Friday, 24 April 2015

Everything Must Go

As part of our plan at Zed to mark Fashion Revolution Day, we wanted to feature the work of an ethical designer and find out a bit more about how they work and how they developed their brand.

We came across the work of Alex Noble through TRAID and were so intrigued and impressed by his EMG Initiative we decided to get in touch and ask a few questions.  

Alex was more than happy to answer our questions and share the Look Book of his most recent project with us.  The profits from 'Rights of Massive' will buy birth certificates for 119 children of garment workers in Bangladesh so they can be recognized as citizens, go to school and get medical treatment.

Zed: Could you tell us a little more about the aims of EMG Initiative and the philosophy behind it?

Alex: The key aim of EMG is to address sustainability by using waste or remnant material to create product or objects, to celebrate design practices by using waste from the creative industries, and to support causes and charities we believe in through the communication of our projects and the sales of the products we create.

The philosophy is 'creative input for a positive output'

Zed: What are some of the biggest obstacles you face when it comes to creating sustainable products? 
Alex: I think the problem lies within the culture of mass consumption. The industry doesn't support sustainable products as its obsolescence that creates jobs, seasons, trends and turn over.
If shoppers were encouraged to buy sustainable products then a huge chunk of the fashion industry would disappear. Which would be great for human rights issues and the environment, but bad for the overall economy.
Sustainable produce is about ethical production, quality materials and production which means it will last, and a timeless design that stands the test of time, or even transforms through time.

Zed: Do you think it is possible for ethical clothing lines and sustainable labels to move into the mainstream and take up the majority of the market?
Alex: I think a lot of communication with the consumer will need to happen first.
The whole psychology behind consumption and shopping needs to be addressed and retrained. Shoppers need to be educated and engaged with the realities of the clothing industry, production chains, how to make healthy choices, and spend more on fewer items.
The whole idea of 'retail therapy' is corrupt, but you could really feel good about your purchases, not just momentarily, if you knew they supported a positive culture in production.
It's extremely complicated because of the difference in price between whats on offer on the high streets in comparison to ethical brands. I think the big brands will need to play a key role too.
Zed: What did the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory mean to you?  Do you think much has changed in the industry in the two years since the disaster?

Alex: It was a confounding moment in the early plans for EMG and the calling towards addressing the industry and my own work on these issues.
Rana Plaza collapse was an awful, needless tragedy that through receiving a global audience, has come to be the representative for so many related issues. Because of the scale it created a broader call to arms, beyond the existing charity work being done in these areas, but a wider industry reaction, which addressed governments and super brands, and started to highlight the corruption of the high street and tarnish the 'cheap' price tags appearing on posters and in shop windows.
I think there is a larger community and focus on ethics and sustainability within the design and editorial industry but it could definitely be bigger. It needs to be top of the agenda for big changes in legislation to happen.
There have been small victories in the factories around health and safety issues but they are predominantly still a place of exploitation and human rights abuses.
There is a long way to go, but there are many charities, activists and passionate designers working towards rectifying the wrongs and cultivating a positive production chain and circular economy.

Follow Alex on Twitter @Alexnoblestudio and @EMGINITIATIVE

Who Made My Clothes?

On 24th April 2013, the dangerously precarious Rana Plaza factory in Savar, Bangladesh collapsed. The death toll reached 1,129 with a further 2,515 people injured following their rescue from the ruins of the building.

Cracks had appeared in the walls and floor days before the building collapsed, prompting some of the commercial businesses and private renters to immediately evacuate the building. The garment workers, however, were instructed to return to the building the following day and continue working or face losing their jobs. The building then collapsed during morning rush hour.

Following the disaster, ethical fashion pioneer, Carry Somers founded the initiative Fashion Revolution Day, which has marked, and will continue to mark, the anniversary of the collapse of the Rana Plaza Factory.  We came across the initiative whilst working on the publication of Andrew Brooks' Clothing Poverty: The Hidden World of Fast Fashion and Second-hand Clothes, which Carry and her team have been hugely supportive of.  Carry was kind enough to answer some questions we've had arising from publishing Clothing Poverty and discovering this world of sustainable fashion.

Zed: Do you think much has changed in the industry in the two years since the Rana Plaza disaster?  Will we look back on Rana Plaza as a moment which prompted a shift in consciousness?

Carry: In the aftermath of the Rana Plaza collapse, everywhere I looked, there were newspaper articles calling for a more ethical fashion industry. The Rana Plaza catastrophe was a metaphorical call to arms. Fashion Revolution Day was a way to channel that concern into a longstanding campaign so that the victims of Rana Plaza and all the other tragedies that have occurred in the name of fashion will never be forgotten. An annual day on the anniversary of the tragedy will keep the most vulnerable in the supply chain in the public eye.

The disaster has opened up a policy window for significant change in the sector.   Whilst this is a symptom of the problem, it gives us an opportunity to set a new agenda to overcome the causes. We need to change the fashion industry through a variety of routes: supporting producers and unions, working towards policy and legislative change, and through consumer pressure. 

There have been many improvements in the fashion supply chain since the dust has settled on the Rana Plaza disaster, although it is unfortunate that it took a tragedy of that scale to start to bring about change.

The Bangladesh Accord is a significant milestone towards better working conditions in Bangladesh, and hopefully throughout the global fashion industry. The new business model being developed is based more on a bottom up than a top down approach, with stakeholder engagement throughout the supply chain, trade union engagement, amendments to labour law, improved training and investment in improvements to fire and building standards.

However, there is still more to be done. The increase in the minimum wages in Bangladesh seems good news, but workers have seen little real benefit as this had a knock on effect on prices charged by slum landlords and food shops. The minimum wage still only covers 60% of the cost of living in a slum.  There is a need for more, and stronger, trade unions, and more building inspectors.

What will really keeps factories compliant is when all workers have a voice and they can speak out when something is wrong.   Fashion Revolution helps to give a voice to the makers of our clothes, highlighting their stories through our Meet Your Maker blog, and showing where changes needs to happen.

Zed: Are you ever faced with any hostility from big brands that don’t particularly prioritise ethics and sustainability?

Carry: Never hostility.  Just apathy, which is far worse.

Zed: In Clothing Poverty Andrew takes the stance that the consumer isn’t to blame for the state of the industry, and we cannot rely on them to change it.  Would you agree with this?
Carry: The consumer may not be to blame for the state of the fashion industry, but that isn’t to say that the consumer can’t play a crucial role in helping to change the industry. We’re not asking people to boycott their favourite stores; we want to change the fashion industry from within.  By asking the brands and retailers where we like to shop #whomademyclothes? we can put pressure on them to be more transparent about their supply chains and help to build a more open and connected fashion industry. We believe that we can use the power of fashion to catalyse change and help create a more sustainable future.

Ultimately brands and retailers will listen because they care what their customers think.  I was told by an industry insider that for every person who took an inside-out selfie and contacted the brand last year, the brands took it as representing 10,000 other people who thought the same way, but couldn’t be bothered to do anything about it. We have incredible power as consumers - if we choose to use it. 
Zed: Clothing Poverty ends with a call for activism and critical research to build momentum and find solutions to the problems posed by economic globalisation.  Do you think the problem of sustainability in the fashion industry is gaining momentum and are we getting any closer to finding a solution to these problems?

Carry: Sustainability is gaining momentum, but just not fast enough.  For Fashion Revolution this year, we are focussing on transparency as we believe this is a prerequisite to creating a more sustainable industry. 

The Australian Fashion Report from 2013 found that 61% of brands didn’t know where their garments were made and 93% didn’t know where the raw materials came from. We need to re-establish the broken connections in the fashion supply chain before we can start to find solutions to the many social and environmental problems within the fashion industry.  This is why we are calling on the fashion value chain to engage in a demonstrable commitment to transparency by telling their customers #whomademyclothes on Fashion Revolution Day.

Follow @Fash_Rev and use #whomademyclothes? to join the conversation.