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By Chere Di Boscio
Sustainable and ethical fashion are phrases just about everyone in the developed world understands today. But it wasn’t always so. It took the work of a few dedicated women to make such phrases household words, and Orsola de Castro is undoubtedly one of them.
She launched her career in the world of eco-fashion as the designer behind the label From Somewhere, which makes clothes out of recycled offcuts of luxury materials. Soon after, she curated Estethica, an ethical fashion showcase in association with the British Fashion Council, with her partner, Filippo Ricci. But most recently, de Castro launched Fashion Revolution alongside her partner Carry Somers – and it’s gone global.
The Revolution’s is to “unite people and organisations to work together towards radically changing the way our clothes are sourced, produced and consumed, so that our clothing is made in a safe, clean and fair way”, and it’s something that has resonated with fashion consumers and producers from Indiana to Indonesia. The #whomademyclothes hashtag that inspires fashionistas to consider the labour that goes into their garments is one of the most shared tags in the industry, and the reports generated by the Fashion Revolution are serving as go-to guides for shoppers aiming for cleaner clothing consumption.
In short, de Castro isn’t just a mover and shaker in the sustainable fashion industry; she is arguably the biggest player in the field.
I was lucky enough to catch up with her to talk fast fashion, technological innovation and consumer consciousness.
Recently, you won ‘The H&M Conscious Award’ at the Elle Style Awards. A lot of conscious fashionistas have issues with H&M for their fast fashion model. Where do you stand on this issue?
I accepted this award after consulting with my Fashion Revolution team members and several other peers who I respect, because I knew it would allow me to reach out to an audience that had previously eluded me, to be heard amongst opinion makers, designers and celebrities with my message. I knew it would be controversial! But a part from one or two individuals posting negative comments on social media, I was met with thousands of incredibly positive reactions, mostly congratulating me for my achievements in a long career.
This is what I said in my speech:
“I am not used to being amongst so many famous people and so many stars.
I hope that from tonight, you will use your influence and shine your light onto the millions of unknown and invisible people who make our clothes.
Sadly, we are nowhere near a fashion industry that is free from exploitation – which is why we need to take every opportunity to raise our concerns and push for equality and positive change.
Your choices and your voices can make a huge difference.
Because it isn’t enough just looking for quality in the products we buy, we must ensure that there is quality in the lives of the people who make them.
So I encourage you to start a new trend: transparency.
And no, I am not talking of a 90s throwback, nor am I suggesting you should show your skin – I am asking you to show your respect.
Here’s to a more transparent fashion industry.”
I have always, in nearly 20 years of this career, believed that the only way to achieve change is to create a dialogue with precisely those mainstream brands we want to push for change. In the past I worked both with Tesco Clothing (in 2010) and later with Topshop, helping them to create upcycled collections: the Topshop one, Reclaim to Wear by Topshop, was a bestseller and run for 4 consecutive years, from 2012 to 2015. Estethica was sponsored by Monsoon. This attitude has often attracted criticism, but I’m still here.
What happened to Estethica, the platform you founded for designers with ethical standards. It was such a cool concept, but I’ve noticed it hasn’t been at BFW for awhile?
Over the course of its history, Estethica launched the careers of designers as varied as Christopher Raeburn and Katie Jones; it showcased established brands such as Bottletop, Veja and People Tree. It was regularly visited and written about by Suzy Menkes, Tamsin Blanchard and Sara Maino, to name but a very few. Our brands sold into Dover Street Market, Net A Porter, John Lewis, Isetan, Barneys, Colette, Luisa Via Roma, Selfridges, Liberty’s and dozens of other stores of that calibre internationally.
We showcased indigenous artisanal collections, supermodels’ collections, upcycled collections from Central Saint Martins‘ students; we launched initiatives from Greenpeace, Oxfam, the Centre For Sustainable Fashion, Fairtrade Foundation and the DEFRA Sustainability Road Map.
It came to a natural end in 2014, when the BFC launched their new initiative, Fashion Positive, aiming for a more corporate conversation around ethics and sustainability. With that in mind, Estethica was no longer a top priority for them as a platform, given our main remit of showcasing, mentoring and promoting smaller, emerging brands.
Since you started working in the ethical fashion space nearly 20 years ago, how have you seen a shift in consciousness by fashion consumers?
I think we are all aware of the massive shift towards a better understanding of ethics and sustainability in the fashion supply chain: consumers are more informed than before and more demanding. Brands who traditionally stayed silent about their practices have started to embrace this conversation in earnest, and implementing changes accordingly. Just in the 2 years since we started our Fashion Transparency Index, we have seen a huge increase in brands publishing their 1st and part of their 2nd tear supply chain, in a quest to become more transparent. What is clear is that the brand loyalty of tomorrow will reward brands for doing good, not just looking good.
This conversation is well and truly out in the open now, and consumers are more aware than ever.
And of course, the biggest change will be in the next generation of designers, many of whom wouldn’t dream of entering this industry without a solid, well thought out approach to sustainability, in the materials they chose and in the way they look at their manufacturing processes.
You’re one of the founders of Fashion Revolution, which aims to raise awareness about how clothing is made. How have you seen that movement grow, and where would you ultimately like it to be?
In terms of growth, we measure it by our social media impact, which has been phenomenal. Just this year, during Fashion Revolution Week, 113k people posted on Instagram using our hashtag #whomademyclothes and over 5k producers responded globally with their own hashtag #imadeyourclothes. We had an online social media reach of 150 Million and 556 million impressions of our hashtags, and our online press reach in April 2017 was over 11 billion – so we are being heard! Our initiative, the Haulternative (where we work with YouTubers encouraging them to enjoy fashion without buying) has had well over 4 million views on YouTube. Not to mention our multi award winning film, produced by BBDO, “The 2 Euro T-shirt – a social experiment” (below), at nearly 8 million views!
There are other, less “measurable” activities, such as our Garment Worker Diaries project, or the fact that this April, together with a consortium of other partners, we presented our recommendations to the European Parliament. We have Country Coordinators in 100 countries and students ambassadors in countless universities globally.
We have grown to become the biggest fashion activism movement in the world.
Where would I like it to be? I am aiming for a future where we won’t any longer need a Fashion Revolution. But I guess that’s nowhere near soon.
A lot of companies are producing ‘high tech’ fashion, such as cloned leather and lab-made diamonds, and call it ‘ethical’. What’s your position on this?
It’s not really my area of expertise. However, my 2 cents: we need innovation, especially where it concerns creating sustainable materials, but innovation has its own supply chain, so before casting any judgement, I would ask the innovators the same questions I have for the traditionalists: are your raw materials coming from renewable sustainable sources? What chemicals are used in the process? Do you pay all workers across your supply chain a fair living wage?
As one of the pioneers in the field of ethical fashion, which achievements of yours have made you most proud so far?
In 20 years, as a designer first, then as a curator, and now as an activist and educator, (I lecture globally, and teach regularly at Camberwell and CSM) I have been exceedingly lucky that many of the projects I have been involved with have come to a positive fruition. It seemed impossible, at the time when I was a designer with my upcycling label From Somewhere, to be more proud than seeing my collections sell worldwide; then came Estethica, and that made me positively glow with joy, and then Fashion Revolution (and our amazingly wonderful team) brought me interstellar, supersonic, unimaginable levels of pride.
But our latest Fanzine, Loved Clothes Last, where we tackle the issue of mass production and accelerated consumption, is the icing on the cake for me. Not only does it represent 20 years of accumulated knowledge, but it allows us the privilege to bring together a group of badass colleagues, now eminent renowned world experts, and share our experiences. It feels like home.
Finally, what gives you hope?
Hope comes and goes. But I get solace in doing the work I do, that’s my constant.
All images courtesy Orsola de Castro/Fashion Revolution.
Second image: Tamzin Haughton