City Gallery in Wellington on Thursday 19 April 2018
By David Famularo
The Wairarapa featured in a new fashion initiative at City Gallery in Wellington.
Born out of a deep unease with the impact the clothing and fashion industry is having on the environment, and the low wages and poor work conditions of workers in developing countries, Samantha Jones of clothing label Little Yellow Bird organised Fashun Statement 2018 “to learn what it takes to build a sustainable fashion brand and what’s next for eco-fashion globally.”
Around 100 billion garments are made each year, three quarters of them ending up in landfills, often after only a few wears in phenomenon that has been dubbed “fast fashion.”
Not surprisingly, the impact on the environment is severe from dyes turning rivers red to microfibres poisoning waterways and food chains.
But a desire for change seems to be in the air.
Peri Drysdale, founder and CEO of fashion companies “Snowy Peak” and “Untouched World”, which produce ecologically sustainable clothing, and the founder of the Untouched World Foundation which runs programmes in sustainable leadership, said she had never expected to see the day when the subject would fill up an auditorium.
Each of the speakers had a fascinating story to tell, often starting their business with a vision and just a few hundred dollars in capital.
Samantha Jones spent six years as a logistics officer in the Royal New Zealand Air Force where she wore a uniform.
Moving into the corporate world, Jones discovered no-one sold sustainably and ethically made work uniforms which lead her to start her own clothing label Little Yellow Bird.
Like many of the other eight speakers’ stories, hers has not been an easy road to being an economically viable fair trade and sustainable business, from almost closing at the beginning of 2016 to a terrifying fire in her hotel room in Delhi during a production line visit last year.
Paul Edgar Bird talked about the disillusionment he had felt with the fashion industry in Auckland and how moving back to his home town of Masterton had given the opportunity to steer his own path, starting his own label Edgar & Bird which “reclaims, re-engineers and reuses clothing and textiles destined for the landfill.”
Thunderpants from Martinborough got a shout out for its long-lasting New Zealand-made clothing which uses certified fair trade organic cotton, producing nearly 50,000 garments a year.
So did Carterton’s Oversew Fashion Awards whose mission is to “encourage and promote the reduction of the fashion industry’s contribution to landfill through awareness and education.”
Laurie Foon, founder of Starfish and now Wellington Regional Manager for the Sustainable Business Network, pointed out that achieving the “best” is never going to be possible for clothing businesses, but “better” is an attainable goal.
The elephant in the room, addressed through a question to the panel at the end of the evening, is the price disadvantage ethically driven businesses suffer from, and how this means garments are unaffordable to many people on low incomes.
Not surprisingly, none of the panellist had an easy answer. Peri Drysdale pointed out that the higher the volumes a business can generate, the more it has the ability to lower it prices due to economies of scale, and that inevitably those with higher incomes have to be targeted first.
Jyoti Morningstar, founder of ethical yoga brand WE’AR, suggested looking at more indirect means of helping, for example, clothing opshops.
Brian Johnston, Associate of sustainability consultancy firm Proxima, focused on robots and the Pandora’s box of effects they are about to have on the industry.
On the positive side, they will reduce the need for exploitative labour, reduce pollution and potentially bring manufacturing jobs back to countries like New Zealand. On the negative side they will take away the only meagre income many workers have.
Change is inevitable, he said, but rather than be reactive, the clothing and fashion industry can be proactive and determine how these changes will affect it.
Which is the enormous challenge Samantha Jones and Fashun Statement 2018 have taken on. Is it possible for the industry to control its own destiny? Especially given its size and the pressure to sell at the lowest price.
The industry certainly has the power to change the world – and not by selling T-shirts with slogans on them!
Weaving is one of the oldest human activities. Clothes remain to this today a part of everyone’s lives, both a practical necessity and powerful cultural signifier.
Jones paraphrased American fashion designer Anne Klein – “fashion won’t change the world, the people who wear it will.”
At the end of the evening she said that the event would be repeated, and in the meantime the conversation would be carried on in smaller online groups.
Some of the questions that didn’t come up on the night but are worth exploring are: what is driving throw-away fashion and how can that be counteracted? Should pollution and worker exploitation be priced in the price of cheap products to create a level playing field, and by what means? What is the psychology, particularly among women, that is driving fast fashion?
What part is advertising playing in encouraging women to throw away garments after just a couple of wears, and is counter-messaging through media needed? Is a mass manufacturing one-size-fits-all economy-of-scale global industry producing clothes that are not suited to many women’s bodies?
While the challenges are immense, there was definite air of hope by the end of Fashun Statement 2018.
Top photo: Paul Edgar Bird speaks at City Gallery