Amelia’s Magazine | Fashioning an Ethical Industry: A Two Day Conference

It was a bittersweet moment for Fashioning an Ethical Industry supporters last month as they invited educators, information pills students, sales designers, labour activists and business thinkers to join them at RichMix in East London for a well-attended workshop on sustainable fashion. The project is now at the end of its three year funding term and hosted this two day conference in order to explore what fashion educators can do to inspire future designers to assume responsibility for the workers involved in the creation of their clothes; recognising that their job as educators is to equip students with the tools to design ethically-conscious clothes. 

Funded by Labor Behind The Label, the FEI works with tutors and students through the help of guest speakers worldwide to give an overview of how the industry works, from the moment a seed for fibre is sown to the time it reaches the shops. The life cycle of clothing, or any other product, has become more transparent as consumers become better informed, but every inch of that process and its effects need to be considered. 

The workshop opened with an exercise aimed to give the participant an idea of what it’s like to work in a factory, with patterning and cutting assignments being distributed and a meet-your-neighbour workplace atmosphere. The result: a cute little paper dress shirt.  We were then introduced to guest speaker and self-proclaimed haute-couture heretic Otto Von Busch who is known for ‘critically hacking and re-forming the operating system of fashion and the industrial modes of production.’ A tall slender Swede in tight all-black industrial chic, his brilliant ideas and hot designs had everyone wanting more. Much has been said about the importance of community in structuring our efforts in sustainability as well as managing labour rights in this Big Bang thrust of global production. And to this, Otto’s ‘Neighborhoodies’ project plants one right on its chin. Otto explains, “Your neighborhood has an impact on your stride, your gestures, your actions – the tacit signals of your body techniques. how do you dress for your hood and how does it dress you?”

So participants are invited to reflect their neighborhood through an image that’s then printed onto fabric and made into a specially designed hoodie – a ‘neighborhoodie’ as he calls them. A source of super cool ideas and an warp-speed thinker, he was certainly the highlight of the day.
But before we get ahead of ourselves the focus of this conference was to address the issues that designers rarely even see. The rights and conditions of those gathering the materials; the producers of the textiles; the garment manufacturer, and even those shipping the goods; not to mention of course the effects on the environment at each stage. It’s enough to make your head spin! People in the audience, clearly willing but at times confused asked how they were supposed to keep track of certifications, like labels we encounter on food, and know the difference between ethically/sustainably produced/sourced and all their variations. The panel offered some advice, “Focus on one thing, like materials, labour, factories. We do need a lexicon but having a universal label opens it up to panacea.” Excellent advice for those who find it all a bit overwhelming. 

Throughout the day we heard from labour rights activists such as Anannya Bhattacharjee, whose organization Asia Floor Wage Campaign is involved in the complex business of unifying, representing and demanding a universal minimum wage for workers throughout Asia. Progress has been made as brands like M&S are now mediating and influencing factories to implement a fair wage because, as she puts it,”the supplier market and government shouldn’t have to.” Therefore, we need to make sure brand leaders of the future understand the leverage they possess and make use of it properly. Check out her film here.

Another point that often arises in these multifacted overhauls is ‘who’s checking to make sure everyone is doing what they say they’re doing?’ Sophie Koers from the Fair Wear Foundation who monitors the workers’ environments explains, “Fair trade focuses on the workers of raw materials, we want to focus on the factories. We’re governed by NGOs, trade unions and business associations which keeps us credible and independent. Even though they announce their audits they conduct off-site interviews the week before, collect info and call them later to see what factory managers might have falsified.”

Nieves Ruiz Ramos used to work, tirelessly though well-compensated, for high street brands for years until she realized the effects of the consumerism she was supporting and started her own fair trade fashion label Bibico. Working closely with women’s cooperatives in Nepal and India she encourages us to consider the value in getting close to your suppliers and personalizing the process. The name ‘bibi’ was her childhood nickname and also a hindi word used to respectfully refer to women. 

At the other end of the world, as well as the fashioin food chain, Alex McIntosh from the Centre for Sustainable Fashion explained how his organization supports fashion businesses by addressing how their aesthetics interact with their ethics. Often, he says, they deal with young designers whose work was not born with an interest in ethical fashion but can elevate and help power the movement with the help of the centre’s research and curriculum. 

A lovely little play, first performed in 1908, named Warp and Woof: Food for Thought perked everyone up from a long day of information overload. Adapted by Dr.Clare Rose it was a period-piece peeking into the world of labour rights auditors in early 1900 London and served to drive the point home in a way videos of far off regions could not. 

The second day of the event was rounded off with a panel discussion of authors and editors on the sustainable fashion shelves, titles such as ‘Eco-Chic: The Savvy Shoppers Guide To Ethical Fashion‘ by Matilda Lee and ‘Eco-Chic:The Fashion Paradox‘ written by Sandy Black, were available to leaf through. In addition to books, guests took advantage of the chance to engage speakers of particular interest, such as Annie Dibble on the Himalayan giant nettle’s incredible fibre yielding properties and the Rai women who cultivate it, or the Pechakucha style presentations by Carolina Gomez-Auber on her project ‘Social Alterations‘ in El Salvador, which aims to reappropriate waste in an effort to save cultural craft skills from extinction. Dimitra Giannopolou’s project ‘Tell Teens Tales’ addresses how to reach marketing-weary teenage girls with the message about sustainability through fairy tales. Check out her video, too.

 And so dynamic discussions were popping off left and right, numbers and emails were exchanged and the seeds of future collaborations were planted. It was reassuring to see, after hours of discussion on topics of such gravity and scope, that furrowed brows gave way to a broader perspective and, finally, optimism.

Is sustainable fashion an oxymoron? Read more here.

Categories ,Asia Floor Wage Campaign, ,Bibico, ,Centre for Sustainable Fashion, ,Communities, ,East London, ,Enviroment, ,Fair Wear Foundation, ,Fashioning an Ethical Industry, ,FEI, ,India, ,Labour, ,Labour behind the Label, ,LCF, ,Matilda Lee, ,Neighbourhoodies, ,Nepal, ,Nieves Ruiz Ramos, ,Otto VOn Busch, ,Rich Mix Cultural Foundation, ,Sandy Black, ,Sutstainability, ,Tell Teens Tales

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