In our “see now, buy now” society the pressure on apparel, textile and jewellery brands to deliver goods on demand has never been higher, but what effect is this having on supply chains, good practice and human rights? Camilla Allen speaks to brands who want to see change, as they push for ethical operations and transparency in business. What they reveal can apply to more than just the world of fashion.

It’s no secret: the fashion industry is in a constant state of flux. The ever-changing nature of fashion means that clothing retailers are locked in combat to meet consumer demand – and this demand is only set to rise.

Over the last decade, the industry has grown by 5.5% annually, with an estimated worth of $2.4 trillion, according to the McKinsey Global Fashion Index. A “fashion is disposable” mindset on the part of the consumer means that an estimated £140 million worth (350,000 tonnes) of used clothing goes to landfill every year in the UK alone.

The quick turnaround in supply chain called for by the fast-fashion phenomenon is giving rise to complex, ineffective and, in many cases, exploitative supply chains. The consumer is often kept in the dark.

According to Fashion Revolution’s Fashion Transparency Index 2018, 64% of fashion brands have disclosed more policies and commitments to supply chain transparency than they did a year ago, but we are still a long way off complete transparency across the board.
 
Transparency is the first step towards cleaning up the industry. Major brands and retailers – H&M, Zara, Adidas, Patagonia and ASOS, for example – are increasingly stepping into the spotlight to share their take on human rights, the environment and the positive changes they are making to their business models. This signals the first step in a shift towards honest, traceable and sustainable supply chains.

“We either have a sustainable fashion future or we risk not having a future at all,” says Orsola de Castro, Founder and Creative Director at Fashion Revolution. “We need to look at it as something that we can change.”
 
Orsola de Castro, Founder and Creative Director at Fashion Revolution
Fashion Revolution was founded in 2013, following the Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh in which 1,134 garment workers died because of a lack of health-and- safety procedures at factories. It is a global movement that urges people to ask brands #whomademyclothes. Taking to social media in force, the campaign is making a gargantuan push for greater openness, sustainability and ethics in the fashion industry, with more and more brands answering the question.

“We know that it’s going to be slow to turn this ship but we know that we can do it,” says Orsola. With 175,000 people actively demanding brands make a change during Fashion Revolution week in April 2018, and a 65% growth in the “I Made Your Clothes” campaign, the movement is gaining significant traction.
 

Think green throughout


One brand taking part in the Fashion Revolution and leading positive change in the industry is Joanna Dai Limited, based at Workspace’s E1 Studios in Whitechapel. The high-quality performance-wear brand sets out to empower the professional woman. And unlike a global brand with an extremely complicated supply chain and sourcing trajectory, Joanna Dai Limited has benefited from the flexibility of starting from scratch.

“I made every decision from the outset with a goal in mind of preserving the brand’s sustainability, transparency and use of eco-certified materials,” says our HomeWork cover star, Founder and former banker, Joanna Dai. Starting with the search for raw materials, Dai travelled to the leading Première Vision Paris trade show to hunt for ethical fabrics.
 
Joanna Dai, Founder of Joanna Dai Limited at Workspace's E1 Studios
“As an individual without a brand and with barely a business card, I found sourcing from the EU a lot more accessible. They allow for smaller quantities,” she says. And after coming across a sustainability-focused Italian mill called Eurojersey at the show, she created six out of eight styles from its high-tech fabrics. “It set the bar as our first main supplier, which added a great sustainability element going through,” she says.

The eco-certified environmentally responsible mill meets stringent standards to cut waste and optimise its supply chain. It does this by using a management system that continuously monitors the ratio of “resources in and product out”.

Dai also set out with an aim to cut waste during the garment’s post-purchase lifespan – something largely neglected by apparel companies. How much water do we waste by cleaning our clothes? Three quarters of the energy use of a garment actually takes place after purchase. “I really try to educate our consumers about how to clean our products. The amount of water used in the cleaning process is great, so we use the slogan ‘Think green before you clean’,” she says.

Thinking green also means extending the life of clothes. With a truckload of clothing wasted every second across the world, the industry’s crippling impact on the planet is clear to see.

“It is very clear how polluting fashion is to the environment – the fashion industry is the second biggest polluter after oil,” says Dai. “I didn’t want to create something that added to this. The styles should be impactful season after season and not just bought for one season. It’s all about creating timeless modern designs.”
 
Second-hand children’s and baby clothes company Loopster Ltd, based at Workspace’s The Chocolate Factory in Wood Green, is also fighting to curb waste. It pays parents to donate old clothes and sells them online at a fraction of high-street prices. “Parents often don’t have time to trawl through eBay and enter in their data. So the whole idea of Loopster is that it’s a concierge version of eBay to save parents time,” says Founder Jane Fellner. A former investigative filmmaker, she witnessed first-hand the cost of fast fashion when she went undercover in Bangladesh to make a film about child labour.

“In the UK we tend to dress our kids in disposable fashion more than other markets,” she says. “Not only is this incredibly wasteful, but the demand pushes the supply chain to put extreme pressure on countries like Bangladesh.” Recycling clothes helps to alleviate such pressure and create a circular economy.
 

Building relationships


Aside from making eco-friendly choices, harbouring close relationships with workers on the ground is crucial in building and maintaining a respected supply chain. A Rum Fellow, based at The Chocolate Factory and founded by husband and wife Dylan O’Shea and Caroline Lindsell in 2014, is a London-based design studio doing exactly that.

The well-travelled pair scour the globe to bring fresh, hand-woven designs to the UK interior-design market. The business is founded on three core principles: design, quality and integrity. In pursuit of integrity, the business celebrates highly skilled artisans and their traditional crafts. Whether it’s rug weavers in India or Mayan artisan cooperatives in Guatemala, A Rum Fellow is dedicated to supporting craftspeople and keeping their niche textile trade alive.

 
Dylan O'Shea and Caroline Lindsell, Co-founders at A Rum Fellow
“We really try and make it a two-way beneficial process between us and the skilled artisans we work with,” says O’Shea. “There’s often a market for tourist items – cheap and knocked-out – but we’re interested in the traditional embroidered weaving which can take a month to make a small meter panel. It’s an artist trade; it’s not just about making a fabric.”

Today, A Rum Fellow textiles are being used by leading names in the design industry, such as Farrow & Ball, but its supply chain remains simple. The company works directly with weaving cooperatives in order to maintain a strong connection with the craftspeople. “You need to have it that direct, otherwise you lose your control and you can lose the sense of how things are being done,” says O’Shea.

 
A Rum Fellow's Caroline Lindsell visits rug-making artisans in India
However, a positive relationship can only be established if brands are considerate of their workers’ human rights and the workers throughout their supply chain. This means instilling trustworthy accreditation systems at every stage in sourcing and manufacturing. Rigorous assessment of working conditions on a base level is paramount. Relationships risk collapse otherwise.

Much like #whomademyclothes, the #Behindthebling campaign was set up to urge jewellery companies to source gold and diamonds responsibly. “Few people know the shocking reality behind how gold is mined,” says Responsible Minerals Manager at The Fairtrade Foundation, David Finlay. The reality is grim. Artisanal small-scale mining (ASM) alone provides a livelihood for some 25 million people worldwide but is characterised by hazardous working conditions, inefficient mining techniques and a range of social challenges. Indeed, an estimated one million – and possibly many more – children work globally in artisanal and small-scale mining, according to the ASM Inventory. This violation of international human rights laws is prevalent in an industry that often puts profit above people.

However, ethical jewellery brand Cred Jewellery, based at Workspace’s Clerkenwell Workshops, is pushing for change. A pioneer of the accountable supply chain for gold, and the first company to bring certified silver to the UK, the brand takes every step to make sure its gold’s journey from mine to consumer is as ethical as possible – and every step in the process is communicated to the consumer. “There’s more traceability on a tomato in Sainsbury’s than there is on a diamond ring worth £10,000 in any jewellery shop in any town in the country. I think that’s appalling,” says Director Alan Frampton.

Fairtrade-accredited, Cred is committed to making sure its jewellery is traceable from start to finish. Fairtrade checks every single ring that is manufactured from beginning to end – from mine to refiner to producer. The mines that supply Cred have to open all their books to Fairtrade; the refinery it uses is also accredited. Once it passes the test, it gets the Fairtrade stamp of approval. “It’s very demanding. If you don’t comply, you get kicked out. Everyone in the system has to be accredited. I used to be a director of a fresh-produce company in Egypt and we had 62 accreditation systems in place,” says Frampton.

From fashion to food, construction to agriculture, independent accreditation remains key. The right stamp of approval can embed trust in a company and solidify its reputation – all the more important in today’s era of distrust.

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