Last week, I attended the Westminster Business Forum conference: Sustainability, ethics and the UK fashion industry.
This conference was focused on the policy issues surrounding sustainability in fashion and some of the organisations and brands who are leading the way towards creating a more sustainable, more circular and less wasteful fashion industry in the UK. This is a hot topic with many different facets that warrant a longer article, so here I just wanted to raise some of the key issues in brief and share some insight from a couple of the speakers that made an impact on me personally.
What does sustainability in fashion really mean?
It is a term that gets thrown around a lot because we as the consumer want to believe that the brands we are buying from are sourcing their products in a sustainable and ethical way.
'Sustainability' has therefore become a marketing buzz word, perceived as having consumer appeal, often used but in a general sense and without the specifics detailing how or why a brand is sustainable. Greenwashing is happening across multiple industry sectors (particularly the food sector), and the fashion industry is no different.
How do we, 'the consumer', know when a brand is truly sustainable? What criteria does a brand have to meet before they can call themselves 'sustainable'? The truth is that this remains an under regulated and complex area.
Whilst there are many larger fashion brands who are leading the way with respect to sustainability, sadly this is not the case throughout the industry and there are many 'fast fashion' brands who still have a long way to go in terms of creating sustainability produced, ethically made products (for example, Boohoo faced extensive criticism last year over the working conditions and unfair pay in their Leicester-based factories).
There were a number of interesting speakers discussing a broad range of topics but two of the speakers particularly resonated with me. These were:
1. Dilys Williams, FRSA is the Director of Centre for Sustainable Fashion, at the University of the Arts London Research Centre who focused on the pioneering work of micro-sized businesses in the fashion industry (who make up 99.3% of UK businesses according to ONS data).
Their contribution to the creation of a more circular, more ethical and more sustainable fashion industry is often ignored or overlooked by governments in the face of larger organisations with higher turnover and their ideas pinched and commoditised by larger fashion companies.
However, it is in fact these micro businesses that are leading the way with respect to creating truly sustainable fashion brands. Taking a truly hands-on approach to business and being in control of the process from design, manufacture, supply, sales and waste enables these businesses to create sustainable and ethical business models from the outset (rather than trying to change an existing model).
Referring to the leaders of these businesses as 'pioneers', Williams states 'They take a culturally and economically progressive approach to design and business. They're developing models of value beyond [the] creation and selling of stuff'.
2. Sophie Slater, Founder of Birdsong London which works with women in marginalised or deprived communities in the UK. Birdsong provides its workers with a safe and inclusive working environment, paying London living wages and providing support to their workers, including a creche and access to services.
Birdsong's products are made with reclaimed materials by women who may face barriers to work, who are trying to escape domestic abuse or are affected by other issues which might prevent them from otherwise finding employment.
Birdsong is using fashion to make an impact throughout communities whose voices are otherwise ignored, providing safe employment and promoting a more sustainable and ethical way of manufacturing clothes.
It is these smaller sized businesses who are at the forefront of creating truly sustainable fashion businesses. It is these businesses who need the support of Government, of industry organisations and consumers to help drive the agenda for sustainable and ethical fashion forward.
Ultimately, the take-away for me was that there are seeds of change, but they have a long way to go before the impact is felt in a meaningful way throughout the industry.
At Stobbs, we want to do our part to help fashion businesses (of all shapes and sizes) who are taking steps to build a more sustainable fashion industry.
Watch this space for further information on how we are proposing to support sustainable and ethical fashion brands in respect of their IP rights!