Ethical Fashion Forum SOURCE Summit 2012 Review

Ethical Fashion Forum SOURCE Summit 2012 Review

SOURCE gathered more than 100 of the world’s most progressive ethical fashion experts, brands and designers in London this month for a series of stimulating, informative discussions on some of the most fundamental themes in sustainable fashion today: impact, visibility, education and systems. SOURCE contributor Katharine Earley reviews the most inspiring moments of the conference and summarises the many positive suggestions to arise from our diverse working groups.

The Olympic buzz in central London was palpable as ethical fashion pioneers from every corner of the fashion industry met at the HUB Westminster to share best practice and explore new ideas to generate further positive change. Tamsin Lejeune, Founder of the Ethical Fashion Forum and SOURCE, opened the event and provided an interesting insight into the evolution of SOURCE, which now has 6,000 members in 127 countries and is actively working with businesses and academic institutions across the globe to inspire and educate fashion professionals and students.

Impact and visibility

We had brought together ten highly respected speakers to cover every element of our key themes. Clare Lissaman, one of the founding directors of SOURCE, introduced and chaired the fascinating ‘Impact and visibility’ session, setting the scene by reminding us of the pressing need for action on environmental and social issues throughout global fashion supply chains. She also listed the many organisations actively seeking to tackle sustainable livelihoods, fair wages and working conditions, poverty alleviation, climate change and environmental issues. Clare added that the editor of Italian Vogue, Franca Sozzani, had recently emphasised the importance of fair trade, eco-friendly practices and sustainability, a strong statement from one of fashion’s most respected editors.

Impact – Emma Neuberg, Slow Textiles Movement

Dr Emma Neuberg, founder of the Slow Textiles Movement, spoke of the rich conversations that take place regularly among her 550 members. The organisation unites a wealth of talent from across the textile world, all of whom benefit from sharing ideas on sustainable approaches that minimise environmental footprints while maximising benefits to society. She described a real need for mental and emotional wellbeing in order to tackle the great challenges of sustainability. In particular, she highlighted the poverty of thinking that often arises among fashion professionals after working in the industry for a certain number of years, causing their focus and talent to deteriorate.

The Slow Textiles Movement calls for a radically different approach to fostering a real commitment and passion for sustainable design thinking. Emma recommends an ‘open source’ approach to mobilise innovation, whereby designers, manufacturers and suppliers converge to share knowledge and expertise, in contrast to the sometimes closed world of academia and commercially driven business world. She quoted many inspiring examples of extended life and closed loop design initiatives, including a project by Studio Swine to harvest ocean plastic for use as the basis for new garments, accessories and furniture.

Impact – Prama Bhardwaj, Mantis World

Prama Bhardwaj, founder of Mantis World, a Tanzania-based ethical clothing manufacturer, spoke of her focus on enabling smaller brands to access Mantis World’s products by removing minimum order quantity stipulations. Her company supplies blank garments to many leading retailers (including Harvey Nicholls and Selfridges), music merchandise producers and corporate organisations. Prama explained that when she originally established her business, there had been no textile industry in Tanzania, however, 12 years later, a lot has changed. Whereas initially transparency had been a real issue and she had been forced to look further afield for reliable cotton mills, she now feels as though textile production in Africa is booming as never before.

Prama’s key recommendations for tackling the triple bottom line of people, planet and profit are: 1) know your supply chain – build relationships with suppliers, communicate thoroughly with them to understand whether (for example) their cotton is organic, fair trade, or heavily irrigated, 2) realise that ethical is the only way forward, it’s no longer a ‘nice to have’ and 3) remember that the product itself must be fantastic. Only a desirable, well designed product will success, no matter how respectable its ethical credentials.

Her final words were to emphasise the three ‘Ps’: prioritise, be patient and be persistent. She told the packed room of fashion professionals that it was vital to pick your battles, as it’s impossible to change everything all at once. Pick what really matters first – whether it’s labour conditions, CO2 emissions or communication projects, and realise that the battle won’t be won overnight.

Visibility – Alana James, fashion lecturer and postgraduate researcher

Alana James, a fashion lecturer at the University of Newcastle who is currently working towards an ethical fashion PhD, gave a fascinating insight into her field of study and the conclusions she is drawing from her comprehensive research. She described the disparity between the proportion of consumers who express ethical intentions (30%) with those who purchase ethically (3%). She is actively researching the intentions and behaviour of the 27% who could be convinced to buy ethically, and is keen to understand the impact of the close relationship between consumers and retailers in this respect.

Alana’s work is fast yielding some interesting food for thought – there is much confusion among consumers as to what ‘ethical’ means, and whether the ‘ethical’ element relates to the supply chain behind the garment or its potential for reuse or recycling, for instance. She is testing the perceptions, awareness and knowledge of a diverse panel of consumers. Many consumers queried whether clothing sold in charity shops was indeed ethical, if it had not been ethically produced in the first place. Meanwhile, a large proportion of the consumers interviewed thought that the recession was responsible for their decision to stick with cheaper, ‘fast fashion’.

Visibility – Ceri Heathcote, digital marketing specialist

Ceri Heathcote, digital marketing specialist and ethical fashion blogger, shared her thoughts on the key visibility challenges for ethical brands with SOURCE’s Clare Lissaman. She explained that many ethical brands tend to be relatively niche and small scale, and while they had beautiful attention to detail, they simply couldn’t compete with the presence of the well established high street brands.

Ceri described the need for a substantial change in perception among consumers, particularly over the meaning of fair trade. She echoed Prama’s advice that ethical brands must gain visibility for the quality of their product, above all else. Consumers can then read more about the brand’s story at a later stage, which may in turn help to increase brand loyalty. Above all, they shouldn’t be made to feel guilty about their purchase. She also expressed a need for the ethical fashion sector as a whole to develop a more positive identity. We recommend joining the SOURCE Fellowship 500 as a means to come together with ethical fashion professionals and create a stronger force in the marketplace.

Education and systems

SOURCE’s Tamsin Lejeune introduced and chaired our second session on education and systems, reinforcing the importance of education and the need to create a significant skill shift. SOURCE now advises 40 colleges around the world and is actively helping them to integrate sustainability into mainstream fashion courses and curriculums. Five of these colleges have already joined our Fellowship partnership scheme.

Education – Liz Parker, researcher and consultant

Our first speaker was Liz Parker, a respected researcher and consultant who advises on labour and environmental standards and international trade policy in the garment and agriculture sectors. She has a particular passion for inspiring the next generation through education. Liz highlighted the value and success of the ‘Fashioning an ethical industry’ project that she helped establish to provide further information to students on ethical fashion issues. Funded by the EU and the Department for International Development (DfID), this inspiring project ran for five years and delivered a wealth of sustainability best practice ideas to thousands of students.

Liz explained that encouragingly, many fashion tutors are now including course content on ethical issues. 56% of tutors are now focusing a lot more on ethical issues compared to three years ago, an independent study has revealed. She emphasised the need to target students by ‘segmenting’ them in the same way that marketers segment target audiences.

Students vary enormously in their attitudes to ethical issues, from completely disinterested to neutral or highly engaged. Liz recommends that each segment be targeted differently. She also believes that universities should adopt diverse strategies to ensure sustainability and ethical sourcing are taken seriously, by for example inviting inspirational members of the fashion business and local community to speak and share their experiences. Reading Donella Meadows’ recommendations on increasing effectiveness and the ‘flow of influence’ is also a good plan (as found in Kate Fletcher’s ‘Design Journeys’).

Liz is taking to the road this summer with the MENDRS Roadshow 2013, a tour of fashion colleges that will explore sustainable fashion through the lens of mending. She is looking forward to learning to sew and darn, and also told us that she is taking part in a challenge not to buy a new piece of clothing for a year. Good luck Liz, we look forward to hearing how you get on!

Systems – Ngaire Takano, sustainable sourcing expert

Ngaire Takano, a renowned sustainable sourcing expert, gave an inspiring talk on her passion for connecting designers with suppliers, and in doing so reconnecting them with the very raw materials – fabric, thread and buttons – with which they have lost touch over the years. She voiced a strong concern for the fact that fashion has ‘lost its soul’, with designers no longer seeing, touching or feeling the fabrics they plan to use. Ngaire emphasised the importance of designers reconnecting with the materials, not just to encourage ethical sourcing, but also to give their designs a more personal edge.

She reiterated the need to be persistent and ask questions – persistent and pleasant – despite the time pressure to produce new designs. She described the all too familiar scenario of designers requesting materials based on price, and highlighted that in the past, designers had gone to the cotton mill to select materials, whereas now this seems like a radical approach. Nevertheless, she recommends reconnecting with the fabric itself as well as understanding how it’s produced. She also believes in sourcing domestically, reviving artisanal traditions and researching the possibilities to form co-operatives or source collaboratively from the same mills.

Systems – Christopher Stopes, Global Organic Textiles Standard

Christopher Stopes, an environmental expert and founder of the Global Organic Textiles Standard (GOTS), highlighted the need for clear standards to motivate consumers. He outlined the value of the GOTS ‘International Gold Standard’ for organic textiles and explained the need for a Europe-wide regulation on sustainable approaches to textiles. Among the issues that Stopes is particularly keen to address via GOTS are: genetically modified organisms (GMOs), pesticide use, environmentally conscious crop rotation, waste water treatment and animal welfare.

Stopes’ organisation aims to combat ‘greenwash’ and provide a real, independent verification that brands can use to demonstrate their commitment to a specific set of values and standards. He is keen to promote the use of domestically sourced wool in the UK (where there are apparently 60 different breeds of sheep!) and is interested in the potential for wool production to become completely organic. His motto is ‘kinder, cleaner, better’.

Systems – Emily Huc, In Bloom

Emily Huc is found of ‘In Bloom’, a sustainable lingerie manufacturer. She spoke about the importance of taking time to establish a sustainable production model. She reiterated the significance of picking the right battles on the road to becoming a sustainable operation, explaining that it took her a full year to get where she wanted to be in terms of raw materials suppliers, design and manufacturing. Her aims were to create a high quality product that would be durable and soft to wear while also being kind on the environment. The fabrics she chose had to demonstrate sustainability credentials and also be functional. This is particularly complex in terms of bras, as they often require 20 different components.

Emily chose all her suppliers directly and her products are certified to the Oekotex 100 label (for more on eco-labels, see our recent article on eco-labelling). She found the research element particularly challenging. She was determined to ensure that the workers involved in her supply chain were fairly paid and worked in respectable conditions, which took time to research and verify. She agreed with Ngaire that co-operative buying would be very useful for ethical brands looking to source sustainably together.

Finally, SOURCE Intelligence editor Sarah Ditty spoke of how members can extract the most benefit from SOURCE Intelligence, as well as our database and networking system in order to share best practice and connect with the world’s most progressive ethical fashion brands. Her talk will be the subject of a separate article, soon to come on SOURCE Intelligence.

Positive routes forward for ethical fashion professionals

Our afternoon breakout groups generated much discussion and debate around best practice in impact, visibility, education and systems initiatives. While acknowledging the scale of the challenges we face, our focus was on sharing positive ideas for us all to take forward, with a particular focus on how SOURCE could help. The results of our discussions are as follows:

Impact: Changing lives through fashion, fair trade and poverty reduction

  • The creation of a common voice for producers would be invaluable
  • Changing the perception of fair trade fashion will be instrumental in promoting a more positive attitude to fair trade (and avoiding the rhetoric of guilt)
  • It’s important to link professionals from all corners of the fashion industry together to share successes and expertise.

Impact: Environmental innovation

  • Encourage the sharing of best practice, skills, expertise and knowledge via industry-wide platforms; promote the spread of this type of network throughout the world
  • Adopt a smart approach to applying for research funding
  • Raise awareness of the options open to those returning to the fashion industry later in life or after having children (in terms of joining the ethical fashion movement).

Impact: Major retailers: Building on best practice

  • Audits need to work harder in terms of improving workers’ lives; perhaps major retailers could learn from smaller ethical brands in this respect
  • SOURCE could help by delivering a clear set of guidelines on best practice in researching sustainability credentials
  • SOURCE is helping by focusing on the positive and it would definitely help to do more of the same in the future.

Visibility: Mainstreaming sustainable fashion

  • Make ethical fashion more attractive to consumers in order to reach a wider audience, particularly via social media and other interactive methods such as photo competitions
  • Ensure that the online language of ethical fashion is ‘search engine optimised’
  • Re-brand ethical fashion in a more positive light (for instance, use imagery of alternative looking models)
  • Opt for new and more original celebrity endorsements, perhaps using music as a platform
  • Create an industry-wide PR and marketing scheme to add power and consistency to ethical fashion marketing campaigns; this is something that SOURCE could produce.

Visibility: Sustainable fashion, success in multi-brand retail

  • Adopt an innovative approaching to developing the image of retailers that stock ethical fashion brands
  • Retailers should offer a wider range of fashion choices to consumers
  • Retailers need to work more closely with manufacturers, suppliers and small brands
  • Carefully chosen images and video could be useful in creating a visual impact in-store.

Systems: SOURCE: Maximising reach and impact

  • Create a communications standard for retailers, fostered and developed by large scale retailers; this could also come from government
  • Manufacturers and retailers alike need to communicate in an inspiring way – adopt innovative ways of approaching communications and corporate responsibility
  • There needs to be a greater amount of positive collaboration between the media and industry
  • Greater attention to detail is needed in terms of defining the language and terminology used to describe ethical fashion standards, labels and accreditations.

Education: Integrating sustainability: Inspiring the next generation

  • Sustainability needs to be at the core of the curriculum (rather than an add-on)
  • Sustainability should be taught to children at a younger age
  • In order for students to be inspired by ethical issues, inspiring speakers are needed
  • More training or re-training should be provided for the educators
  • Promoting traditional skills and craftsmanship is vital
  • Clarifying the practical applications of ethical and sustainable approaches to fashion is fundamental in terms of creating an impact.

Systems: Tools and techniques: Certification and standards

  • SOURCE must have an ambition to stamp out greenwashing
  • SOURCE should aim to hold more events outside of London and consider creating ‘regional champions’ who could take this idea forward
  • SOURCE could use the Fellowship 500 as a platform from which to push for policy change at a governmental level and in doing so, act as a voice for change.

Systems: Sustainable Sourcing, Textiles and Production

  • Championing an initiative to share supply chain processes would be very helpful
  • Central locations for storing or sourcing ethically-produced fabrics would be highly useful.

This article was published on the Ethical Fashion Forum’s SOURCE Intelligence website.