Sunday, 26 April 2015

An Introduction to Ethical Fashion with Lucy Siegle and Livia Firth

A few weeks ago I attended an incredible seminar on ethical fashion led by Lucy Siegle, the Observer's ethical living columnist and published author, including a spontaneous Q&A with Livia Firth, the CEO of Eco-Age, face of the Green Carpet Challenge and wife of British actor Colin Firth.

I had just started to dip my toe into the world of sustainable fashion by reading some articles online, but it was hard to know where to start, as there are so many smaller organisations, consultancies and websites that it is very difficult to get an overview of the most useful places to find information, let alone the key ethical and environmental issues. The seminar seemed like the perfect introduction to such an enormous topic, and Siegle really got to the heart of the main problems currently facing the industry; from the challenges of producing enough virgin fibre (such as cotton), to the common practice of outsourcing to the developing world, unregulated supply chains, and the rapacious consumerism that characterises modern day attitudes to shopping in the developed Western world.

There were about a hundred people in the audience, including buyers, retailers, bloggers, students, academics, and of course, Livia Firth sat in the front row. She and Siegle know each other well; they have made multiple trips together to factories in the developing world and created the Green Carpet Challenge in 2009, which encourages A-list stars to wear re-made or ethically produced couture gowns on the red carpet. Livia was invited to take part in an impromptu discussion about her work with global brands including Gucci and Chopard, and the big businesses that are really taking steps to focus on sustainability and environmental issues in their business, such as the Kering Group (which own Christopher Kane, Stella McCartney and Alexander McQueen, amongst many others), and Marks & Spencer. We also had the chance to ask her questions, including whether 'fast fashion' could ever be sustainable - in her opinion, it can't - and whether there is a minimum price point for an ethically produced garment - she would argue that as the labour involved is only 0.6% of the end cost to the customer, it is less about achieving a price point and rather about transparency and fairness all the way down the supply chain.

In terms of the future, there are lots of opportunities for global brands and businesses to shift their focus to more sustainable production methods, including recycled fibres, re-purposing garments, using organic fibre sources, improving working conditions in the developing world and investing in their infrastructure. Ultimately though, shopping patterns in the Western world need to change, and the global population has to start consuming far less to relieve some of the pressure on the environment, and on those who are currently being exploited to fulfil such demand.

The seminar was fantastic, and I left feeling inspired and motivated to find out more.
Obviously I can't replicate the entire three hour seminar here, but some of the key facts and figures are listed below, as well as links to further reading.

Ethical Fashion Key Facts

- The fashion industry is the biggest global polluter, after oil and gas.

- 80-120 billion garments are produced each year (exact figures unknown), predominantly from virgin fibres such as cotton and oil. Only 4% of the world's cotton production is organic.

- In 2012, 42% of all clothing was produced in China, 13% in Turkey and Bangladesh, and the remainder in Morocco and other smaller countries.

- 80% of Bangladesh’s economy is supported by the ready-made garment industry. The UK is one of the biggest consumers of Bangladesh products.

- 2 million tonnes of waste textiles are now dumped in landfill each year.

- 1133 people were killed in the Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh on 24th April 2014.

- Fashion Revolution Day marks the anniversary of the disaster, when thousands of people around the world wear clothing inside out to expose the labels, showing where the garments were made, and use social media to ask, 'Who made your clothes?'

Further Reading

A great article on Livia Firth by the Telegraph, 15th April 2014

Fashion Revolution Day

- Lucy Siegle, 'To Die For: Is Fashion Wearing out the World?' May 2011

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