Orsola de Castro, co-founder of Fashion Revolution:
‘The year has highlighted how uncommitted the industry is to change’
Never has a year reminded me of 2013, when the Rana Plaza factory collapsed, as much as this year. Covid has highlighted profound inequalities, of which the fashion industry is queen. It has reminded me that it takes a tragedy to make people take notice.
The year has highlighted how uncommitted the fashion industry is to change. It was yet again caught red-handed exploiting its workers and exploiting nature, yet there has not been a cohesive call to change. I want to see responsibility taken; this is an opportunity for brands and corporations to give back.
I want to see repairs and mending stations in all shops that sell cheap clothes, I want to see the luxury market moving towards what luxury should be, which is 100% traceability and 100% disclosure of materials and supply chains, and I want to see them making space for those who are doing all this better than themselves – give shops, space and support to smaller brands that are innovating faster than they are.
I see an incredible amount of change from emerging brands. There are voices that no longer talk about scaling massively and I see a real legitimacy in wanting to stay small, which I didn’t before. There is a lot more anti-capitalist talk. For the first time, we are looking at the exploitative nature of the system from its very origin.
I feel heartened that these conversations are taking place, especially among very young and diverse communities. These are the the people who, potentially, have little alternative financially but to buy fast fashion, but now are moving on to buying secondhand, to analysing the system and understanding the correlation between fashion and racism. This is what Fashion Revolution has been talking about.For the younger audience, the exploitation of supply chain workers in producing countries had not been clear-cut, but it’s more understood now.
I hope that when governments tell us to start buying again to restart the economy, we’ll think, however briefly: “Who is this money going to?”
Aja Barber, fashion writer:
‘The multinational companies know the writing’s on the wall’
Not enough has changed in the past year. I can’t think of a single big multinational company that is doing something bold. The greenwashing has amped up 150% but the actual change that is required to make the system one that can sustain itself has not happened.
The fact that multinational companies are willing to pay celebrities tons of money to help them greenwash their message signals that firms such as H&M and Primark know the writing’s on the wall. You cannot make that much clothing every year and call yourself a sustainable company; that will always negate whatever sustainability you are achieving. What’s going to be a push is whether or not they actually do what truly needs to be done.
Of course, the change that we need in the industry requires governments and lawmakers to act, but that will not happen without citizen action. Last year, I hoped that people would make more considered decisions about their spending, and I do think this past year has seen citizen awareness change. While many people have gone even harder into consumerism, many others have altered the pattern of how, when and why they buy. I get messages every day from people saying: ‘I really check in with myself when I pull out my credit card’.
Rahemur Rahman, menswear designer:
‘People are creating their own systems’
The fashion industry has changed a lot in the past year. During the pandemic, with everything going online, it has meant that anyone can do whatever they want. Young designers can be living at their mum’s house in Coventry and the buyers still get to see the collections. People are bypassing old systems and creating their own, and it works. We’ve got online retailers picking up emerging designers who are doing small runs of 50 tops from their bedroom, and designers such as Ahluwalia are setting up their own online stores. Designers are taking back ownership. That rebellious punky attitude is so British; it’s what British fashion was all about before it became a machine.
The system can be less about growth – none of us emerging designers wants to be massive and corporate; I don’t want to be like JW Anderson. Not going through a central retailer means the cost of your garments is a lot less. The reason garment workers get paid so little is that retailers take such big markups. When you go through the traditional system, if something costs £10 to make, the store will sell it for £90. That means it isn’t sustainable for the designer or the people who work on the textiles. By changing the system, designers will be able to sustain their businesses, be transparent and treat the people making the clothes fairly.
My big hope is that we go back to the conversation around climate change, which has fallen away during Covid. We have to go back to that. I want a world to live in when I’m 60.
Dana Thomas, author:
‘We will see a rethinking of the trade routes that have existed since the East India Company’
The most important thing the pandemic has given us is transparency around how our clothes are made, who makes them, where they are made and what they are made of. Bad apples have been exposed. For instance, there were several major brands that cancelled their orders in places like Bangladesh. Employees who were already living below the poverty line were told to go home and starve. Then there was the scandal in Xinjiang in China. Many brands, such as Adidas and H&M, said they would no longer source their cotton there but have since backed away. I applaud brands that have reformed and think shining a spotlight on those who haven’t is necessary. They should not be profiting from other people’s misery.
One year on, there is also a lot less excitement for going to fashion shows. Designers and brands – mostly designers – have decided to slow everything down. They finally said: “We’re not going to do 52 seasons a year, we’re not going to do so many shows and we’re not going to overproduce.”
I hope these changes stay but it will depend on cost. If brands see they are making just as much profit by doing fewer shows or that they make more money by producing 100 pieces a season instead of 400, then they will stick with that because what is important is their bottom line.
Last year, I hoped that brands would bring some manufacturing home; the need for that was really shown by the mess in the Suez canal. I think we will see more of a network where we have US products made in the US and British products made in Britain; there will be a rethinking of the trade routes that have existed since the explorers started the East India Company. It will be more evenly distributed, rather than everything being made in one part of the world and then put on a ship.
Ayesha Barenblat, founder of Remake:
‘How do we have an industry that is more transparent, fair and accountable?’
At the start of the pandemic, fashion brands cancelled upwards of $40bn in contracts. Through relentless campaigning, and workers and citizens protesting in solidarity, we have recovered $22bn; it has been the most successful labour campaign of my career. I don’t think this kind of solidarity would have been possible if we weren’t in lockdown in front of our screens.
One year later I think it’s important for people to remember that there remains a long list of brands who haven’t paid up. We are also seeing more factories closing and more workers who aren’t being paid severance; hunger is something that a lot of the communities we work with are grappling with. The pandemic has cracked wide open the inequities in the fashion system. The top 40 fast-fashion brands are profiting – they have managed to pay their shareholders and executives, while the workers are reporting severe drops in already poverty wages.
It has struck a nerve, whether you are a shopper in the UK or US, or a garment worker in Cambodia. People are saying, “We are all in this fight together” and asking: “How dare this profitable industry continue to exploit the black and brown women who predominantly power it, while enriching shareholders?”
What I want to see next is a more worker-centric system; how do we have a fashion industry that’s more transparent, just and accountable to people and the planet? Plus, whether we want to end poverty wages or make an impact when it comes to climate, we need to pass laws. Thirty years of brands saying “We’re going to take care of this ourselves” have not reformed fashion. We are already seeing an awakening with the Garment Worker Protection Act in California, a UK parliamentary inquiry and some of the mandatory human rights due diligence laws in Germany. Citizens and worker organisations are really looking to politicians to do their job.
Céline Semaan, designer, writer and founder of Slow Factory:
‘We need brands to go beyond greenwashing’
I am sad to say that nothing has really changed in the industry in the past year. In fact, it is becoming even harder to get the industry to invest in positive change, despite a lot of action on Instagram. Brands are choosing inaction instead of imperfect action, for fear of being accused of greenwashing, which is heartbreaking because we have no time to waste. Brands laying low does not fix their reputation and it is not going to fix the situation they have a responsibility to help fix.
During the pandemic, most brands big and small have been hit economically so they are all trying to sell as much as possible again – it’s back to the old, inefficient model. Creativity is key. We need brands to think about how they can go beyond the ad world, go beyond greenwashing, and into taking action. Right now their activities outside of sales and profit are smaller and smaller. The action we are seeing is far away from where it should be, and even further from where we were last year.
That said, things have shifted culturally. There has been more support for black-owned brands and for indigenous brands. The public has been demonstrating support for smaller brands, supporting those they really want to see surviving. Big brands might still be slow to change, but what gives me hope is to see culture changing – and policy follows culture. I hope we can decentralise these systems away from profit and more into community- and benefit- and equity-centred solutions. I also hope brands make impact investments a core part of their strategies as we need all the imperfect actions possible.
Aditi Mayer, journalist:
‘The narrative around what it means to be a conscious consumer has changed’
The labour element of the sustainable fashion conversation has historically been niche but, beyond the bubble of sustainable fashion, it has become more front and centre this year. There has been a shift in the collective consciousness of consumers about what actually goes on in the industry and the disposability of garment worker life. And there has definitely been a change in the culture of accountability, driven by social media and consumers. But, from a policy perspective, I feel the industry has yet to catch up in terms of having the mechanisms to ensure this exploitation doesn’t exist.
A year ago I was hopeful we would reorient our relationship with consumerism and I think we do have a newfound relationship with it. People are reckoning with what they really need and I have seen the narrative change around what it means to be a “conscious consumer”. There is a lot more focus on the idea of the engaged citizen – one who is looking at grassroots organising, policy and direct action as the means to change – versus the idea that we can buy our way out of the situation, consciously.
I think people are seeing that when we present ourselves as more than just a consumer our individual actions can help achieve the systemic changes we want to see.