presenting their responses in the traditional Q&A format, I’ve grouped them into themes that occurred during the event.

(Full disclosure: I did miss some responses, and I have also only included responses that I felt were genuinely useful).

On creating a circular economy

Hendrik Alpen, Sustainability Engagement Manager at H&M Group:

Moving to a circular model makes business sense. Right now, H&M operates one of the biggest global take back schemes.

Dr Mark Sumner, Lecturer in Sustainability, Fashion and Retail at University of Leeds:

Some [fashion] supply chains are highly efficient, but there’s huge diversity in the industry. 

Consumers need to get involved … we have to be aware of our own impact.

Some brands can turn 75% of taken-back garments into new. Personally I’ve seen one factory that makes only 1.5% waste, which is then donated to charity.

Laura Balmond, Make Fashion Circular Project Manager at Ellen MacArthur Foundation:

What does the design of circular garments look like? Currently, we cant process everything in take back.

I believe that the circular economy will be business-led. We need businesses to get behind this common vision … The current system doesn’t work. Leaders [in sustainable fashion] continue to push ahead – will the others exist in 5 years time?

The real problem is blended materials – there’s no way to recycle that yet.

Mary Creagh, Chair of Environmental Audit Committee and MP for Wakefield:

The current [fashion industry] model promotes over consumption and under utilisation.

We [the Government] need to think much more deeply about this – policy has been crowded out by Brexit psycho drama. We’re in a unique situation where the public are dragging the Government.

On natural vs synthetic materials

Dr Mark Sumner, Lecturer in Sustainability, Fashion and Retail at University of Leeds:

Scientific data shows polyester is more sustainable than cotton. So that’s a challenge.

Polyester as a fibre is much more durable too, so it promotes longevity.

We need to understand where there is a place for synthetics, and a place for cotton.

Also look at colour – natural dyes sometimes require highly toxic heavy metals to apply for example. So these have to go through approval that they’re safe.

We need to base this on science to understand where the complexities are.

Mary Creagh, Chair of Environmental Audit Committee and MP for Wakefield:

[UK Government] kicked off an inquiry into toxic chemicals yesterday. The effects of chemicals only become apparent over time (as we can’t test on humans).

What will happen when we change from fossil fuels to renewable energy? Polyester will jump in price as it’s a bi-product of the petrochemicals industry.

We also have a microfibre problem.

On ensuring ethics and transparency

Laura Balmond, Make Fashion Circular Project Manager at Ellen MacArthur Foundation:

Transparency leads but doesn’t create action, and it’s hard to verify. What are the incentives to improve the system?

Currently info is only as good as what’s disclosed at the very beginning. [We must] incentivise accurate data inputting. Right now, materials may not even be accurate on clothing labels.

Dr Mark Sumner, Lecturer in Sustainability, Fashion and Retail at University of Leeds:

[WRAP UK’s] Sustainable Clothing Action Plan has less retailers than needed, and experienced a Government funding cut.

Hendrik Alpen, Sustainability Engagement Manager at H&M Group:

H&M is actively engaged in making sure the Bangladesh Accord continues to operate.

We have launched a new tool to trace back where each garment is made.

Mary Creagh, Chair of Environmental Audit Committee and MP for Wakefield:

The real costs of what goes into those clothes are not truly priced. We will only have change if we price clothing based on the material, the labour, and the carbon emissions. Those costs are currently passed onto the countries of production.

The Bangladesh Accord is being questioned as factory owners are being squeezed. Big brands are still making profit, and workers are being paid more.

[Currently] it’s down to little NGOs to police big brands. Footlocker doesn’t provide anti-slavery statement on their website [for example].

We must make accountants and CEOs accountable for slavery and emissions.

Anyone with a pension fund can buy shares in business, and as a shareholder [you can] go to AGMs and to put pressure on.

On the importance of fashion vs. climate collapse

Laura Balmond, Make Fashion Circular Project Manager at Ellen MacArthur Foundation:

In the last 15 years, clothing production has doubled. 

Currently fashion accounts for 2% of global emissions budget. [If we don’t change anything] by 2050, this will be 25%.

Hendrik Alpen, Sustainability Engagement Manager at H&M Group:

H&M is committed to being climate positive by 2040.

Mary Creagh, Chair of Environmental Audit Committee and MP for Wakefield:

Everything we do to the earth, we do to ourselves.

Fashion must set out its road map to net zero. It’s had its free pass.

On changing attitudes in fashion

Dr Mark Sumner, Lecturer in Sustainability, Fashion and Retail at University of Leeds:

We have a consumption culture as a society. This is the root cause, a culture. So we need stakeholder engagement at all sorts of levels. We need structures to incentivise good practice and punish bad practice.

Laura Balmond, Make Fashion Circular Project Manager at Ellen MacArthur Foundation:

Fashion is more than just wearing clothes. There is creativity in fashion. Bloggers and influencers wear an item once for Instagram and then move on. Then there’s the guy who buys his one pair of Levi’s and that’s it.

Rental and swapping keeps clothes in use but not with the same people.

Hendrik Alpen, Sustainability Engagement Manager at H&M Group:

We have launched a vintage sales platform with & Other Stories.

Mary Creagh, Chair of Environmental Audit Committee and MP for Wakefield:

The retreat of high street provides space for small [ethical] pop ups. More and more, people want bespoke and unique pieces.

We need to look at [reducing] taxation and business rates. Value repairing and recycling. Perhaps even reduce VAT on repair services.

We need to de-stigmatise second-hand [fashion] and hand-me-downs.

“We must hear the cry of the earth, we must hear the cry of the poor.”  There are two problems we must solve. 

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