27 April 2020

Why Fashion Revolution Week is more important than ever

On 24th April 2013, the collapse of Rana Plaza in Dhaka, Bangladesh became the deadliest garment factory disaster of all time, killing more than a thousand workers and exposing the dark underbelly of fast fashion. Soon after, Orsola de Castro and Carry Somers took action by co-founding a vital non-profit organisation, Fashion Revolution, as well as an annual week of events designed to push for change and call for full industry transparency.

Over the last few years, their efforts have yielded real change and sparked a worldwide movement, propelled by a hashtag: #whomademyclothes? This year, things aren’t so straightforward. “We knew that asking who made our clothes probably wouldn’t be the whole message this year,” explains de Castro, pointing to a regularly-updated blogpost tracking the impact of COVID-19 on garment workers.

Despite the chaos, Fashion Revolution is continuing to push forward: Monday saw the digital launch of this year’s events programme, which includes a virtual Parliament Q&A on Friday. The jewel in the crown is a brand-new iteration of Fashion Open Studio, a project conceived to support emerging designers and offer real insight into how they make their clothes. All throughout this week, talented creatives have been live-streaming virtual panels and studio sessions, offering unprecedented access into their creative process.

The UK schedule features the likes of Bethany Williams, Bianca Saunders and Phoebe English, but the focus is truly global: from Nigeria to Japan, the project has become a vital tool for independent designers who all share one commonality: a genuine commitment to sustainability.

“Fashion Open Studio is the love of my life in many ways,” de Castro says fondly, highlighting that buying from independent designers is more important than ever. “I’m a believer that, when we talk about boycott or slowing down the system, we mean the offenders – the ones producing billions of garments per year. But these young creatives have social and environmental sustainability embedded in their work from the start. Of course I want to see them grow!”

Conversations like these can be tricky for consumers who want to shop sustainably, especially as mainstream discussions often flatten nuance. For example, de Castro advises against total boycott, and instead suggests that “the best solution is to limit your consumption all year round, and buy considerately.”

Unfortunately, this means research. In an industry dominated by greenwashing, it’s important to be informed. As a form of encouragement, Fashion Revolution is this year launching a new hashtag: #whatsinmyclothes? “It really is the right moment,” de Castro says. “Everyone has become a coronavirus expert just by Googling and finding out more. Let’s do that with polyester and toxic dyes, too.”

It might not sound glamorous, but it is a fascinating wormhole to fall into – and the website is brimming with engaging, accessible resources like zines, glossaries and videos, all designed to break down complex conversations and spotlight the struggles of garment workers.

These struggles have been inevitably exacerbated by the global pandemic. Statistics show that millions of garment workers have already lost their jobs, pushing them into poverty which could prove fatal. Enormous retailers are protecting themselves by cancelling orders, but the knock-on effect is obvious. Garment factories are therefore left with few alternatives: they can either fire workers and destroy stock, or absorb the huge costs and risk bankruptcy. Given the lack of union protection generally offered to these workers, it’s no surprise that owners usually opt for the former.

“We need to be talking about protecting supply chain workers,” reiterates de Castro, who points to the annual Transparency Index as a good starting point. “Transparency is more important than ever because, without brands disclosing what they’re doing, we can’t begin to scrutinise.”

Then there are the struggles being faced by independent designers. Despite crisis relief funds being established across the industry, reports estimate that 35 percent of brands could be wiped out this year alone. Most of the casualties will likely be small businesses. “The majority of brands will find a way to survive, but we could end up losing emerging, innovative designers by the minute,” de Castro continues, highlighting that many are currently devoting their unpaid time to making vital PPE for the under-resourced NHS workers. “With Fashion Open Studio, we hope we can connect them to a bigger audience and encourage people who can afford it to support the smaller brands, the underdogs.”

Ultimately, de Castro urges respect and empathy: respect for dwindling global resources, and empathy for workers around the world hit hardest by the pandemic. As for long-term goals, there’s one which stands out: avoiding a return to what de Castro calls “excess as usual.”

The issues being faced right now – garment worker exploitation, industry hierarchy – are systemic; they exist with or without COVID-19, they’re just currently heightened. For now, the key is to think carefully about how to navigate the crisis, and to lay the foundations for a more sustainable industry on the other side.