“We’ve all got a voice and power”

When Rana Plaza collapsed in Bangladesh in 2013, killing more than 1000 people and injuring 2500, it rocked the fashion and retail industries. It wasn’t the first time that people heard about the horrific conditions under which many in the garment industry must work every day. But the accident that is considered the deadliest structural failure in modern history sent shockwaves through the sector, forcing everyone to acknowledge that something had to change in the way that the fashion business is run.

Out of this dismay, the global movement Fashion Revolution Week was born. At first it was a way to commemorate the lives lost, but it slowly turned into a positive conversation around the future of fashion and what could be done to change it. A hashtag – #WhoMadeMyClothes – is now shared by retailers with their customers, revealing the stories of the people behind the creation of their products.

This is now Fashion Revolution Week’s fifth year, and last week, more than 1000 events took place in more than 100 countries, including Australia. The platform has inspired many retailers to reflect on their own ethical and sustainable practices and how they can better manage their supply chain.

H&M recently became the first major retailer to list the individual supplier details for each garment. Earlier this month, David Jones published an interactive map releasing the locations and details of their tier-one factory list. Jeanswest showcased the makers behind their clothes, from China to Melbourne and Sydney.

Australian jewellery brand Elk also released a transparency report, detailing the brand’s journey over the last five years, including a list of its tier-one suppliers. The report took three years to put together. Indeed, as founder Marnie Goding explains, trying to create transparency as a brand is a long and arduous process.

“Supply chains are a constantly moving challenge as one season rolls into the next and new materials or makers are introduced. It isn’t a ‘set and forget’ situation. The challenge is to keep up with who, how and where products are made,” she says.

“Relationships with existing manufacturers are vital and the onboarding process for new makers is key to achieving transparency. You need to be able to freely ask questions and then trust the answers. This requires physical checks, third-party audits and verification through certification where possible. All of this equates to time and resources – assets that small and medium retailers don’t always have.”

Outland Denim also took part in Fashion Revolution Week and created a social media campaign to showcase and celebrate their seamstresses. It also partnered with David Jones.

“Consumers take ethical fashion a lot more seriously now than when we first started out building Outland Denim eight years ago; it was more a niche conversation happening among members of the fashion community, and perhaps a bit elitist, but there is a lot more education and awareness now by comparison,” says founder James Bartle.

“When large retailers that generations of Australians know and trust join the conversation and celebrate sustainable practices, it normalises ethical fashion and makes it accessible to more consumers.”

How to change consumer behaviour

While discount department stores and fast-fashion brands have come under fire for their lack of transparency in the past, Melinda Tually, Fashion Revolution Australia coordinator and responsible-sourcing strategist, believes consumers also need to accept some of the responsibility for their purchasing decisions.

“Consumers have to look at themselves. You don’t have to shop every Saturday; you can wear the same thing twice on Instagram if not more; you can be proud to rent and purchase consigned goods. You can be proud to wear secondhand and find your voice, if you’re not happy with what a brand is doing, use the Fashion Revolution platform. We’ve all got a voice and power,” she says.

“So I really think we need to acknowledge our own responsibility and stop putting it on others just because it’s a convenient thing to do. The fast-fashion model wouldn’t exist if we didn’t buy into it, so we need to acknowledge our role in it. Things only succeed if they have a user base.”

Governments also play a role in bringing sustainability to the fore, she adds. They’re the ones that set things such as minimum wages or the right to have unions – and unfortunately, there are brands that are based in countries that don’t acknowledge that.

“You could say ‘don’t operate in that country’ – so do you pull out from a country that supports millions of people in the garment industry? That’s not a solution. You have to stay in those countries and lobby and find a voice in government to lobby for change.”

The future of fashion

Beyond Fashion Revolution Week, what’s to come in the future of the industry and sustainability? Tually believes that within the next five years, enough resources will be available for us to repurpose textiles.

“So what we wear today will be the raw materials of the future. We’ll be taking back our items that are designed for circularity at the beginning and zippers and rivets will be easily disassembled,” she says.

“Those fabrics will be broken down and pulped and remade into a new fabric, therefore we’ll be reusing what we wore yesterday into new garments for tomorrow.”

Tually also believes that our focus now should be designing for circularity, which should be embedded into fashion schools and brands. ASOS has its own circular specialist, she points out, and brands will be recruiting people based on what they know about sustainability. If you want a job in design, it will be an expectation, not a bonus.

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