Clara Vuletich – Sustainability strategist and designer
Fashion and sustainability. These are two very different things. Fashion is sexy, addictive, exclusive, and very fast-moving. Sustainability, on the other hand, is about slowness, care, flourishing and responsibility. It’s fair to say that the fashion industry, until very recently, hasn’t been very sustainable. We are drowning in clothes and textiles.
Clothing sales have increased dramatically in the last 20 years. Did you know that you have four times the amount of clothes in your wardrobes than your parents did? And in the UK, over 1 million tons of clothing goes into landfill every year. While we have more clothes in our wardrobes, we’re not necessarily any happier.
Fast fashion has turned us into these passive consumers who are constantly chasing the fantasy that buying more clothes will make us happy. And, as we know, the people who make our clothes are often working in quite far away countries from us here in Australia, in quite poor working conditions and paid quite poorly.
Look at what happened at Rana Plaza, the factory accident in Bangladesh, in 2013. Over 1,000 people lost their lives while they were making clothes for brands from the US and the UK. I’ve worked in this space as a designer and a researcher for almost ten years. I’ve spoken to many of the designers, brand managers, suppliers, retailers and consumers, and there’s often a lot of finger-pointing that goes on.
Consumers blame the brands for paying such low wages to often outsourced workers. Brands say that the price of their clothing is so cheap because that’s actually all that people want to pay. Activist organizations blame the brands for following business models that prioritize profit at all costs. And governments often just watch cautiously from the sidelines.
So, how can fashion and sustainability truly coexist? And how can all the players in this industry collectively work to transform this situation? Well, the good news is I believe things are changing for the better. We’re currently in a transition to a new type of fashion industry based on ecological and holistic principles of closing the loop on materials, that prioritizes community, values, and respect of all the people in the supply chain.
I recently went on a journey through the global supply chain to investigate these issues and to find some creative solutions. So, the journey begins in my local neighborhood of the time, of Brixton, in South London. I’m in the local community center there and I’m standing at a table surrounded by a group of women who are all hand-sewing with a needle and thread on their own garments. I was there to teach clothes mending and repair. I’d brought all my favorite sewing equipment, my needles, my threads, my yarns, my favorite textiles, and I really wanted to create this creative, and experiential, and inspiring workshop to get people in really engaging with their garments.
So, as the women sewed, we had quite a somber discussion about the impacts of fast fashion on people, on the planet. And after the workshop finished, everyone packed up and we all left, and I walked home on foot. As I was walking down what in the UK they call the high street, I noticed a group of four of the women from my workshop and, as I spotted them, they walked into a fast fashion shop. They were going shopping! I couldn’t believe it! I’d just spent many hours talking to them and teaching them this slow, careful mending repair technique, and all they wanted to do was go with their girlfriends and have some fashion-related, cheap fun.
So, it was in that moment that I really understood that, in order to contribute to systemic change of the industry, as a designer or as an activist, I would really need to understand behavior change, and rather than tinkering around at the edges as a craft-based textile designer, as I had been doing, I would need to go to the heart of the industry, to the global fashion brands and global production centers.
So, at about this time, I was luckily offered the opportunity to work with one of the largest fashion companies in the world. I’d been part of a fantastic research team in London, and we’d come up with a set of sustainability strategies for fashion and textile designers. So, these strategies cover things like design for recycling, how a designer can design for cyclability, design for chemical impacts, design for water impacts. And also, we give tips on how to be a design activist. And we’d actually trialed these strategies with mainly student designers all over the UK and Europe, but now was our opportunity to train professional designers in the heart of the industry.
And, when we’re training designers to use these strategies, we get them to take a garment design from a past collection, something they’ve done, maybe a pair of denim jeans or an outdoor jacket. And they use the strategies to map the potential environmental and social impacts of this garment, and then we ask them to redesign the garment to potentially lessen the impacts.
So, when we talk about garment impacts, we really need to think about life cycles. So, the garment life cycle demonstrates the impacts across the whole life of this garment. It’s got a very long life. It takes a lot to make a textile and then a garment. So, it starts at the raw material phase, goes through fiber and garment production, shipping and transport, when the consumer is wearing it, washing it, and then the end of life, whether you throw it in the bin or you give it to the secondhand markets. When we’re talking about life cycles, we have to really consider that all fiber types and garment designs have different impacts.
So, a polyester dress will have very different impacts to a cotton T-shirt, for example. So, let’s take cotton. Cotton is one of the largest fiber groups in the world. I bet many of you here today are wearing cotton garments. So, cotton is grown using huge amounts of pesticides. They say that, in one cotton T-shirt, 500 grams of pesticide have been used. So, that’s one full handful per T-shirt, and, globally, we produce over 1 billion T-shirts.
So, an alternative to conventional cotton is organic cotton, and organic cotton’s grown using no pesticides, but organic cotton is often 10% to 20% more expensive than conventional cotton and there’s often a shortage of yields. Particularly in the last five years, there’s been a really great engagement from consumers and brands onto the issues of cotton, but it’s meant that demand has outgrown supply. And someone may buy an organic cotton T-shirt, wear it a few times or wear it many times and throw it in the bin, and it may end up in landfill.
And, if the T-shirt has been dyed using toxic dyes, this may leak into the soil, and it often takes up to 400 years for a T-shirt to biodegrade. So, it’s complex, and there’s no one solution when we’re training designers to think about these issues, but, when we’re training them in sustainability thinking, we’re actually training them to be life cycle thinkers, to consider the whole life of this garment.
While I was training designers in this large company, I really began to reflect and I began to think about the idea that you can’t force a designer to care, or anyone for that matter. Sustainability asks us, as humans, to consider really deep questions about our personal relationship to nature and the ethics of our actions, and the strategies I was using didn’t really consider these deeper issues. And often in the workplace, even if our company has a great corporate responsibility program, we’re not often encouraged to bring our personal values to work.
So, I developed a really simple workshop tool, a card game and some drawing techniques, to get the designer talking and thinking about what sustainability means to them before they then apply the strategies. So, following these workshops in Europe, the research journey then took me then to China. China is the global hub of textile and garment production. They sure know how to do this.
I was interested to go to China to look at workers’ rights issues, particularly in garment production. Like many people from the West, I had some assumptions based on the notion of sweatshops about possibly how Chinese garment workers are treated and how they’re paid, and I also knew that the methodology that most western fashion brands use to justify their employment of workers in China was to audit factories, but I also knew that this wasn’t working either.
So, I wanted to go to China to not just look at the problems. I wanted to come up with some creative solutions. I really wanted to hack a factory and I wanted to co-design with workers and come up with a range of garments and product design. That was a little hard and I didn’t manage to pull that off, but what I realized in talking to workers and to many different stakeholders in China was that the assumptions I had weren’t necessarily correct.
A lot of production workers in Chinese garment production are women, aged between 18 to 25. They’ve come from rural villages to work in factories in the city, they’re living in dormitories next to factories, and they’re really happy and grateful for the work. They often do it for up to three to five years. They save a large amount of money to take back to their families. They also see the opportunities to potentially meet a husband in the cities, for example.
And I also visited some factories, not all the factories in China, but, well, the first thing I was impressed by was the sheer scale of these places. I don’t know if anyone’s been to textile production factories, but they are amazing. And so, I was sort of awed by the sheer scale of this industrial production, but I was also pleasantly surprised. Many of the factories were clean, the workers seemed to be safe and happy. So, there was no resolution, I guess, from my experience in China. I didn’t end up doing the creative project, but I did manage to sit with a group of garment workers in a room above their factory.
And rather than talking to them about the problems, or trying to, through a translator, I actually just shared a simple textile print technique with them. It sounds a bit funny, but I just felt that rather than me trying to solve any problems, which I naively thought maybe I could, it was actually very lovely to just sit and share a creative process through textiles.
The journey ends with me coming back to London. I’d been on this whirlwind journey through a global supply chain, I’d worked with the designers in the heart of the industry in Europe, I’d been to China and now I came back to London, and the final project that I worked on was that I made a jacket by hand. I spent three weeks working on this jacket. I hand-stitched many small pieces of patchwork together and hand-quilted three layers of fabric. Louise Bourgeois, the late French artist, talks about the act of hand-stitching with a needle and thread as a form of reparation, that the sewer is repairing something or bringing things back together. And it was in this very simple and mindful act that I was able to bring the many aspects of the research together and to make sense of the findings.
So, using the mind and the body, I literally stitched my way to an understanding of fashion and sustainability. And we can choose better organic materials, we can choose a better factory that’s been audited and assessed, we can even try and change consumer behavior through teaching them these mending techniques, but, ultimately, sustainable fashion is about values. We have to decide what we value.
A designer working in an organization, in order for them to engage with their company’s CSR policy, they have to really get clear on their own personal values and to feel empowered. Equally, a young Chinese garment worker has her own set of values based on her culture and her life circumstance. We can’t assume to know what she values, but we can collectively work to ensure that her human employment rights needs are met. And for us here in Australia, for people who love fashion and who shop, we have to decide how we spend our money and how we care for the clothes we already have. We have outsourced so much of our lives in the form of food and clothing, but now it’s time to bring things back home.
It is easy to point the finger at a brand for not having a transparent supply chain, or the government for not having a landfill tax, for example, but we have to really take responsibility for our choices. And there are several ways we can become more mindful lovers of fashion.
The first thing I would say is: learn the simple art of hand-stitching with a needle and thread, like they used to do it. It’ s really good way to tune into your own inherent value system and your own creativity. We all have it in us, we’ve just lost that touch with clothing and fabric. It’s lovely to go shopping on a Saturday afternoon and, sometimes, it does make us feel better and happier, but not always. I would say that, most likely, if you do tune into your inner knowing, it will tell you that what you really want is to feel more connected to others, or even to nature.
So, what else can we do? There are several apps now in Australia that you can download onto your phone. They use a really simple rating system to rate clothing brands about their ethical practices, so we can really start to get more knowledgeable about the supply chain and feel empowered about how we’re going to spend our money.
I would also say: buy secondhand clothes, swap with your friends, and ultimately, buy less. Very simple, but very radical. We’ve become such consumers that we’re not sort of used to that idea, and we’ve got such cheap clothing at our fingertips. So, it turns out that I was on the right track that day in London, in the workshop, that the active hand-stitching can make a world of difference. We all wear clothes, even if we’re not necessarily lovers of fashion, but we all wear clothes and we’re all connected and responsible for the transition to this flourishing fashion industry.
- How to Hack Your Brain When You’re in Pain: Amy Baxter (Transcript)
- How To Talk To The Worst Parts Of Yourself: Karen Faith (Transcript)
- Uncommon Sense: Moving from a Problem-Focused to Solution-Focused Mindset: Mel Gill (Transcript)
- Cold War II: Niall Ferguson on The Emerging Conflict With China (Transcript)
- Mindset Is More Important Than Strategy: Preston Pugmire (Transcript)