What is Sustainable Fashion?

THIS TALK WAS DELIVERED ON THE 95TH GLOBAL VOYAGE OF JAPANESE NGO, PEACE BOAT (August - November 2017). I WAS WORKING WITH THE NGO AS AN ENGLISH TEACHER AND INTERNATIONAL DIVISION VOLUNTEER. WITH MY BACKGROUND IN FASHION DESIGN, I WAS ASKED TO ORGANIZE A SERIES OF LECTURES AND EVENTS ON THE TOPIC OF SUSTAINABLE FASHION. IN THIS second LECTURE, I CHOSE to share more deeply about my experience, and focus on how humanity intersects with industry.

This lecture was composed with consecutive interpretation in mind (Japanese).

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Good afternoon everyone and thank you for coming today. My name is Lisa Wynne and I am from Ireland. On the ship I am one of the GET English teachers, but today I will be talking about a different subject. I studied design in Ireland’s National College of Art and Design, and I worked as a fashion designer for two years. I had always wanted to be a fashion designer, but I fell out of love with the industry. In my dreams I had been a craftsperson, carefully producing items to be owned, worn, and cherished. But the reality of working in the industry today is more about outsourcing, and feeding your product into a system which rapidly consumes, discards, and then expects the next thing. The fashion industry as it is right now, is wholly unsustainable. Today, I want to talk about the topic of ethical and sustainable fashion.

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Do you ever think about how, before we had fashion, we just had clothes? Once upon a time, clothes were precious, because a lot of time and skills went into making them. Fibers were harvested from plants or animal skins. These fibers were washed and dried. The fibers were spun into thread and wound onto spools. The threads were strung onto the loom woven together. The woven cloth was dyed with natural colors collected from plants or berries. The colored cloth was cut into carefully measured shapes and the pieces were sewn together with needle and thread.

It’s not that long ago that a “shopping trip” probably meant going to buy cut cloth as much as it meant buying ready-made garments. Our grandparents’ or even our parents’ generations often made many items of clothing for themselves and their families. Did anyone have something made for them by a relative? Or make clothes for a family member? My aunt made most of her clothes when she was young. My grandmother knit many sweaters and cardigans for my brother and I.

Domestic sewing and knitting has fallen out of fashion, because fashion itself has become so cheap for consumers. Clothing as a craft is reserved for museums, or a wealthy elite – think haute couture, catwalk fashion shows – while fashion, propelled by advertising-driven, aspirational media, is presented to us as a lifestyle, a means of social acceptance, even a source of emotional satisfaction.

So what has changed? Why has the value of clothes plummeted, yet the volume wildly increased? Are clothes made so differently now than, say, fifty years ago?

The truth is, all of the steps I mentioned at the start, all the steps (and more) that my dear aunt went through to make her dresses and suits in the 1950s, this is still how our clothes are made today. We call the many steps in this process the “supply chain.” Although most of these processes have been sped up by machinery, automation, and technology, we have to remember that clothing is still essentially handmade.

Now, on the journey from the cotton fields to the high street stores, clothing involves more people, more movement of goods, and generates more money than ever before. According to the industry magazine Business of Fashion, if the global fashion industry were a country, it would rank as the seventh largest economy in the world. However, I don’t want to dazzle you with numbers. I want you to remember that it’s all still handmade. The problem we consumers have these days, is understanding and relating to those whose hands are doing all this work. When we see a t-shirt for five dollars, it’s hard to visualize the craft that goes into it, but every garment is made by the labor of many, many people, in increasingly diverse locations around the world.

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In 2013, an eight-story factory building collapsed in Dhaka, killing 1,129 workers, and injuring 2,500 more. Earlier that day, some workers had complained about cracks in the building, but were sent back to their machines by management. In recent years there is estimated to be about four million garment factory workers in Bangladesh. Countries such as Bangladesh, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, and China have become the factory hubs of a globalized fashion industry. In these countries, the minimum wage is low – often much lower than a living wage – and there is little regulation to protect or empower workers. Companies want the cheapest materials, the cheapest labor, and the fastest delivery. To protect profits, the cost of labor is squeezed, however the industry cannot continue to enjoy corporate profit from the exploitation of labor. We need only look at Goal 8 of the Sustainable Development Goals to remember that “decent work and economic growth” is key for the future of humanity.

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Fashion, and its dependent agricultural, chemical, and logistics industries, is one of the biggest employers on earth. Ethical fashion is about empowering and protecting that workforce. Fair Trade prices for raw materials, and living wages for factory workers, are essential to make a sustainable industry for all working in the supply chain. Furthermore, sustainable fashion is about redesigning the industry’s impact on the environment; to decrease demand on resources, to decrease pollution, and to decrease waste. Goal 15 is for life on land. Ethical and sustainable approaches to fashion are needed to lower the industry’s environmental impact. Problems include the huge amount of waste going to landfill, fertilizers used in cotton farming, and chemical pollution of the rivers. Dangerous chemicals are used for some dyes, waterproofing, and tanning of leather. Fashion brands and designers might choose to outsource labor and globalize their supply chains, but they cannot outsource responsibility for the lives and livelihoods of the people. So who can influence these brands and designers to act responsibly and ethically?

We can all participate as smart consumers. Goal 12 is about responsible consumption and production. Educate yourself about the ethics of your favorite brands or stores. Companies who are actively trying to ensure fair pay and conditions for workers are increasingly transparent about their supply chain. You might find information about sourcing and production on brand websites. Internet searches might bring up news stories about unethical practices. Companies who are making efforts towards sustainability are usually loud and proud about it, so see what you can learn from their websites and catalogues.

from www.fashionrevolution.org

from www.fashionrevolution.org

Following the Rana Plaza disaster, a number of campaigns were started to shed light on the human power, or the human cost, in the fashion industry. Fashion Revolution Day is marked on the anniversary of the Rana Plaza building collapse every year, April 24th. In the organizations 2015 white paper they said;

 “Fashion Revolution was born on the day that Rana Plaza collapsed. This disaster acted as a metaphorical call to arms. 1,130 is too many people to lose from the planet in one factory, on one terrible day without that standing for something. We believe that the cost of fashion shouldn’t be someone’s life. We mustn’t allow tragedies like Rana Plaza to remain an unfortunate reality of contemporary life. Today, both people and the environment are still suffering as a result of how fashion is made, sourced and purchased. We believe enough is enough.”

Fashion Revolution describes itself as “designers, academics, writers, business leaders, policymakers, NGOs, brands, retailers, marketers, producers, makers, workers, consumers and activists.” The campaign has made brilliant use of social media to proliferate information, and to inspire activism in consumers all around the world.

from www.fashionrevolution.org

from www.fashionrevolution.org

One of the most successful offshoots from this has been the “Who Made Your Clothes?” movement. What a simple question to ask! Who made the clothes you are wearing right now? We look at the label, and all we can find out is what country the clothes were made in. This campaign captured the imagination of millions from all corners and all walks of life. The wording of the campaign encourages consumers to specifically consider the hands involved in making fashion. The hashtag #whomadeyourclothes has garnered huge participation in the campaign on Twitter. Millions of tweets featuring this hashtag are directly addressed to the twitter accounts of brands and retailers, publicizing the conversation and getting the consumers voices directly to the brands.

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Another way the brands can hear the voice of the consumer, is through our purchasing decisions. We can think more critically about the products we buy – more often than not, if something is incredibly cheap, it probably is not ethically produced. On the contrary, higher prices do not guarantee good ethics or sustainable practices. So what can we do? As I mentioned before, knowledge is power. Learn more about the stores you regularly shop at. If you are considering a significant purchase (a suit, a high-performance rain jacket) look at your options and choose something which you can feel comfortable and proud of wearing.

Sustainable fashion is still even more than all these things. It’s about the use of animal fur and skins in clothing. It’s about the sourcing of down feathers for warm, lightweight coats. It’s about the people working with chemicals used to create the bright colors and high-tech coatings on fabrics these days. It’s about the farmers growing acres of cotton and getting a fair price for their crop. It’s about the thousands of liters of water used to produce a single pair of jeans. It’s about the tons and tons of textile waste discarded into landfill every year. It’s about shopping in second-hand stores. It’s about upcycling, recycling, and moving towards a closed loop industry where all waste is reused or repurposed. It’s about filtering the fanatical fashion media, and making our own, considered decisions about what we want, what we need, and what we actually spend our money on.

One way we can each combat waste is to reconsider our shopping habits. The famous British fashion designer, Vivienne Westwood, has for many years been advising people to stop shopping. Of course this is a little hard to take seriously, coming from someone at the head of an enormous, world-famous fashion brand, which produces multiple collections of clothes, shoes, and accessories every year, but her message makes sense. Buy less, and make your clothes last longer with care. Repair is a simple but radical intervention we all can make, and it can delay or even prevent landfill waste. Also, by adding your own hand to the life of the garment, you’ll value it even more.

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Tomorrow, I will be running a clothing repair workshop here in the Free Space, from 11:00-12:00. There will be needles and threads so please bring anything you want to repair. I’ll be there to offer tips and advice about repairing and caring for your clothes.

Straight after this, you can watched the acclaimed documentary film by Andrew Morgan, called The True Cost. Head to Pacific on the sixth floor to take a deep dive into the fashion industry today.

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That’s all we have time for here today. Thank you for coming, and I look forward to continuing this conversation about ethical and sustainable fashion.


This was the second in a series of lectures I gave about sustainable and ethical fashion on Peace Boat’s 95th Global Voyage (August - November 2017). The introductory lecture is here. Following this lecture, I facilitated a Clothing Care & Repair Workshop. About twenty people came to the workshop, bringing ripped or damaged garments. As well as enabling everyone to make simple, hand-sewing repairs, the workshop provided a great opportunity to discuss quality, consumption, and shopping habits, especially when buying souvenirs overseas.