Things are happening with sustainable fashion. Big things. There have been rumblings for years, and pockets of serious action from certain brands, but it finally feels like it’s gone mainstream. Turn on the news, and it’s there. Pick up Vogue; it’s there. Instagram brims with influencers and designers talking about fashion’s social and environmental responsibility.
It’s officially cool to care, confirms this year’s State of Fashion report from McKinsey. It identifies “Getting Woke” as one of the top 10 factors shaping the global industry in 2019, as “younger generations’ passion for social and environmental causes has reached critical mass, causing brands to become more fundamentally purpose-driven to attract both consumers and talent”.
Fashion Revolution’s Consumer Survey Report backs this up. The vast majority of respondents believe fashion brands should be tackling global poverty (84 per cent), and climate change (85 per cent). Eighty per cent said brands should disclose their manufacturers.
Fashion Revolution began in London as a consumer campaign in the wake of Rana Plaza. This garment factory complex collapsed in Bangladesh on April 24, 2013, killing 1138 workers. More than 2,500 were injured and an estimated 800 children orphaned.
Above: KitX for David Jones
Last week marked the disaster’s sixth anniversary, and millions of fashion fans used the hashtag #whomademyclothes on social media to ask brands to be more transparent about how they treat workers, and the environment.
“The #whomademyclothes campaign provides a platform where brands can hear directly from their customers on what matters to them,” says Melinda Tually, Fashion Revolution’s co-ordinator for Australia and New Zealand. “You can’t ignore you own customer base. Over 2.5 million consumers took part last year. It’s their voices that are clearly saying business-as-usual needs to change.”
“I do believe we are seeing more transparency, more collaboration and more engagement in building international best practice,” says David Giles Kaye, CEO of the Australian Fashion Council (AFC). “We’re also seeing sustainable practice as a foundational value rather than an option: it is no longer a consumer selling point but now an expected minimum standard.”
A glance at the emerging brands supported by the AFC’s Curated program, now in its third year, shows sustainability is a key driver for the next generation of independents, including A.BCH, Autark, hand-knit sweater label Revel and Collective Closets.
To support Fashion Revolution, another Curated alumnus Lois Hazel held an Open Studio event in Melbourne this week, together with newcomer Simone Agius, who stitches her beautiful Simétrie bags by hand. They joined forces with ethical e-tailer Eco.mono and vegan accessories brand Ahimsa Collective to promote #whomademyclothes.
“Fashion Revolution is important to us as people because it empowers the consumer to question where their products are made,” says Ahimsa Collective’s Tessa Carroll. “It’s important to us as designers because it prompts us to take responsibility for our own footprint, and contribution to the safety and livelihood of the suppliers we work with.”
She adds that for millennials, sustainability is a non-negotiable. “For our generation, there’s no option. There seems to be this unspoken belief that someone else will come along and rescue us but there is no-one else; just us.”
Designers like Carroll, Hazel, Agius, Kalaurie Karl-Crooks and A.BCH’s Courtney Holm inspire each other, hold events together and are helping make Melbourne a hub for new-gen sustainable fashion. Collaboration, says Carroll, is “the only way to create. It helps to build community and (hopefully) gains momentum more rapidly.”
Giles-Kaye talks about “a wave of change” driven by consumer expectation that brands do the right thing, and more widespread knowledge that they haven’t always done so in the past.
The popularity of public-facing fashion industry panel discussions and the growth in media coverage of sustainability, plus pressure from NGOs like Baptist World Aid, which puts out the annual Ethical Fashion Reports, are all factors. In the past, it might have been less hassle for brands to disclose nothing, but fashion’s current climate demands a new openness. The winners will be those who are willing to truth-tell, warts and all. There’s no such thing as 100 per cent sustainable fashion; but today’s market expects brands to try.
Giles-Kaye wants to “congratulate David Jones and Elk, who have both made very strong statements about transparency in the last weeks by releasing their factories to public scrutiny.”
Elk (above) is an established Melbourne company with its own stores and a cult following, founded by Marnie Goding and Adam Koniaras in 2004. Their new “Transparency Report” is 124 pages, and details everything from which UN Sustainable Development Goals are most applicable to their business, to the gender breakdown of their staff.
“Elk has always had a very conscious consumer but what we are seeing now are more specific questions,” says Goding. “Our customers are more aware and educated around the topic of ethical and environmental fashion. Queries are generally focused on makers, materials and sustainable business practices.”
She says the report’s timing – “in line with Fashion Revolution Week” – was purposeful. “We wanted to show our support for the movement and to share our commitment to making positive change.” While they started the supply chain work in 2014, “our fear of criticism and admitting that we’re not perfect” was a major hurdle. “We now realise that not communicating anything can lead to misguided assumptions.” Publishing detailed information, she says, is “not only for the general public but for our team as well. All of our people are united in their goals and we want them to stand proud and to feel involved in the movement.”
This month several big Australian names have stepped up their communications in this area. Spell released an Impact Report explaining its sustainability goals and how they measure them.
The Iconic (above) combined the launch of their game-changing new Considered platform, which allows customers to search the site according to their values (for example, animal friendly, or fair production), with the publication of its private label factory lists. Head of sustainability Jaana Quaintance-James even took a film crew into three of them in Guangzhou and Dongguan, China to make a short documentary in support of Fashion Revolution.
Tigerlily released its first Conscious Report in April, and published its Tier 1 factory list, revealing factory names and locations, numbers of workers employed and length of the brand’s relationship with each supplier. CEO Chris Buchanan says they’re focused on evaluating and improving their sustainability performance across the board – from materials and packaging to carbon emissions and supply chain transparency – and setting measurable goals. “Transparency is the ultimate accountability,” he says. “By championing disclosure, we encourage the wider industry to adopt similar policies where brands, factories and workers can stand united with confidence.”
Mary Lou Ryan of Bassike says she’s noticed a change in the conversation in the last 12 months alone. “It’s gone from being something people worked on behind the scenes to being something consumers are increasingly pushing for.”
Bassike (above) launched its new-look website last week, expanding on its three sustainability pillars: design/materials, environmental impact and makers/community. “We’ve been working on sustainability – from ethically-made in Australia to using organic cotton – since we began in 2006,” says Ryan, “but until recently we didn’t think we needed to talk too much about it; we were busy doing it.” She says a welcome adjunct to sharing more is that it inspires her team. “We’re proud of what we’re doing”
Bassike is part of David Jones’ second Fashion Revolution campaign, along with Bianca Spender (below), Manning Cartell, Veronica Maine, Viktoria & Woods (all Ethical Clothing Australia accredited), Kit Willow’s eco-pioneering brand KitX, and ethical denim companies Outland and Nobody.
David Jones has also published its Tier 1 factory list for the first time via an interactive map. Says David Jones ethical sourcing specialist Nicole Bennett, the map currently covers 70 per cent of the company’s private label factories and the aim is to reach 100 per cent. “This resource demonstrates David Jones’ commitment to achieving greater transparency across all stages of its supply chain and provide our customers with the information to make more informed shopping choices.”
Now, that’s not to say that everything’s fixed and we can all go home now. The Fashion Revolution Transparency Index 2019 concludes that “we still don’t know enough about the impact our clothing has on people and planet.”
The report looks at 200 of the biggest fashion companies globally, evaluating them on the information they make public about their human rights, environmental policies, practices and impacts. It’s not a score for how sustainable they are; only how transparent.
The highest scoring brands this year are Adidas, Reebok, Patagonia, Esprit and H&M. The lowest include Tom Ford, which scored zero, meaning the company publically discloses nothing. The biggest year-on-year improvement was made by Dior. Chanel also saw an improvement. 70 of the 200 brands are now publishing their Tier 1 factory details, and more than half are publishing their annual carbon footprints.
“In Australia,” says Tually, “we’re seeing progress. More brands than ever are publishing their factory lists and producing transparency reports so we are steadily levelling the playing field. This is a marked change since Rana Plaza. Brands are listening and now responding so I’m very hopeful for the future of the industry.”
That said, the average score amongst the 200 international brands featured in the Index was just 21 per cent. “Even the highest scoring companies still have significant room for improvement, and none scored above 70 per cent.”
“More than ever before, brands and retailers are being held to account and beginning to realise their fashion statements need to be embodied in truth,” writes Fashion Revolution’s co-founder Carry Somers in the report’s introduction. “We don’t want beautifully written empty words of vision and commitment; we want real tangible information.”
The brands that lead on this have started to look like the modern ones, but this goes way beyond trends. The future’s transparent, and those that have yet to address it have a lot of catching up to do.
Clare Press is Vogue’s sustainability editor-at-large, and the presenter of the Wardrobe Crisis podcast. Listen here.