I’m sure many of you heard the shocking fact that apparel has become the world’s second largest pollutant, after oil. And it’s also the second largest consumer of water after agriculture. Yes, yes, we all know that something must be done about it and yet we all feel pretty paralysed when it comes to what. And when I say ‘we’ I don’t just mean consumers, I mean industry insiders too. Sustainability is an overwhelmingly large and deeply complex animal and the apparel business is made up of a vast, multi-faceted web of companies, all working within a pretty archaic system. It’s so hard to know what to change, how to go about changing it and who can help facilitate that change; it’s totally overwhelming.

That’s kinda how I feel right now writing this article; totally overwhelmed. But in a good way… I’ll explain:

On Sunday I attended Study Hall; a conference aimed to educate, inform and unite on the subject of sustainability. It was a concept dreamt up by the charming and passionate Céline Semaan, curator and founder of The Library Study Hall™ and Slow Factory. The forum was in association with MIT Media Lab, G-Star RAW & Ace Hotel and orbited the topic of the denim business, one of the fashion industry’s worst polluters.

Slow Factory’s The Library Study Hall conference with MIT Media Lab and G-Star RAW held at the ACE Hotel August 26, 2018 in Los Angeles. Photo by Ger Ger.

I’ve come back fuelled with hope and overloaded with inspiration and information. I have also come back brimming with pride at the human race and blown away by the people who are actually doing something to try and change the world, not just talking about it. I’m grateful to have been able to sit in the same room as individuals who are founding companies, pushing technology, starting initiatives and using their voice for change. And now I have the wonderful task of trying to sum up 4 hours of audio and over 40 pages of excitable note making in one article. See? OVERWHELMING, but in a good way.

As Celine introduced the day’s program she summed up the reason denim is such a popular, and therefore dangerous pollutant:

“I work in refugee camps and kids are wearing denim, I also go to NYFW and the fashion crowd are wearing denim”

Denim is everywhere. And our planet’s insatiable consumption of jeans, our increasingly fast appetite when it comes to trend, our miserly demands when it comes to ‘value’ and our overall greed has led to the suffering of both our environment and our fellow humans. So what do we do?

Step 1: “Un-fuck The Supply Chain” 

Lauren Fay is the Executive director of Fashion Revolution, USA a company who aims to ‘unite people and organisations to work together towards radically changing the way our clothes are sourced, produced and consumed’

On the Fashion Revolution website you can find the ‘Fashion Transparency Index’ which is a list of 150 of the worlds largest brands and retailers, rated on their supply chain policies and their social and environmental impact. According to Lauren, as of 2018, only 37 were reporting their suppliers. She believes that transparency equals accountability and that “technology, local government, community groups, social media, media and education” are the key to breaking this cycle of unaccountability.

A company who we will all be familiar with who have been striving for 20 years to tackle worker’s rights and factory standards is Fair Trade. Anna Banks is the CMO of Fair Trade and talks about the first steps in working with a factory as being most basic standards such as “working conditions, hours, health and safety, equipment, chemicals and environmental regulations” but one of the biggest game changers according to Anna is setting up a ‘Fair Trade Committee’ within the factory.

“This democratically elected body becomes the voice that has a dialogue with management. So when you pay a little more money to buy a fair trade chocolate bar, this committee decides on the best way to spend that money: child care centers, health clinics, schools, transportation”

So far Fair Trade has led to 500 million dollars raised for workers around the world. Pretty rad, right?

Lauren Fay from Fashion Revolution leads the first debate featuring Anna Banks, Ben Skinner, Sam Radocchia and Sissi Johnson. Photo by Ger Ger.

But what about all the thousands upon thousands of factories who are not Fair Trade, are not monitored, are under the radar? The issue with the current supply chain is that its far from transparent, hell its a bit like trying to see through a brick wall. We only have to look at the Rana Plaza incident to understand that. And its not just happening in places that people love to vilify such as China or Bangladesh. “If you look at the global slavery index of 2018” explains Lauren Fay “40.3 million men women and children were victims of modern slavery. And numbers are much higher in GDP or developed countries than originally thought. There are examples of these incidences here in Los Angeles for instance” this supports a theory I have had for a long time, after visiting many denim factories all over the world: Its not where you make, its how you make.

Sam Radocchia is a technologist, engineer, activist and the founder of Chronicled. She has a lot of experience striving for transparency within supply chains:

“A company will come to us and say ‘hey we wanna track this pair of jeans or this shoe from the source and be able to prove to our regulators/ fair trade/ our customers that it was sustainably sourced or ethically made’

Everyone here on this panel will know that that is incredibly complicated, these networks are so complex with often thousands of participants that often times the brands or the manufacturers don’t know who they’re sourcing from. So those were the main goals when founding my company”

Chronicled leverages new technology such as blockchain to bring more transparency to supply chains. For those of you like me who don’t know what the hell blockchain is, its basically an open, decentralised database recording every transaction made involving value; be it money, property or goods. Here’s a video to help.

The reason Blockchain is important is its ‘computer powered’ rather than ‘people powered’ because we all know that people can be naughty buggers. “There have been incidences where governments have gone into a database and audit reports have been changed. So its hard to determine whats accurate. This technology prevents that” explains Sam.

But so many factories just don’t seem to care. They’re not in touch enough to realise the industry is moving in this direction and, more importantly their customers, the brands are not asking for it. This is the problem with our society right now, not enough people are demanding that the system be changed. We are all outraged when an incident happens like Rana Plaza but until us consumers start asking questions before we buy, we could be inadvertently supporting exactly those types of factories each and every day we shop.

That’s where Ben Skinner of Transparentem comes in. Ben worked for years as an investigative journalist before founding Transparentem which is, in his words “a discrete non profit intelligence unit that uses front line reporting ethics and forensic evidence to expose extreme social and environmental violations, crimes and degradations within the corporate supply chain” He found his previous work for Bloomberg frustrating because once a deep investigation had taken place, often taking up to 9 months of undercover work, exposing  a bad cog in their supply chain, that company would be given 48-72 hours to respond. At this point they would often “cut the supplier, lawyer up and go to their PR firms” which didn’t really solve anything.

“Transparentum is a tweek on that model. We give them an opportunity to un-fuck their supply chain before this goes into wider disclosure. We go to their boards, their investors, their regulators and carefully selected journalists. And we go with not just the original evidence, we also say ‘here’s what they’ve done to fix the problem, or not’

Our basic message is pretty simple:

You may not be interested in transparency, but transparency is interested in you” 

This wonderful fact turns the whole system on its head. Ten years ago brands had complete control over their consumer and the messages and information they chose to tell them. Now the power shift is on consumers and we have the voice and the platforms to ask the questions and the technology to find the answers. Not all factories are woke, not all brands are woke, but if we are woke, we can demand wokeness, innit.

Ben Skinner, Transparentem. Photo by Ger Ger.

Step 2: Woke up, People!

Enter Maya Penn. Maya is just 18 years old but she has been speaking out about environmental issues for ten years. Feel embarrassed yet? No? Then here’s some more about Maya: She’s a 3 time TED speaker, was featured in Forbes magazine at the age of ten, she’s a global activist, social entrepreneur, filmmaker, philanthropist, and Simon & Schuster author. This is just a fraction of what she has achieved, feel free to head over to her website to learn more about her/ feel worse about yourself. Maya has spoken to enough people in her 18 years to really understand the societal problems that effect the system:

“A lot of people have their heart in the right place but somehow, when thinking about fashion there is a disconnect. So many people say ‘well I eat organic or I’m vegan and I recycle, I do this I do that’

Well what’s in your wardrobe? What clothes are you buying? Whats the lifecycle of those clothes? And they’ve never thought about that. Education is a big part of this”

Maya Penn. Photo by Ger Ger.

And its not like there aren’t choices out there. There are plenty of companies doing amazing things. At Sunday’s event, just a few of these suppliers and retailers shared their experiences and it was petty uplifting to hear their stories. I won’t talk about them all here but they included Everybody.world, Soorty,  Fordays, Osomtex, Stella McCartneyEileen Fisher, The New Denim Project and G-Star RAW.

One company I do want to mention for their adoption of a circular system are The New Denim Project.  They do a bit of everything: they create yarns from pre-consumer waste (so scraps and waste from other mills) they weave fabrics thats are chemical-free, dye-free and use minimal water and energy to produce. They then make product: menswear, womenswear, kidswear, homewares, shoes, bags, etc. They also supply their fabrics to other companies and partner with larger retailers such as West Elm, Wholefoods or Barneys New York to help spread the word and educate the consumer. Oh and here’s a tasty side-fact: they’ve been in business since 1956! Check out the beautiful video below:

Patricia from Osomtex (a company making yarn out of recycled clothing) urged the audience to understand their power as individuals:

“As long as you keep buying what they are making at the stores, that is what they are going to keep making. If you start asking questions, reading labels, its all there. The more you do that, the more you send emails and talk about it on social media and talk about it with your friends, you’re going to make them anxious”

And we truly can make a difference. I don’t know where Maya got this fact from but I love it: if everyone stopped buying chewing gum for just 4 weeks, nobody would make it any more. Isn’t that cool? That shows just how powerful the consumer can be.

Patricia Ermecheo, Osomtex. Photo by Ger Ger.

Step 4: Create a ‘Demand’ Chain

There is, however, another problem. And its going to be no surprise: money. As much as money seems to be at the root of all the bad choices made by big corporations, its also at the root of the bad choices we as consumers make. How do you encourage a consumer to choose a $30 tee shirt made from organic or recycled cotton when they are able to go to a cheap, fast fashion retailer and buy it for $3?

Let me digress for a sec: Did everyone see the recent comparison made (by a millionaire, obv) between home owning and avocado on toast? Now, I am an avocado-on-toast eater, in fact I literally just ate it. And I don’t own a home and I’m 38 years old. My parents got on the housing market at the age of 21 when houses cost about £200, but what rings in my ears every time I eat out with friends are the stories my parents told me about treating themselves to a half pint of larger once a month or sausages and mash once a week ‘as a treat’. They would probably have me believe they ate out maybe once every 100 years. What’s the difference between my generation and my parents? Waste and the concept of value. They grew up as lower middle class kids in the post-war years. When they ran out of toothpaste they would rub salt onto their teeth, I’m serious! SALT! So do you think their wardrobes were full? Hell no!

There is extreme poverty in the world, more than ever before, but its the ordinary working and middle classes who can actually afford to make different choices. I’ve often struggled with this idea of frugality, especially since moving to the US from England three years ago where the concept of excess and privilege is ever more stark. We are spoilt. I am saying this tentatively but I honestly don’t think anyone reading this will be really, truly in serious poverty. We are in a bubble of privilege.

The second moderated by Whitney Bauck from Fashionista with Jennifer Gilber, Maya Penn, Fauke Bruinsana and Kristine Upesleja. Photo by Ger Ger.

Frouke Bruinsma from G Star RAW is only too aware:

“We’ve built this world which is a ‘take, make and dispose’ system not only the businesses but also the customer and everybody is responsible for what we have built”

Its laziness, greed and our warped concept of value that has got us in this mess. Claire Bergkamp is the sustainability and innovation director at Stella McCartney, probably the most ethical luxury brand in the world. She gave me an ‘aha’ moment on Sunday that I think sits at the heart of consumer waste.

“Circularity to me is about value and about taking into consideration at the very beginning the value of the material. Its about trying to keep things at the highest value before we even talk about recycling. And then it’s about trying to make sure that value is maintained. So trying to re-sell first or looking at models like rental and new ways of disrupting consumerism. We’re in a culture of ‘wear it once’ fashion and the problem is not that its fast, its that its disposable. If you’re not spending a lot of money on something inherently that’s not a problem if you treat it well and it lasts longer. I think its the idea that people are creating something to throw away that’s the problem here”

The third debate of the day on a Circular Future, chaired by Stacy London with Pashon Murray, Patricia Ermecheo, Claire Bergkamp and Kristy Caylor

 Kristy Caylor founded her company For Days based on this idea of waste. Her tee shirt company is actually a membership program. You pay $38 for a tee and when it stains, rips or wears out you send it back to them and they send you a brand new one. Smart, huh? She thinks about profitability through the lens of efficiency:

“We make less inventory, and more accurate inventory so we save money. We use less resources and less water so we save money. We use fewer raw materials so we save money. It starts to make sense when you think about it through the lens of efficiency but it takes a different engineering of the supply chain to get there. And its really hard and really expensive to shift”

Sam from Chronicled agrees that to cut waste its a ‘supply v’s demand’ issue and our current ‘more is more’ model is outdated. “Its my opinion that we need a new model which I’ve called a demand chain. So producing things as they are needed, consuming more responsibly and empowering local communities to do that”

But hang, on hang! Am I saying its all our fault and the corporations are just responding like the wonderful, decent and accommodating pillars of society that they are? Nope. Definitely, definitely nope.

Step 4: Influence and Educate

I think its about time we heard from Amber Valletta. Amber is a gorgeous model (I had to say it, I’m sorry) but thats not why she’s here. She’s here because she has used her power as a celebrity and influencer and become an advocate for sustainability and social responsibility. Her website, Master & Muse is an online platform selling some of the most sustainably sound and socially responsible brands out there. As someone in the public eye, she can use her passion for good to try and sway the majority. But she’s not slamming fast fashion; she believes they hold the power to educate.

“Mass fast fashion is a big problem from a mass-market standpoint, because they touch so many people’s lives. So many people can’t afford a luxury product, these mass market companies have the ability to educate”

Amber Valletta

She’s bang on here because actually only the bubble know about the bubble. Sure you’d heard of Fordays or Everybody.world but has your mother-in-law? Has your cousin? Its the brands with clout who can teach the masses. Thats why G-Star and their Raw for the Oceans campaign with Pharrell Williams was so great.

Amber suggests more involvement from these giant corporations that we all use. Sure, they are seen to be doing incredibly well but at what cost to humanity and the environment? “Their boards and their leadership teams need to have more inclusivity and diversity: more women and more people of color. Because things don’t really change if the people stay the same. We also need more investment in new types of businesses. And big companies should be investing in innovation. Look at Amazon and their packaging, they have the power to revolutionise the whole packaging industry”

Maya agrees:

“Consumers create demand and demand drives the industry but the industry influences the demand. A lot of consumers are not informed and it’s hard for the consumer to see through the B/S and know the truth behind what’s being marketed to them”

H&M are known to have made some kind of effort in this direction and in fact they come out as one of the best performers in the Transparency Index I mentioned at the beginning of this article. Of course they have been slammed for talking about recycling and then selling a million more $5 vest tops bound straight for the landfill but I am of the opinion that its better to take some steps in the right direction than no steps at all. So what if its 1% of your business, if its more than it was last year then thats some movement. I have been in conversations in Bangladesh with factories used by H&M and believe me, there are many and multiple conversations happening all the time within their supply chain to make things better. I’m not saying they are doing enough but they are at least trying.

Slow Factory’s The Library Study Hall conference with MIT Media Lab and G-Star RAW held at the ACE Hotel August 26, 2018 in Los Angeles.

Ben recalls being accused by many brands of trying to stop them sourcing from developing countries but insists that Transparentum is not about that.

“For millions of people the apparel industry is the first step on the ladder out of extreme poverty. What we’re trying to do is making sure that is a safe step”

I have to agree. Having visited factories in China, Bangladesh, Vietnam and Pakistan I really do believe that by simply throwing our hands up and walking out of the situation, we’d leave a god-awful mess behind us.  We’re in this predicament because of our greed and selfishness so lets try and fix the problem rather than being teenagers about it and pretending its not happening. The fact that a room full of people in LA are interested and engaged in finding a solution gives me hope that the minority can influence the majority.

There’s so much more I could talk about but nobody’s going to read this much without checking their phone at least twice so I’m going to leave the conversation with some hope and some ideas for you.

There were some great people speaking at this event, so many that I didn’t actually manage to include all of them in this article (I know, how is it this long and I didn’t mention everyone?!) I’ve listed and linked them all below. Please check them out, follow them on instagram, understand their companies, buy from them, engage with them. If you are a brand or a factory owner or someone of influence in this business, see if there are ways you can work with them or learn from them. The fact that you got to the end of this article means you have enough stamina to be a part of the solution.

Congratulations!

Slow Factory’s The Library Study Hall conference with MIT Media Lab and G-Star RAW held at the ACE Hotel August 26, 2018 in Los Angeles.

Links:

Céline Semaan, curator and founder of The Library Study Hall™ and Slow Factory

In association with MIT Media LabG-Star RAW & Ace Hotel

Lauren Fay, Executive director of Fashion Revolution

Anna Banks is the CMO of Fair Trade

Sam Radocchia, founder of Chronicled

Ben Skinner, founder of  Transparentem

Sissi Johnson, MBA Professor

Maya Penn, International Badass

Adriana Galijasevic, Denim and Sustainability expert, G-Star Raw

Shona Quinn, Sustainability Executive, Eileen Fisher

Joanna Engelberg, Sustainability Director, The New Denim Project

Iris Alonzo, Co-Founder, Everybody

Ebru Debbag, Executive Director Sales and Marketing, Soorty Enterprises

Stacey London, Stylist and Fashion Consultant

Pashon Murray, Founder, Detroit Dirt

Patricia Ermeches, Founder, Osomtex

Claire Bergkamp, Sustainability and Innovation Director, Stella McCartney

Amber Valletta, Founder, Master & Muse

Kristy Caylor, Co-founder, For Days