My Ethical Fashion Journey from School to PostDoc

fashion-runway

This is a re-post from the wonderful site Just Stories where I was asked to contribute a post about my ethical fashion journey. JustStories.live is a new blog set up to share individual’s stories as they attempt to live a more sustainable and/or socially just life. I think Just Stories marks a return to a more honest blogging style. Many blogs have become just as monetised as other forms of media and blogs have become a projection of an ideal image rather than a realistic depiction of ordinary people muddling through. Just Stories isn’t trying to sell anything; Sarah, the brains behind it, just wanted a platform for people to share their experiences, and if it also inspires others then that’s great.

Here’s my story. It also provides an update on what I’ve been doing this summer (which, you may have noticed, hasn’t been much blogging).

I have a love/hate relationship with fashion. On the one hand I love the vibrant colour of a kaleidoscopic digital print, the luxurious feel of thick velvet and the innate power of a little black dress. On the other hand, I hate the fact that new stock hits high street stores on a weekly basis, that there’s an estimated 3.6bn items of unworn clothes hanging in British wardrobes and that, on 24th April 2013, 1134 people in Bangladesh failed to return from their garment factory jobs because they had been crushed to death making cheap clothes for us consumers in the West.

The general gist of this won’t be new to you. We all know about sweatshops, and how, twenty years after Nike and GAP first hit the mainstream news accused of child- and sweatshop labour in the early 90s, the Rana Plaza collapse brought it all screaming back. I was at school in the late 90s and like many young girls I loved clothes, with my heart set on a career in fashion by the time I was 13. When I was 16 I did work experience at Sugar magazine and chose my A-level subjects based on my desire to study fashion at University. To me a career in fashion was glamorous, bold and fun – basically the opposite of how I felt as an awkward teenager.

It all went to plan for a few years (although I wasn’t cool enough to get into the London College of Fashion) until I started to become interested in ethical fashion in my second year of Uni. I really can’t remember a trigger; I don’t think I watched any particular programme or anything, I just became aware of the fact that there was an ugly side of fashion, hidden from public view. I researched this for an entire year, writing my final year dissertation on sweatshop labour. By the end of Uni, when I needed to start looking for jobs, I remember telling my housemate how disillusioned I’d become with the industry and how I wasn’t sure I wanted to work in it. The problem was I’d spent the best part of a decade planning my career in fashion, it shaped my academic choices and work experience, what else could I do?

I had a few options. I applied for jobs but the only ones I got interviewed for were fashion-related (shocker!) and once I started getting interviews it did renew my enthusiasm for the industry. I applied for an MA in international business and intercultural communications thinking it could broaden my options; I was still interested in fashion and retail, I just knew there must be a better way. In the meantime I was also contacted by my undergrad dissertation supervisor. She had been awarded funding for an ethical fashion project and wanted me to be her research assistant, so that’s what I did. I also did an MPhil in ethical fashion, switching from researching labour, as I had done for my undergrad dissertation, to researching the environmental impacts of cotton production and ethical marketing.

I started my blog emmawaight.co.uk in 2010 where I compiled a directory of ethical fashion companies and continue to provide commentary and reviews. I wrote for other websites too, and volunteered for the Ethical Fashion Forum just as they were getting started. As a regular consumer so much is hidden from us but it’s very difficult not to care once you know, when you’re researching something full-time. That said, I wasn’t and am still not perfect. I still shopped on the high street, with token purchases from ethical brands.

There was a fascinating experiment run in Berlin last year for Fashion Revolution Day (now held annually on the anniversary of the Rana Plaza collapse) where a €2 t-shirt vending machine was placed in the city centre. When passers-by inserted their money for a tee they were shown images of the shirt’s production at sweatshops around the world, before being offered the chance to donate their €2 to help incite change. Despite not even being told where their money would go, 90% chose to donate rather than take the t-shirt. Knowledge empowers consumers, without it we lethargically consume more and more without a second thought.

Source: Fashion Revolution

Source: Fashion Revolution

After my MPhil I went on to a different university to do a PhD in Human Geography. It was a steep learning curve (turns out GCSE Geography, even an A*, doesn’t get you very far) but Geography soon became my home. My PhD was about mothering and second-hand consumption of children’s things, so still shopping, but not ethical fashion. I kept my toe in the water though, continuing with my blog, starting a new ethical fashion website that has since ceased, organising a one-day ethical fashion conference, being one of the first Oxfam Fashion volunteers and co-founding a clothing ‘swap shop’ at the University. As my research interests have become more varied however, and I’ve become more time-pressured by work, I feel like I’ve lost my way a little. One of the reasons I closed down my second website, apart from lack of time, was that I started to doubt myself. I haven’t been involved in academic research on ethical fashion for years, I don’t work for an NGO or ethical enterprise, I haven’t seen a garment factory with my own eyes, and yet, others introduced me as an ethical fashion expert. I preferred the word advocate; I didn’t feel like an expert, or even an activist – I wasn’t doing enough.

As is the curse, the more I had learnt the less I felt I knew. I met people who went to garment factories in Bangladesh and India and said they weren’t that bad. I listened to the ‘at least they have a job’ arguments and ‘factory work empowers women’ narrative. It’s true, Western consumption supports millions of jobs in the Global South. I don’t always know which retailers are good or bad. I don’t know what I even mean by good or bad. I was getting more and more emails from people who wanted to start ethical fashion enterprises of some sort but I knew even the biggest ethical fashion companies weren’t making any money. I wanted to help publicise them but I didn’t have time to write a blog about every one, and I didn’t want my blog to be a series of adverts, so my blog writing slowed down considerably.

I was asked to write this blog at pivotal time. I recently sold my flat and moved back to my parents because I couldn’t rely on fixed-term research jobs to pay the mortgage. I’m focused on the academic job hunt, all my spare time spent working on job applications, research proposals and paper writing. The ethical fashion stuff has felt like a distraction from that, something I could easily leave at the wayside as I start the next chapter of my life. Although I’ve let my campaigning slip my personal consumption habits are more focused than ever. Shopping is democratic; we vote every time we buy something. Personally, I don’t want to give my money to fat cat company executives who exploit everyone else down the supply chain, I want to give my money to enterprises like Assisi Garments who supply People Tree. Set up by Franciscan nuns, they provide training and employment for deaf, mute and economically disadvantaged women in India. Transforming lives through trade – that’s where fashion’s real beauty lies.

The same week that I was asked to share my story here, I attended a session on ‘Scholarly Activism’ at a major Geography conference in London. With academics, fashion designers and campaigners all in one room sharing ideas, I realised I didn’t need to choose one or the other. The ethical fashion movement has gained huge traction; sustainability and corporate social responsibility are beginning to be integrated into education and messages are becoming clearer but there’s still a long way to go. Capitalism as we know it has failed us in many ways. This month, the major Fashion Weeks will be trying to sell the same garments we’ve had for centuries, just mashed together in a different way. We can choose to be part of that, or we can choose not to.

If you choose not to there are LOADS of alternatives. Brands like Nomads, People Tree and Monkee Genes offer excellent quality, style and are not necessarily more expensive than your regular stores. EthicalConsumer.org have a super website were you’ll find brands ranked on their ethical credentials. I have a long list of ethical brands on my own website too, and I’ll try to blog more, I promise.

Post to Twitter

Balu: The ethical shopping assistant app

woman- laptop online shopping app

Friends often ask me where to go for ethical jeans/workwear/shoes etc and I’ve had my online directory for years signposting consumers to ethical and sustainable brands. Now though, it seems my work here is done because I’ve recently learnt about a great new app that acts as an ethical shopping assistant – meet Balu.

Balu pops up when its user is shopping online and presents ethical alternatives to the products they’re searching for. You can download it on Google Chrome and I’ve been playing with it for a couple of weeks now. For example, if I head to ASOS dresses page, Balu immediately drops down from the Google toolbar with 21 ethical alternatives from the likes of Braintree Clothing, People Tree and Kuyichi (I have in actual fact recently bought two gorgeous new dresses from Nomads!). It’s a brilliant way to learn about the range of ethical options out there and cheeky reminder if you get carried away Christmas shopping. The app is completely free to use and new items are being added every day so it’s only going to get better and better.

I asked the team why they felt the need to create Balu and they said:

“Though many people want to shop in a way that doesn’t harm people or planet, finding sustainable and ethical products still takes extra effort over and above “normal” online shopping. When we are required to look beyond mass marketing and leading high street brands, and cannot rely on the most powerful search engines and online stores that we’re most used to, this acts as a barrier to more ethical habits.

Balu changes this by requiring that you change nothing: while you shop like you always have, using the same tools, shops and searches that you’ve always used, Balu shows you ethical alternatives. It acts as an ethical filter over the sometimes damaging retail industry, taking the best that the internet has to offer and making it better.”

The beta release of Balu for Chrome is now live and the team are working on expanding Balu’s reach to more consumers by releasing Firefox and Safari versions, as well as making it mobile compatible. Why not give it a try?

Post to Twitter

Back to Basics Collection by FAUSTINE STEINMETZ Handwoven and Handmade

This season Steinmetz takes her collection “back to basics”, looking at the numerous ways in which a staple item can be reproduced, using illusions to create fabrics which are not what they seem at first glance. For SS16, the designer also acknowledges the artist that made her want to become a designer – Joseph Kosuth. After seeing “One and Three Chairs” in a book at the age of 14, Steinmetz believes her mind was opened to visual arts in a way that she still cannot explain today.

Faustine Steinmetz is the latest recipient of COTTON USA’s highly coveted sponsorship for SS16, an advocacy programme that helps up-and-coming designers to showcase their talent and creativity, bringing the vision for their collection to life through the versatility of U.S cotton.

Steinmetz puts her own twist on iconic pieces, and this includes weaving her own fabric using a traditional handloom in her London studio. This attention to detail to create quality, long-lasting garments is just one of the merits that made Steinmetz a great fit for the COTTON USA sponsorship.

The sponsorship programme has been a valuable platform for budding designers to elevate their work. Previous recipients of the sponsorship include Richard Nicholl, Meadham Kirchhoff, PPQ, Preen, Louise Gray and palmer//harding.

Steinmetz said: “I am thrilled to have been selected to receive the sponsorship for a second season. Support for young designers like myself provides a platform to express our creativity and showcase our vision.” She continued “What I love about U.S. cotton is not only the exceptional quality and versatility, but also knowing that the fibres I am using to hand make my designs have been responsibly produced – this is very important to me when sourcing my materials.”

The Parisian-born designer began her studies at Atelier Chardon Savard in Paris before moving to London to complete her Masters at Central Saint Martins, under the guidance of Professor OBE Louise Wilson. Having worked for the likes of Jeremy Scott and Henrik Vibskov, Faustine set up her label in early 2013 after acquiring her first handloom. All of Steinmetz’s pieces are made in accordance with her belief in craftsmanship over trend, designing staple pieces for the everyday woman.

Post to Twitter

Bigging up Braintree Clothing the Sustainable Clothing Brand

Emma Waight Bthoughtful ethical fashion blog

Braintree Clothing is now THOUGHT CLOTHING

A couple of months ago I was featured on Braintree Clothing’s Bthoughtful blog, not just once, but twice! First of all they asked me to share some of my sustainable living tips in conjunction with World Environment Day 2015. You can read my tips here, which include buying second-hand, collaborative consumption and shopping locally.

Then they asked me for my top 5 picks from their SS15 ethical fashion collection, not a laborious task I must say! I went to visit their headquarters and studio last year for an interview later published in their SS15 magazine. Although born in Syndey, Braintree are now based in London where they design and sell beautiful ethical clothing using bamboo, hemp and organic cotton.

Visiting the Braintree Studio last summer

Visiting the Braintree Studio last summer


Braintree's ethical fashion range

Braintree’s ethical fashion range

Many of the pieces I selected as my top picks are now on sale so I thought I’d share with you my top sale picks available now (see below for the pics).

Dharma organic cotton wrap dress, £35 from £69. One to twirl around in!
Marley stripe batwing knitwear top, £24.90 from £49.90. One of my original picks and I still love the colours.
Hip zip throw cardigan, £28 from £49.90. One to totally see you through autumn, winter and back round to spring again.
Dashka hart bamboo leggings, £11 from £22. Braintree are my go-to brand for soft, bamboo leggings and these ones are on sale.
Inkkas high top trainers, £37.50 from £75. So cool, but not many sizes left so be quick!
Men’s Floyd stripe grandpa top, £15.95 from £29.90. One for the boys, Braintree have a good range of ethical menswear basics too.

Braintree are also famous for their natural bamboo socks so be sure to check them out and more ethical fashion at www.braintreeclothing.com

Braintree ethical fashion sale picks

Post to Twitter

Uni Project Turned Brit Business: Get Made in Britain Clothes Online

British manufacturing UK design shirt

The British Clothing Co is a brand new online retailer of sustainably sourced, British manufactured accessories and clothing.

The idea was originally dreamed up as part of a university project in 2013, as Hollie, then studying Fashion Marketing at Nottingham Trent, wanted to research into an area she felt strongly about; ethical and sustainable fashion. At the time, there was becoming slightly more awareness of British manufacturing due to the likes of Mary Portas’ “Kinky Knickers” campaign, along with some major retailers releasing British made ranges.

From here she researched into consumer attitudes towards fashion consumption, whilst also speaking to a range of manufacturers within the British Isles. She found that most of these manufacture small-scale production lines and even bespoke products, making sure they are of the highest quality, and meaning they will last for season after season. This is the complete antithesis of the disposable, fast-fashion many British consumers have become accustomed too.

After graduating, gaining industry experience and doing some traveling, Hollie decided in early 2015 to put the ideas into action and started The British Clothing Co. Putting together a brand with a strong ethos and range of suppliers who resonate the same values of quality and craftsmanship. The mission being to educate and inspire consumers of the wide selection of quality garments produced from a variety of brands within Britain, proving that fashion can be sustainable, for the environment and their local economy.

At present, The British Clothing Co stocks pieces from a variety of brands from across the British Isles. For the sartorial gentleman they stock garments by Meccanica Cycles and Quantock Clothing, including Chinos, Polo Shirts, Merino Knitwear and Polo Shirts, along with a small preview-collection from Living in Light. For the classically stylish woman, there is a wider range of boho-inspired dresses from Living In Light, along with Hugget Jackets and incredibly feminine workwear by Client London. Along with accessories, including hard-wearing canvas backpacks by Sidewinder Apparel and up-cycled clutch bags by Reniqlo.

Check out these pieces and more at www.thebritishclothingco.co.uk. Additional lines to be added soon!

100% British wool pencil skirt, £69

100% British wool pencil skirt, £69

Made in London stripe backpack, £139

Made in London stripe backpack, £139

Made in Britain menswear

Made in Britain menswear

Post to Twitter

Brand Watch: Naturally Selina Scott Mohair Socks

It seems everyone has been a bit ill recently, including me, so it really cheered me up when I received a gift from Naturally Selina Scott. What better for winter than some cosy luxury socks, they have been worn many, many times already I can tell you. Knitted from a mohair/nylon blend, these socks are sustainably produced and ethically sourced and most importantly will keep my feet warm even on the coldest of days.

SelinaScott Socks

Famed as a BBC journalist and presenter, Selina Scott was one of the first female newsreaders in the 80s. It was whilst filming a documentary in Scotland twenty years ago that she came across and subsequently adopted 6 Angora goats! Back at her 200 acre farm in North Yorkshire, Selina decided to start selling beautiful Mohair socks, using the lustrous Mohair fibre from these gentle animals.

The business has gone from strength to strength and as her own goats have hit retirement (I’ve been assured they still live happily on the farm!), the Mohair is now sourced from selected farms in South Africa where the socks are also made. The brand also sells cashmere shawls and scarves from Outer Mongolia and hat, glove and scarf cashmere sets sourced from Afghanistan.

Mohair makes a great choice for socks. Sheared from Angora goats in ‘long glamorous ringlets’ twice a year, Mohair is a strong, sustainable fibre. It washes well, not that you’ll need to wash them every wear, the anti-bacterial properties of the fibre keep your feet smelling fresh for days! Providing warmth when you need it, but still being breathable, these are the most comfortable socks I’ve ever worn.

Ankle socks start at £9.95, Kids day socks are £14.95 and long walking socks are £17.95.

You can also buy their superfine cashmere shawls and support the Born Free Foundation. In super glam leopard and snow leopard prints, £25 is donated to the wildlife foundation for each £149 shawl. Cost per wear, I don’t think that works out too bad as I’d want to wear it every day.

https://www.selinascott.com/

Post to Twitter