Last month saw the launch of our founder Safia Minney’s new book Slow Fashion at the Duke of Cambridge pub in Islington. Slow Fashion is a celebration of people in all areas of the fashion industry who are trying to change the way we approach creating, producing and buying the things we wear. It’s about making a conscious decision to buy less, but with more thought about the quality, longevity and provenance of the goods in question.
The Duke of Cambridge is a great example of that lifestyle, serving up delicious organic fare like the carrot and apricot mimosas we were served on arrival, or the delicious canapes. And this is important, because there is often a false perception that ethical anything can be a bit worthy, and perhaps not as satisfying as its less carefully sourced competitors. This was an evening that, from the food and drink served by the team at the Duke of Cambridge, to the People Tree clothes on display, via a series of contributions from speakers each as inspiring as they are passionate about their respective area of expertise, proved that you could talk about ethics and sustainability with engagement, passion, and intelligence, but also with humour and joy.
The speaker line-up was impressive, and read almost like a who’s who of ethical fashion. Our MC for the evening was journalist and author Lucy Siegle, who co-produced the film The True Cost, which has been for so many people an introduction to the abuse of human rights and the environment that is the fast fashion industry. The first person she introduced was Slow Fashion’s publisher from New Internationalist, Dan Raymond Barker.
New Internationalist also published Safia’s last book, Naked Fashion, and is an ethical publisher, only publishing books the editorial team can believe in, celebrating and supporting the people who are out there trying to bring about change for good.
Next up was Safia herself, who was interviewed by Caryn Franklin. As Safia explained, there has been a big shift in awareness of the problems caused by fast fashion since the disaster at Rana Plaza, and new campaigns like Fashion Revolution that continue to ask hard questions of fashion retailers. For Safia, the future of fashion, if it is to be sustainable, is in buying what has a true meaning to us, and for brands, the future lies in storytelling, bringing meaning to purchases through the stories about the origin of the things we buy and wear.
Up next was Mike Gidney of the Fairtrade Foundation. The previous day’s tragic attacks in Brussels were present in most people’s minds, and Mike paid tribute to the human response that had been so clear in the media. That from the hatred and violence at the origin of the attacks were born contrasting images – those of people shouting and shaking fists, and those quietly laying flowers, helping strangers from the metro station, cleaning the clothes of someone they’d met minutes before and working without need for direction to make things better through small acts of everyday heroism. For Mike, Safia has always been part of that second group, moving past anger to lead by example: doing and showing, not shouting. The new book has a clear-eyed focus on how to create fairer fashion.
Jean Lambert MEP talked to us about having The True Cost screened in the European Parliament, but was clear that there was still a long way to go, especially in fighting for women’s rights when even in the UK there remains a gender pay gap. She particularly drew attention to the fact that with increased public attention to Corporate Social Responsibility, there is an assumption that companies will take action and put things in place themselves, but there are currently no laws to back this up, which is what would be needed to bring about more rapid change. Ethical fashion may seem a niche at the moment, but we have to learn to make this niche the norm.
John Hilary was on excellent form that night, too, reminding us of just how we got into the mess. The original idea of globalisation was for it to be a win-win situation: western countries would get things produced more cheaply and therefore be able to buy more, and developing countries would be able to sell more products, earn more and ultimately be able to leave poverty behind. Except that’s not how it’s turned out. Instead developing countries are forced to produce increasingly cheaply for the western market, with a constant race to the bottom on price that leads to them becoming poorer, and the working conditions of their populations even worse. This is just one of the reasons ethical fashion is important – by making sure the clothes we buy come from a transparent supply chain where fair wages are paid and workers’ rights respected, we can start to change this.
Fashion Revolution was founded three years ago in the wake of Rana Plaza. As a designer creating ethical fashion, Orsola was often hailed as a pioneer which, she says, often felt lonely, but she now feels surrounded by friends. In one of the most memorable speeches of the evening, she likened fast fashion to a one night stand, and slow fashion to a relationship, where you want to know the story behind the person, or the clothing. As Orsola put it, it’s OK to have a few one night stands, but at the end of the day, what most people want is a fulfilling relationship. By shifting production of our clothes to far away countries, it’s too easy to distance ourselves from the problems that have been created. We need to encourage people to feel they can be part of the solution, and create a relationship and true attachment to the things they buy that lasts beyond the morning after.
Our next speaker was Peter Melchett, and I’ll hold my hand up now and confess that the battery on my phone died so I missed the opportunity to photograph him as he spoke. As head of the Soil Association, who are guardians of our organic standards, Peter has a clear focus on the supply chain. He described it as being more than a term, but an actual chain of real people. Big tragedies like Rana Plaza may raise awareness, but around the world every day thousands of farmers, workers and other people living close to major agricultural production are dying and getting sick, because the financial interests involved lead to indiscriminate use of pesticides and other chemicals. Organic production is more important now than ever, if we are to bring an end to this suffering.
Romy Fraser is something of a personal hero – she’s the founder of Neal’s Yard Remedies and a shining example of how quiet, generous determination and a will to both teach and learn can bring about real change in a whole market. There’s clearly a great bond of affection between Romy and Safia, which contributes to the sense I have had the whole evening that this is a gathering of friends, almost family, to which the rest of us have been inadvertently – but very happily – invited. Romy’s favourite part of the book is the fifth chapter, which showcases a number of Eco Concept Stores, and since she used to be a retailer she can identify with the store owners in this book. Like them, she created something with Neal’s Yard Remedies that challenged the status quo, and instead showed another way of doing things, carrying people with her rather than preaching.
Lucy Siegle stepped up one last time to the front and we had reached the end of the evening. if you’ve ever tried to capture the perfect group shot when you’re with friends at a landmark birthday or a university reunion, you’ll appreciate how difficult it can be to get it right. I’m not sure I did, but perhaps this photo serves in a different way, to show how genuinely glad our various speakers were to be a part of the evening. The photo was difficult to take because of the smiles, laughter and general good humour as they gathered for this final picture. Ethical fashion may seem to some to be a niche, but working hard to create a new normal is a group of passionate, intelligent, articulate people, all very well-known individually, but who are so at ease with each other that it is clear they work regularly together as a team in their effort to bring about change.
I left the Duke of Cambridge after the Slow Fashion launch, at the end of a long working day, enthusiastic, energised, and hugely optimistic. For those who have grown up in a world of fast fashion and instant and thoughtless gratification, the concept of slow fashion is subversive, a revolution in its own right. If this event is anything to go by, the revolution is in very good hands.