In the last two years, the conversation around sustainability in fashion has heightened to a deafening crescendo. After years of campaigning from environmentalists and human rights activists alike, brands finally seem open to change. And those that aren’t are facing customer backlash. But it’s not just brands that need to step up, and we can’t just idly wait for legislative change.
Unsustainable practises permeate every layer of fashion, which means everyone can do their bit. And stylists are not exempt, as Fran Burns was keen to admit at her event with The Sustainable Angle last week. “The subject of sustainable fashion has been making me increasingly uncomfortable, mostly because I know so little about it,” she explained. “But we’ve inherited an industry with so much work to do, and it’s time we do it.”
Fran has been working with non-profit organisation The Sustainable Angle, to learn more about how her work impacts the industry and what she can do better. These were the five key lessons to take away:
The Fashion Transparency Index has been holding brands accountable for their sustainability efforts since 2016, rating them in order of how much information they share. In 2017, a tidal wave of open source reports were published, and Greenpeace tackled overconsumption in Fashion at the Crossroads. Back in February, the British government’s Environmental Audit Committee released the Fixing Fashion report to an expectant readership of conscious consumers. Read up on the statistics so you can understand how your actions impact the industry and the environment. It might sound boring, but knowledge is power and all that…
Fabrics are often the first step in a supply chain, which is why many brands fall at the first hurdle. Nina Marenzi, founder and director of The Sustainable Angle, wrote an entire dissertation on organic cotton. She found that fashion was dragging its heels when it came to fabric choices, often seduced by the aesthetics but paying little attention to the provenance. And when 60% of a product’s environmental impact lies in material choice, there is a high price to pay for overlooking it. That’s why she developed the Future Fabrics Expo, the perfect place for stylists to learn more about the fabrics they’re working with. The expo plays host to over 170 global suppliers, showcasing 5,000 sustainably-sourced fabrics. “I used to think faux fur was better than real fur,” says Fran. “Then I found out that faux is acrylic, which is way worse for the environment. Now I try to avoid both. You have to really think about the fabrics you’re using, because they become aspirational.”
Junior stylists might not have the power or security to ask brands hard-hitting questions, but they can make suggestions. Fran has found that putting a positive spin on things really helps. “Greta Thunberg was just on the cover of i-D,” she said. “That shows sustainability is something young buyers want, and brands need to acknowledge that.” Nina agrees: “Nothing kills a brand quicker than if they are seen as tone-deaf.”
Fashion Revolution has been asking #WhoMadeMyClothes ever since the Rana Plaza factory collapse in 2013, when 1,134 garment workers died making clothes for retailers including Primark and Matalan. According to Amanda Johnston, curator and education consultant at The Sustainable Angle, storytelling like this is the key to spreading sustainable practices. “We need to make stories about where materials come from and the clothes’ sustainability credentials part of the conversation,” she said. Brands that use recycled materials are a great place to start: Vegea make a leather-like fabric using grape skins from the wine industry, whilst Parley partnered with Adidas to turn ocean plastic into trainers.
Not everyone is going to care as much as you do. People move at different paces, and some face bigger barriers to change. It’s more complex for an established to pivot on all its policies than it is for an individual to swap their shopping habits, but shopping sustainably can also be a privileged option. Many sustainable brands are more expensive, and some customers don’t have the time or means to research every item they buy. Former Vogue Editor-in-Chief Alexandra Schulman pointed out that “people don’t want to read huge reports about where their clothes come from.” Accept that you can’t topple the whole system overnight, but do what you can. As Nina said, “It takes time to change.”