Half-Arsed Ethics

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Back in June, I interviewed  Orsola de Castro – founder of upcycling label From Somewhere, curator of British Fashion Council’s eco fashion initiative Esthetica and all-round expert on the subject of “green” fashion – at her exhibition at Great Western Studios, tracing all the work From Somewhere and Orsola has been doing over the years since she started in 1998.  Like the idiot that I am I managed to lose this brilliantly insightful conversation because of a system failure on my phone.  And so I intruded on Orsola again, whilst on her holiday in August to speak to her on Skype.  Then the fashions happened in September and October.  The house happened in November and December.  And now it’s 20-bloody-14.

There lies the difference between my “half-arsed” approach towards the unsavoury ethics of the fashion industry and people like Orsola, whose optimism for positive change within the industry is unwavering and authors like Lucy Siegle, whose search for the “perfect” guilt-free wardrobe as documented in her book To Die For: Is Fashion Wearing Out the World? means she can wear a wardrobe free of poor labour practises and environmentally-unfriendly textiles.  I cared enough to hunt Orsola down twice but not enough to bother transcribing the interview until months later.

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We now enter 2014 and changes are definitely a-coming.  It seems like the perfect time to resurrect this conversation and point out the pertinent issues that the fashion industry faces – things that neither you or I will be able to ignore.  As a consummate fashion enthusiast and staunch defender of the positives of the industry, it doesn’t feel cool or clever to pretend that fashion is nothing but a bundle of laughs – that everything is fabulous and anything that isn’t can be swept under the carpet.  When I say I’m a half-arsed in my attitude towards the ethics of fashion production, I mean that I care about provenance and about where and how things were made and about the quality of what I’m wearing, but my ultimate goal is for aesthetic pleasure.  I’m not hardline enough to rule out clothes from the high street, despite not knowing the ins and outs of their labour practises.  I’m also not hardline enough to go out and demand information from every single designer about their fabric sourcing and supply chain.  It’s loosely based on Rhiannon Coslett’s witty piece on the Guardian about being a half-arsed accidental feminist, that caring a little is better than none at all.

IMG_5268Reclaim to Wear’s collaboration with Speedo

What I learnt from my two lengthy encounters with Orsola though is that the tide of change is upon us so that it is up to the companies and the powers that be in the industry to make the changes.  The consumer is already half way there by beginning to ask the questions.  The fact that we’re not at the point where enough of the right product is out there for consumption is something that according to Orsola, will change for the better.

When asked about my initial protestation about the current eco-fashion scene is that… well, for the large part, it isn’t fashion as we know it.  There are often aesthetic and creative lackings.   Orsola had a salient answer.

“In Berlin this summer, my eyes were open to the thriving eco-clothing world and market there.  I’m calling it specifically eco-clothing.  It’s not fashion, it’s clothing.  Wonderful but I asked, ‘Have you thought of working with fashion designers or do more of a fashion offering?’  They say,  ‘I’ve got 150 stockists worldwide.  I am producing.  I’m supporting communities in third world.’  

It’s the fashion houses that should be offering an eco collections.   Not the eco-clothing offering fashion.

It’s not up to them to change what they’re doing.  It’s up to Gucci and the like.

Furthermore that eventually it will be the non-ethical fashion entities who are the minority.

Bruno Pieters, who is doing wonderful work at Honest By said something that stuck with me.

To doubt that it will be all about transparency is to doubt that women would be able to vote.

We are moving towards being a transparent industry at great speed.  It’s this idea that fashion will be a much more sustainable industry.  It will be the non-ethical brands who stick out.”

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A textile mill’s obsolete stock in Sri Lanka taken when Orsola was working for Tesco

Orsola believes that a generational change is happening that will also speed up change.

“Fashion developed a language which made the word “sustainable” and “artisan” sound dirty.

Fashion is the only world where being “worthy” is a negative thing.  Things are changing now.  Values have shifted and now to stand for something is a good thing.  The fashion industry is fantastically predictable in its cyclical nature.  When it is political – fashion works very well – look at the women in the French Revolution or during the suffragette period.  Inevitably, for the next generation of fashion, this will come around again.  Through the internet, the capacity to communicate is huge.

What you wear feels more significant.  The conscious aspect to how you wear your clothes will be a focal point.”

The new generation carry a genetic make-up different to the people on corporate boards currently.

This a generation who are thinking that if something isn’t done soon, it might come to the point where there isn’t a fashion industry at all.

I know more and more people joining fashion companies who want to make more of a positive change.  The internet has been our liberator.  It’s shamed these companies.  It’s shown their greed.  It’s shown their mega monopolisation of everything.

We finally have access to so much information and the questions we are asking are more eloquent.”

IMG_5307Early From Somewhere lookbooks

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So what are the challenges?  A quick read through the articles discussing the fires in factories in Bangladesh last year and the same question crops up over and over again – how CAN we be sure that what we’re buying is 100% sustainable, fair trade, eco and so on.

“It’s not like buying organic food where you know organic broccoli will cost a pound more than normal broccoli.  With clothing, you have the added factor of speaking your principles.  The shift will take longer.  It’s very difficult to make a change that is consistent and communicatable.  People are reluctant to talk about the procedures that have gone into production – for instance you could be using organic cotton but not operating under fair working conditions.

It’s impossible to have a 100% fair-trade, ethical and sustainable clothing at this stage

and so a lot of the steps are not being communicated in the industry, which is interpreted as not being strong enough.   That’s why transparency is so important.”

In other words, if that 100% guilt-free product isn’t out there, then for now, every little helps.  This is where my “half-arsed” argument comes in handy.  It’s the overall attitude that is already shifting and that can only be a good thing, even if a garment with some dubious modes of production slips into your wardrobe.  Does one issue take precedence over the other at this point?  Not when the bigger picture is still lacking.

“You can’t place more importance on one than the other.  With upcycling, you tackle excess production and all its process and waste of water and fuel.  But then you look at human disasters such as the fires in Bangladesh and you think labour practises is what’s important.

The truth is by splitting it all up, you’re diminishing the point. It’s a whole industry that needs to be MORE sustainable full stop

Eventually you will have a hybrid of the three but right now, that is not attainable.”

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I asked Orsola about the high street taking on organic, eco and sustainable clothing in ways that often seemed tokenistic.  Having worked with the likes of Tesco’s and Topshop (with their successful Reclaim to Wear range), Orsola maintains that more positive change is taking place on the high street than in the high end.

“Interestingly, the high street has been much more proactive than the high end.  One pair of sunglasses from Gucci made of recycled bamboo or one handbag from Vivienne Westwood.  It seems to me that the high street will make the product and the high end will concentrate on CSR. That’s changing though – Stella McCartney is coming out with a fully eco clothing line for instance.”

Then does your average customer who buys say a Balenciaga bag even care whether something is sustainably or ethically made.  Could that be what is making big brands so sluggish in tackling these issues?

“I don’t think they’re offering that product because they’re very very spoilt.

No one owns the factories where they produce.  That’s the biggest change that has swept all problems under the carpet.

When YSL, Prada, etc were producing in their own backyard or in their own factories there was far less waste.  They now no longer have control.  Let’s not beat about the bush.  We’re talking about an industry that is really guilty of very unethical practises.  People think the culprits of the Bangladesh fires is Walmart and Primark but I’ve been inside many of these factories and some very big labels produce clothes there.  They call it “sub-contracting” – so that high end brands can wash their hands of it.   To now disrupt the supply chain and say “Don’t use this because it’s harmful” or “Why don’t we reduce this waste” is much more complicated.

I could tell you when we worked with Topshop to do Reclaim to Wear, the whole design team were rooting for it but it’s the factories that don’t want to do it.  For the CEO’s of this world, sustainability will be a good business.  They will be able to sell it well.  Five years ago, people were thinking “Let’s give them some fucking green organic t-shirts” because it’s a trend.

We now know it isn’t a trend – it is a business demand and the consumer is wanting to know if they can buy something that will not make them feel guilty.

Of course there are the poor households in Britain who don’t have a choice to give a damn but

the reality is that the companies who they buy from don’t have a choice – people are so fine-tuned to find fault in them.  They have no choice but to change.”

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Orsola began From Somewhere in 1998 in earnest, not with an environmentalist or sustainable agenda in mind but because she and her design partner Sasha de Sroumilo loved flea markets, junk shops and vintage clothing.  So they used skills like crochet, filet and tatting to upcycle cashmere jumpers and cardigans.  They’re the type of garments that I came across in shops like Stitch Up in Camden Town.  They felt special.  They didn’t have a tag that explained how the label dealt with excess waste.  From Somehwhere’s clothes sat alongside labels like Preen and Jessica Ogden that were also young and independently spirited labels.  The thing that really stuck out about my conversation with Orsola was the fact that she supports independent fashion, whether it calls itself sustainable or not.

“I’m always asked by journalists what are my tips for shopping ethically.  Find a young designer whether they call themselves sustainable or not.  You are encouraging local production, pieces made with quality and creativity.  Young designers work in such a way, buy whatever you can but because you’re not willing to compromise.  You use your creativity.  Very often, the collections are produced locally using scraps – that’s a need rather than a commitment.

If we can encourage designers to keep close to their early beginnings, then that’s a good thing.

I would call a lot of the designers in London a ‘hybrid'”

Now From Somewhere after sixteen years in the business has relaunched with a new website, a fresh new impetus to attract what Orsola feels is a more conscious customer.  The eco-fashion “tag” doesn’t bother Orsola because for her, sustainable fashion isn’t a flash in the pan trend but the only and right way of working.  From Somewhere’s setup currently doesn’t run as a seasonable label does.  Instead, it’s an ideas factory where collections come and go in drops on their website.  It also helps Orsola and her team consult for bigger companies such as Topshop, to get the gospel out to a bigger audience, so to speak.

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IMG_5305Examples of From Somewhere pieces

IMG_5280Examples of Orsola’s work with fashion students at colleges like Central Saint Martins

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What Orsola and talked about were once lofty or farfetched ideals but are now looking like inevitabilities.  Even the traditional “evil” of mass production – Made in China – is undergoing changes.

“When (China) start doing things, they do it very very fast.  In last 16 years, I do remember things coming back from China that were horrible.  Now they can mimic things perfectly with their eyes shut.  That kind of change means that if companies demand better standards, China will have to listen.  If it does happen anywhere on a global scale, it’s going to happen there.”

For every one of my questions of the relatively speaking prohibitive cost of eco fashion (it’s not – it’s our sliding standards of what constitutes “expensive” and “cheap” thanks to the lower end of the high street), its aesthetic credentials, its muddled labelling and potential confusion for customers, Orsola had a justifiable answer.  My questions were rendered mere excuses to avoid the issue at hand.  In truth, the ultimate utopia would be that we reach a point where sustainability produced clothing, made out of environmentally sound materials under fair labour conditions are standard, not an inaccessible luxury.  For now, Orsola and I are revelling in an age where we can all make choices – bad or good.  Being “half-arsed” as it were isn’t a crime but being ignorant is.  The point is to keep asking questions about what we wear.  Whether we get answers or not remains to be seen.
“There are more advocates of sustainability than we’ve ever had before.  We had gone from a generation who were terrified of it – that glossy fashion was trying to cancel out.  I see it as an intelligent subject where all contributions can still be made and valuable.  There’s space for manoeuvre and thinking time.  There’s a challenge to be overcome.

It’s a proactive moment to be celebrated.  Make choices, make mistakes.

If you think about the decisions that go through some women’s minds about their outfit choices.  Now it’s more than just thinking about whether to wear blue with green.  It’s a different intelligence that is required of us.  You can think about where your shirt was made, how it was made, what is its provenance.

We will ask more questions about our clothes.  That will be part of the pleasure, part of the dialogue and part of the conversation.”