27 August 2018

Showroom x Industry Leaders: Orsola de Castro on sustainability

Showroom x Industry Leaders: Orsola de Castro on sustainability

Showroom teams up with industry leaders to provide you with professional advice on how to take the first steps in the fashion business.

By Orsola de Castro

Fashion is today one of the most polluting and socially exploitative industries in the world. We are producing over 100 Billion garments per year and according to Greenpeace, clothing production has more than doubled since 2000 and yet 40% of what we buy is left unworn. There is no particular pressing issue, it is the whole industry that needs to be redressed, socially and environmentally: from wages, to water, to waste. The weight of this mass production is unsustainable, socially and environmentally, both during the production phase, and later on, at the clothing end of life. It has become so easy, quick and cheap to go out and buy something else, something new, without respecting the garment, nor who made it.

Five years since we started Fashion Revolution, we believe that transparency is the first step towards mending the broken links in the fashion supply chain, and that making garment workers visible is a way to ensure brands are held accountable for improprieties and impunity. Transparency is not an abstract concept, on the contrary, it is the storytelling that defines everything we wear (everything we buy in fact), and therefore us, our choices and our individual impact on society. Transparency is a journey, populated by human stories – this is why it matters – because there are people who are being affected, negatively and positively, by the effects that this industry has on their daily lives.

One of the reasons why sustainable fashion hasn’t been selling its because of its name.‘Sustainable fashion’. ‘Ethical fashion’. The first thing any branding expert will tell you when embarking upon a new venture, is to give it a good name. Plus, it’s become a very generic name, as it implies that all sustainable fashion designer brands fit into the same category and market segment, which really isn’t the case. There is very little in common between a Bruno Pieters dress (high end, expensive, designer, traceable in every aspect, from the fabric through to the seamstress to the actual cost of making it which will justify its margins) and a People Tree dress (high street, affordable, made in organic and biodegradable fabrics by local communities in India).  Or between Patagonia and Brunello Cuccinelli. Fashion should be about trailblazing trends, but the fashion industry as we know it is completely out of touch, incapable of harnessing the power and gaining the respect of a younger generation of fashion designers and fashion consumers that are looking for a different aesthetic and different aspirations.

You can slow down, you can treat your garment workers with respect and give them both long-lasting skills and a decent pay. You can make products that are good quality and provide a good quality of life to the people who make them. You can stop selling us a dream, and concentrate instead on giving us all a better reality. This is the new trend we want to follow.

As consumers, we don’t have to stop buying clothes, but we do need to question the way we buy them, and what we buy. To overtly ask the question ‘Who Made My Clothes?’ We need to combat the culture that has been urging us to look for products that come with a cheap price, because looking for a cheap price stops us from seeing the actual cost – to people, to natural resources, and the social and environmental footprint these products carry.

We need to look for better quality, not just in the products we buy, but in the lives of the people who make them. Upcycling is a creative design solution to an environmental crisis – it is also the single most effective way at slowing down fashion without resorting to boycotting brands. Because we don’t need to stop buying clothes, we need to learn how to buy better, and by buying clothes made with pre-existing materials we would save an enormous amount of water, slow down unnecessary virgin textile production and drastically reduce landfill mass with its associated emissions burden.

All in all, the vision of an exemplary fashion industry is clear to me: mass production designed to provide safe jobs and living wages to millions of people, products made with biodegradable and recyclable materials and innovative production systems that look at the full lifecycle and closed loop technology; alternative models to consume clothes, such as leasing, swapping, and mending; a luxury industry that focuses on quality over quantity, and space for thousands of small, independent entities that champion local manufacturing, heritage and design.

To think that this vision looks utopian is to admit that we are the midst of a dystopian reality, and that there is much we need to unravel before we can move forward. But to understand how we can change this narrative, we need to know its origins.


Orsola de CastroFounder and Creative Director of Fashion Revolution. With her partner, they launched Esthetica at London Fashion Week under the British Fashion Council, to showcase labels designing sustainably. Recently, she has created Reclaim To Wear, resulting in collaborations with retailers such as Topshop as well as projects with Central Saint Martins and Hong Kong Design Institute. She is associate lecturer for UAL as well as a guest speaker at many international symposiums.

Follow Orsola @Orsola de Castro

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