The Global Climate Strike happened a few days ago, on March 15th, as tens of thousands of schoolchildren and students in more than 100 countries went on strike in a fight against climate change. But let’s not forget about February 17th, when climate change protesters from the environmental action group, Extinction Rebellion, targeted London Fashion Week (LFW). On the day, the protesters formed human blockades on roads around the various LFW event venues to highlight the spiralling throwaway culture in the UK’s clothing market and to urge the British Fashion Council (BFC) to declare a climate emergency.
Ella Chippendale manages The Fashion Common Room, a space that facilitates dialogue within the fashion movement. Here, she speaks to me about the importance of having conversations surrounding fast fashion and sustainability.
I understand that you manage The Fashion Common Room. Tell me more about what it aims to do.
So The Fashion Common Room started as a university (SOAS University of London) project. We started as a student society trying to raise awareness to the issue of fast fashion in terms of its human and environmental impact. Since then it's kind of grown much bigger into a blog. Our aim is to facilitate dialogue within the fashion movement. So essentially talking about all these different issues that we currently face within the industry and creating conversation where we can come up with new ideas to try and create innovation in the industry.
Why do you think Extinction Rebellion targeted London Fashion Week? Do you think these protests will suffice in making a difference in the fashion industry and their ethical practices?
I think that organisations like Extinction Rebellion are really important and are creating great change. I think that change will come from all sectors of the industry – policy makers, CEOs, consumers and activists. And Extinction Rebellion is obviously a part of that. For instance, disrupting Fashion Week and the way they did created a lot of awareness to the current issues of the lack of sustainability in the industry. Even mainstream magazines like Vogue covered the extinction rebellion movement. So yes, Extinction Rebellion is fundamental to draw attention to these kinds of issues.
Why do you think it’s necessary for people to have conversations regarding ethical/sustainable fashion practices?
Fashion is a trillion dollar industry and up until very recently it's been very unregulated. Garment factory workers are paid like 40p an hour, working 16 hours a week, and are often working extremely hazardous conditions. For instance, the Rana Plaza disaster that took place in 2013. I think 1139 workers, who were predominantly young women lost their lives that day despite the fact that they had complained about the lack of security in the building.
In terms of sustainability, fashion is one of the most polluting industries in the world. It massively contributes to the microfiber
problem, as well as it being highly polluting in terms of tanneries and chemicals being used to dye in processed garments. What about the amount of crops that are used in garment production? To make one cotton T-shirt, you’re talking about thousands of litres of water, which is much more than what one would drink in a year. So it is so fundamental that we have these kinds of conversations to create positive change in the industry.
Notable designer, Vivienne Westwood also joined in the protests at London Fashion Week, with her models wearing anti-consumerist and climate change slogans. Do you think other big designers will follow suit?
I think designers like Westwood are really doing a great job of calling to change. We have Katharine Hamnett, who's very much pushing for change in the industry. And also designers like Stella McCartney, who is trying to create more change through producing sustainable goods. So I definitely think that having such an influential British fashion designer like Vivienne Westwood calling for change in the industry will definitely have ripple effects throughout the industry.
What’s your opinion on the future of slow fashion, comparing it to the influx of fast throwaway fashion?
I think that slow fashion is really important. At the minute, we still have a culture where clothes can be easily thrown away. We have fast fashion retailers selling the narrative that we can buy clothes just for a Friday night, which is really problematic. We need to change our relationship with clothing and consumption in general, where we see clothing as being something we invest in for the long term. Livia Firth, the founder of Eco Age, who is also an ethical fashion activist, coined the term the “30 wear rule” which essentially challenges the idea that we shouldn't buy clothes unless we can see ourselves wearing it 30 times. I think trying to shift culture and change to this more sustainable way of consuming is fundamental to create a lasting change in the industry.