On the day of the Rana Plaza disaster, 3 years ago, I was giving a talk to staff at H&M in Stockholm. I was providing them with Sustainable Design Inspiration, to become more able to change from within, through decision-making by existing staff - in particular the design teams. None of us knew what had happened at the time – I remember the atmosphere as being one of dedicated learning and collective effort towards change.
On April 24th for the last two years I have been wearing my clothes inside out whilst actively campaigning for change, in support of the Fashion Revolution organisation. On the first anniversary I worked with the local primary school, asking pupils to consider who made their uniform. For the second anniversary I addressed an industry audience at the Textile Institute in London, where I talked about how we need to develop empathy and mindfulness, to enable greater collaborative ventures.
But this year, in the run up to the anniversary, I’m disappointed by the overwhelming negativity and criticism of the efforts of the industry. In fact, those that have done the most in the last three years seem to be at the receiving end of countless accusations of inaction. So, rather than preparing myself to turn my clothes inside out and take an audience with me on a journey, I have decided to write about the need for joined-up thinking and positive psychology in the field.
From Lines to Loops
The two campaigns this week – Fashion Revolution and H&M’s Recycling week – are concerned with issues at both ends of the linear lifecycle of fashion. They are about the beginning - the people that make our clothes, and the end - what we should do with the clothes when we no longer want them. If we look at the fashion industry’s potential to be circular, ironically these two activities are remarkably close together; the end joining up with the beginning, creating the closed loop.
The thing is, if you read the press this week, you would think these two camps live on separate planets. They exist in the old paradigm – at opposite ends of the line. I find it frustrating as I am involved with both, and ultimately they want many of the same things. Yet they are simply not looking at the complete circle. They are also at different stages of maturity and are concerned with different scales of industry production. I believe that - like yoga, the body and mind coming together – if we view the industry as a whole being then we may have more potential to transform it.
The Fashion Whole
What is needed, given the track record of the first twenty years of this beings’ life, is a total makeover. It has been a fast living, unhealthy, inconsiderate child-turned-adolescent. Personal transformation may come about through support, strong friendships and relationships, a clean diet and a new regime. The unhealthy person cannot be disregarded; cannot or should not be killed off. With time it can use its shady past to drive and inform its future self. It can become wise, generous, balanced. It’s life story is the lesson it can teach us.
However, if we meet this unpleasant young companion with anger, with vitriol, with criticism, then like any strong-willed teenager, it may well turn away to return to what it knows best. The fun-fueled selfishness, the indulgence and the thrill of the fast. What concerns me is that the verbal ripostes create a greater degree of negativity around an industry that needs to transform – consumers and producers both need to undergo a huge number of life changes. And they need to change more than current circumstances or legislation will dictate. So – we need to inspire this change. How are we going to do that, when the most significant players in the industry are seemingly at odds with each other?
Active, Constructive Responding
Martin Seligman in his book Flourish: a new understanding of happiness and well-being, and how to achieve them, presents the ideas of Shelley Gable, professor of psychology at the University of California at Santa Barbara. Her research has demonstrated that how you celebrate is more predictive of strong relations than how you fight. How we respond either builds or undermines relationships. There are four basic ways of responding, only one of which builds relationships: in active, constructive responding, all positive changes are noted and celebrated verbally, supporting further positive changes to take place.
Those watching this animosity from the sidelines include the next generation of employees in the fashion industry. Of the 5,000 textile designers that leave university in the UK each year, the majority will work in large companies. Some will become entrepreneurs, few will survive the first three years of business. There is a clear need to inspire and guide them to be active and involved in the industry of the future, enabling change for the better.
Fashion at Sea
I am calling for a more circular, connected, holistic approach to the problems of the fashion industry - viewing it as all vital organs of the same global body. Many say the changes being made are not enough, that we are simply ‘sinking the Titanic a little more slowly’. The difference is that in the movie made by circular economy advocates, the Titanic would be raised by Swedish technology, like it did the C17th ship Vasa in 1961, before it hits rock bottom.
My research team and I have been working on the Mistra Future Fashion programme in Sweden since 2011, collaborating closely with scientists and industry partners. In this work we acknowledge and support innovation at the academic and entrepreneurial level, as well as fully accepting that the scale of the problems for large fashion companies is profound. We are working at the coal-face of change, within tight parameters – both financial and infrastructural – and yet we are seeing them make very significant advances. Recycling Week and 100% Circular Lab by H&M, along with the Global Change Award (by the Conscious Foundation), represent a focus on parallel concerns that will in fact ultimately drive the changes needed at production level – on the factory floor.
No Easy Wins
There are no easy wins at either end of the fashion line, and whilst the changes for Fashion Revolution will come about in the main through legislation (driven by some of the large companies, ironically) personal actions and habits are relatively easy to change, especially when we have the luxury of education and choice in the developed world. Look at seat belts in cars and smoking in pubs – personal change is possible and can come quickly, albeit in this case with legislation, along with the realisation that people are dying.
The shift for industry towards sustainability and closing the loop needs total supply chain reinvention – from material, to production and labour, to consumers returning clothes for reprocessing. Pioneers like H&M are not greenwashing – they are aiding the global move towards circularity. Whilst we think there is an enormous amount of fashion waste – the reality is that the flow patterns, the quality of material stock and the lacking technology, are all huge, expensive, logistical challenges to all sectors of scale.
This year, on 24th April, I will be taking part in a brunch with Filippa K, a partner in the Mistra Future Fashion project, giving my time to support a company that is bringing its consumers to meet its makers. Celebrating progress and building relationships, marking the Fashion Revolution with one of the game-changing Swedish brands that is closing the loop. I will remember those that lost their lives three years ago, as I continue to work towards long-term change from within the industry.
- Mistra Future Fashion programme (2011 – 2019), Sweden
- Martin Seligman, Flourish: a new understanding of happiness and well-being, and how to achieve them. London: Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 2011
- Auret van Heerden, Fair Labour and the Living Wage, FIT, New York, March 25th 2016
- Vasa Museet, Stockholm
- Filippa K brunch, Stockholm