If insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result, then surely sanity must equate to change. Today, at the Ethical Fashion Forum‘s SOURCE Summit 2015, I find myself in a room full of people who collectively feel that in the fashion industry, this must be the case. Everyone here is a change maker, a trail blazer, a pioneer… so what is it that this one-day conference is offering that has brought business leaders, designers and ethical and sustainable fashion start ups out in their droves, some of them even flying in from abroad?
Sarah Ditty, Editor in Chief of SOURCE doesn’t pull any punches in her introduction to the day. ‘People don’t trust brands anymore’ (according to Havas Media Meaningful Brands) – a pretty powerful opener to SOURCE Summit 2015. She talks about how disasters like the Rana Plaza, the horse meat scandal and the latest Fifa corruption contribute to a general feeling of distrust from consumers. In the case of fashion and textiles, Baptist World Aid Australia’s Behind the Barcode report, suggests that 91% of companies still don’t know where their cotton comes from, and with consumers gradually asking for more and more transparency, this is just not good enough.
People are beginning to expect brands to not only be more transparent, but to play a bigger role in their communities and in their collective wellbeing. ‘If you’re still seeing your business as a factory… then you’re going to be left behind and you need to “take a ‘quantum leap into the future,”‘ Sarah quotes Havas Media Lab Director, Umair Tarique. It’s 10 am in the morning and the tone has been set for a future thinking forum, and for the day’s debate and conversation on transformative ideas and technology within the ethical fashion world.
The first panel comprised of Russ Shaw of Tech London Advocates, Caitlin Bristol of eBay, Cyndi Rhodes of Worn Again and Maher Anjum of Anjum James Associates – an impressive lineup. The panel set to work on dissecting the possibilities for how tech might shape a sustainable future for fashion, with Russ Shaw describing how, in his mind, fashion tech is prime to take off as a pioneering sector. He cited Lost Values and Technology Will Save Us All, but referred to Transferwise (a disruptive company challenging the status quo and established models) as the example of a parallel we might aspire to within the ethical fashion industry. Cyndi painted what seemed to be a bleak picture as she talked about a globally connected world that throws away almost as much to landfill as it makes each year. But things took a more positive note as she described Worn Again’s endeavour (in partnership with H&M and Kerring) to create a circular recycling technology.
This year, secondhand, reusing and recycling was also a reoccurring theme as Maher Anjum shared the story of the repair and upcycling of her grandmother’s sari. Alternatively, Caitlin Bristol offered a refreshing approach as she spoke about how when eBay first emerged, the idea of the ‘value’ of things was viewed as being subjective, and how new this idea was back then. She talked about reuse and redistribution, green shopping and how we can unlock the potential of idle inventory to influence the value chain. We need to move towards thinking of consumers as ‘users’ she said, because inherently the word consumers is an ugly one that evokes the idea of a culture that is excessive, insatiable and unhealthy at its core. And so we should encourage instead, perhaps, a giant leasing economy marketplace and ideas about ‘shwopping’. She also told us that even mainstream brands are hearing the users call for a better journey and a longer life for their clothes. This has manifested itself in initiatives such as Nike’s ‘Reuse a shoe’.
There was talk of shifting from hyper consumption to a collaborative economy where people’s lives are made more convenient and easier, where more and more consumers will be able to get what they need from each other – good examples of this shift starting to occur might be online clothing rental or swapping services. And as the landscape changes and online options grow, physical shops begin to serve a different purpose – instead of purchase destinations, they are becoming social spaces for people and communities. You begin to wonder whether there might be a full circle shift back to a need for interaction on a deeper level. This sharing of clothes, the exchange or passing on of a favourite piece and its story might serve a need for us to reconnect with one another in a humanistic way – whether this takes place in an online or offline capacity.
Caitlin really picked up on how it should be seen as a big win for brands to be involved in getting to a second customer (through the secondhand sale of their goods online), and developing loyalty and good feeling in two separate owners without having even formally done the engagement. In reality, some brands are afraid to engage with the second life of their clothing, despite the fact there is evidence to show that active participation in this kind of activity often spurs an increase in sales of both new and old products for the brand in question. Patagonia was cited as an example of a brand that has seen this positive uplift.
Before we all headed off to the table topic discussions, Ethical Fashion Forum’s Founder and CEO, Tamsin Lejeune took us through the vision for their own tech future; a proposition that promised an impressive offering to all its members. This offering aims to benchmark and reward good ethical practice by unlocking more information and resources, thus increasing the potential for a brand to grow. Better than this, everything mysource.i.o will serve up to its members will be completely based on need.
Table topic discussions covered everything from Sustainable Fabrics and Production to Growing a Brand. This provided the perfect opportunity for people to network in small groups and share valuable advice and experience. Master Classes then followed on, offering a more in-depth discussion around Retail, The Supply Chain, Innovation, or Design dependent on which you’d selected to attend.
In the retail master class, attendees got the opportunity to hear from Jade Harwood of Wool and the Gang on making knitting sexy and how using social media can help shape a business model, while in the Design class, Bryan Oknyansky from Shoes by Bryan showed us his awe inspiring creations and talked 3D printing, the future of footwear, the use of PLA and his aspirations to create the first downloadable collection. With developmental strides in design like this, a paradigm shift in how we receive consumer goods is inevitable. He already offers personalisation that is immediate – you can choose the colour of your shoe, for example, and it costs the same to produce as printing the original shoe – but soon there could be options that abolish shoe size and that make products available that are made specifically for a certain person as standard, and that therefore increase social sustainability.
I was pleased to hear that one of my personal favourites, Reformation was mentioned several times by various speakers and in various table topic discussions throughout the day. The online retailer was hailed as a good case study for a brand that’s getting it right – use of dead stock fabrics and vintage, everything produced in their own sustainable sewing factory, a heat-reflecting roof and a building run by renewable energy. Yet still, Reformation might be considered a ‘fast fashion’ model because new products are released every two weeks. However, their small quantities have been proven to drive up demand, seeing them make $25 million last year – and we watch as they keep expanding.
Another example was Eileen Fisher, but unlike Reformation, this is a company that has had to build in sustainability over time as opposed to having it integrated at the core from day one. Proof that it’s possible to reinvent the wheel after years of successful trade, simply because you know change needs to happen and because you have a desire to do things the right way. It’s not too difficult. The goal for Eileen Fisher is to get to 100% sustainability.
In the closing talk of the day, Lucy Shea of communications agency Futerra put it back to the group: ‘What is sanity to you?’ For me, the most pertinent thought that came out of this was not an answer, but another question from the audience: ‘Do we start with the person or the system?’ Carol Rose of WRAP articulated this quite neatly by posing the question: ‘Is the definition of sanity really about looking at oneself; about looking at the man in the mirror?’ Instead, in the end, is it really about asking how we can affect change by chipping away slowly-but-surely from inside our big corporate fashion organisation, or from within the walls of our tiny empire if we have embarked on an entrepreneurial journey within the ethical fashion world?
Another hugely thought-provoking, as well as informative, event from the Ethical Fashion Forum. I’ll have my eye on mysource.i.o to see just what the team has in store for us next.