By Madeleine Mamak
It’s no secret that fashion has claimed many victims in its pursuit for style and economic gain. But in recent years, it appears as though companies are starting to wake up to the fact that profit is not the only thing that matters. They have social responsibilities too. Companies like Burberry big billboards, big name models and big profits, and some of us may jump to the conclusion that they simply don’t care about how they reach their goals. But maybe that’s just because we’re not told enough about what goes on behind the scenes. If our perceptions of these big fashion companies are ever going to change, we need to find out just how much they really care. I did just this, by delving into the corporate social responsibility sectors in the fashion industry.
I was lucky enough to talk with Kellie Dalton about just how thoughtful the fashion industry can be. Kellie is a Sustainability Advisor to high-end fashion brands and has previously worked on sustainability at Burberry. Now, she is Head of Sustainability at Katharine Hamnett, a high-end fashion brand with a huge emphasis on keeping fashion ethical. Kellie was willing to give an insight into how the fashion industry is recognising the role it plays in sustainability and ethics; prioritising the creation of clothes that are both gorgeous and increasingly guilt free.
Corporate social responsibility in major fashion brands involves three parts: community, sustainability and ethical trade. These are the less flashy, but equally as important parts of the industry that prove fashion isn’t just about making money and pretty garments. It’s about making clothes that matter, with people that matter.
Madeleine: Why do you think it is so important that companies, and in particular the fashion industry, are beginning to recognise the importance of their role in society aside from creating profit?
Kellie: We are living in a time of Climate Emergency where the science is clear, that we have a short amount of time to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases in the Earth's atmosphere if we are to avoid catastrophic climate conditions.
The clothing and footwear industry alone accounts for 8% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. More than 50 % of the industry's emissions come from 3 phases of clothing production: fibre production (15%), yarn preparation (28%) and dyeing and finishing (36%).
Outside of fulfilling basic legal requirements, brands are left to self-regulate across emissions reductions, labour standards, raw material procurement, chemical use, effluent treatment, waste and animal welfare. Time has shown though, that self regulation has had devastating consequences.
We need stronger, holistic action in the interests of farmers, artisans, supply chain workers, brand employees, customers, communities and all life on earth, as a matter of urgency.
While many brands are working on reducing their social and environmental impacts, over 40% of the industry have yet to take any meaningful action. We need to keep ask questions and pushing for change.
Madeleine: How have sustainability strategies changed in the last few years in light of increased fears for the environment?
Kellie: Brand collaboration is on the rise. Initiatives such as the Fashion Industry Charter Action on Climate Action convened by the UN, are setting out frameworks for brands to have a collective approach in supporting the goals of the Paris Agreement in limiting global temperature rise to well below two degrees Celsius. The G7 Fashion Pact is another example which sets out commitments for Climate, Biodiversity and Oceans. As is the Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemical (ZDHC) initiative, which supports brands to manage their hazardous chemical use in clothing production. One the whole, no one initiative is perfect and there are too many initiatives, standards and certifications across the industry. The more brands that galvanise around specific initiatives, the quicker we will see change that has real and lasting impact. We need to get focused, and fast.
Madeleine: What are some of the most creative or unconventional ways in which you have seen fashion brands creating sustainable fashion?
Kellie: Innovations across all areas of product life cycles - fabrics, manufacturing, dyeing and processing - are coming quicker than ever before, which is exciting to see. Fashion for Good is an innovation fund that supports ‘start-ups driving innovation in sustainability, circularity and transparency to make all fashion good’, some great examples from it include:
- Algalife creates dyes and fibres from algae microorganisms
- reGAIN app has created the first digital, multi-brand take-back program which rewards recycling
- Dimpora has invented a novel waterproof membrane material
In the past brands such as Burberry have been subject to a lot of criticism for their sustainability values, or apparent lack thereof. While I acknowledge that Burberry, for example, are making strides with regards to their ethics, it’s hard to forget what has already happened. The desperation to protect Burberry’s exclusivity led to the burning of clothes, perfumes and accessories which were worth tens of millions of pounds, as an alternative to these items being sold out of the company’s control. I believe that talking about these high-profile incidents is of high importance because it’s seminal events like these which are pushing brands to be more transparent, and ultimately more ethical. What truly matters moving forward though is that brands recognise the errors of their ways and don’t repeat these mistakes. Change is of the essence. And it is in speaking to the individuals behind the scenes that we can find out what brands are doing now.
Madeleine: How do you see the fashion industry changing in the future with regards to how products and packaging are made, as well as the amount that brands produce?
Kellie: Ultimately we need legislation in place as a matter of urgency so that we can ensure meaningful, fair and decent work for millions of people employed in the fashion industry, [we need to] drastically cut our carbon emissions and tackle the rising textile waste problem we face.
Madeleine: Do you think fast fashion has too far gone or is there a way to produce mass market clothing while still minimising the impact on its environment?
Kellie: The amount of clothing being purchased is expected to rise by 63% from 62 million tonnes today to 102 million tonnes in 2030. Brand progress on sustainable fashion has slowed by a third in 2018 and every second, the equivalent of one garbage truck of textiles is landfilled or burned.
Consumers are asking more questions of brands about their social and environmental impact but many are not sure what the right answer is. While online searches for sustainable fashion increased by 66% in 2018, a £1 polyester bikini from Missguided sold out in 2019.
All climate impact roads for the fashion industry lead back to overconsumption. We need to ask ourselves, what we really need when we shop, how long we are going to use what we buy for and when we no longer have a use for it, what will happen to that product.
Brands also need to examine their own structural inefficiencies when it comes to how much they over consume raw materials, how much they overproduce and how they manage their waste.
We all have our part to play in changing the industry. It is not just up to us as customers to demand change but we do have the power to choose how we spend our money and who we spend it with. Or if we even need to spend our money on new clothing at all.
Conscious business and sourcing is so important, and the fashion industry requires scrutiny today more than ever before. If companies like Burberry and Katharine Hamnett can continue to make beautiful clothes and maintain a big name, whilst also holding down ethical values behind the scenes, then so can others. It’s still about the clothes, it’s about the shoes, and it’s about the trends. But it has also become about so much more than that. Talking to a member of the industry proves that they know it too. The fight for philanthropic fashion has begun. And it definitely isn’t over.