Ethical fashion‘s movers and shakers met at the Ethical Fashion Forum’s SOURCE Summit last Friday. Calling itself “the most important event for fashion and sustainability“, this was a one-day industry convention held at The Crystal in London.
It was a day where people working in the ever-growing ethical fashion ghetto could network and discuss the issues that colour the sector. As with any growing field, the future was discussed and debated at length along with the sustainability of sustainability, how to hit the mass appeal zeitgeist and, crucial to all this progress, transparency.
Like most things fashion, buzzwords abounded. “Ethics”. “Sustainability”. “Rana Plaza” – the Bangladeshi factory used to make clothes to feed the international demand for fast fashion which collapsed killing 1,127 workers this April. The reverberations from the tragedy run deep in this part of the fashion sector. Virtually every speaker mentioned it and there was a genuine sense everyone wanted to do something about it. However, very few people had the individual power to wish away the constructs that made that building fall apart.
Another burning concern was how to change an industry with industrial and worker exploitation embedded in the heart of its profit-making model.
“If you buy unsustainable fashion, you are telling brands it is okay to be unsustainable,” says Belgium fashion designer and former art director for Hugo Boss, Bruno Pieters.
“Reputation is important. If you look at luxury brands, they gained their consumer trust when they were small and hand-crafted. Everything was done to a high quality. Sure, you paid for it but you knew what you were getting.
“The disconnect happened when their production became industrialised. You were no longer getting the bespoke service but the markups remained the same. So now the heritage of what people are buying into isn’t what is being delivered.”
Pieters used to run Hugo Boss’s Hugo line and is a fashion industry ‘name’. Now running his own label, Honest by, which claims to be the first 100% transparent fashion brand, Pieters is a stealth hippie. His clothes and poise disguise a Gandhi-quoting vegan firmly committed to ensuring customers know what they are getting.
You can find out exactly what goes into all his clothes – from the farmers who grew it, the factories that made it and, controversially, what kind of profit he makes when he’s selling it to you.
“I created the brand because transparency was what I was looking for as a consumer but couldn’t find. I’m using it as a tool for change. Change doesn’t start with institutions. The pyramid of power in fashion has the designer at the bottom, then the CEO, the shareholders and at the very top is the consumer.”
Transparency was brought up on a panel about the future of ethical businesses to Vivienne Westwood‘s head of couture, Brigitte Stepputtis, via a question from the floor.
“If Vivienne is so concerned about the ethics of fashion, why doesn’t she have a transparent supply chain?”
It was the first question of the day and immediately set the tone for subsequent queries. Brigitte, who works on the higher end of the Westwood line and is an artist in her own right, diffused the frisson and said she would relay all of these questions to the boss.
“Change is happening, but it is a process,” Brigitte continued when we chatted later on. “Sourcing ethically will be difficult until governments legislate for that process. One of the most important issues for us is to be able to work sustainably but to scale. We have a global brand.
“It is easier for smaller lines to be more transparent because they don’t have the scale that we have. And we don’t have the scale the likes of H&M have. Many ethical producers and artisans can’t keep up with the thousands of metres of fabric that we need in the short timescales that we ask from them.”
Then surely the question shouldn’t be about what you consume but whether you should consume at all? “Part of sustainability is durability so we make our clothes to last for years, to be anti-fashion and always look good despite trends. Fashion will eventually be ethical and sustainable. For us, the next five years will see some big changes towards this because you will see big changes in the supply chain.”
Having only spotted two pairs of Birkenstocks amongst the hundreds of attendees who took great pride in their “look”, the notion that ethical fashion looks like an itchy Laura Ashley-print orgy is on its way out. Vogue.com‘s editor, Dolly Jones said “It’s all about design. If you show us pretty clothes, we’ll write about them.”
However, keynote speaker and chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Ethics and Sustainability in Fashion, Baroness Lola Young, said that “perfection can be a hindrance to progress”. She referred to a number of strictly puritanical activists who view corporate or mass media moves towards ethics with deep suspicion – the “go hard or go home” faction of ethical fashionistas who live the ideal and keep everybody in check. ASOS’s Ethical Trade Manager Alice Strevens echoes the industry line when she stressed the importance for the “sustainable agenda to sit with the commercial one”.
The shift towards a wider acceptance of transparency was thrown in to the spotlight after the deaths of over a thousand factory workers at Rana Plaza. But even before that tragedy, major brand agents like PPR – who generated over €9.7bn in revenue in 2012 – changed their name to Kering to reflect their changing values. Technology is getting a look in when Indigenous use QR codes to allow a consumers to trace their garment’s supply chain and MIT have a SourceMap that tracks global brands.
I can’t imagine swathes of fashionistas storming Topshop like its the Bastille and toppling Philip Green, but it will take a combination of radical thought, creative and directional design and a lot of consumer pressure to push governments towards legislation that makes transparency the business norm.
=== This article was first published in The Guardian, 15 July 2013.