Fashion is one of the most polluting industries in the world and yet many of the biggest global fashion brands are reluctant to accept culpability and overhaul their unethical practices, failing to provide transparency on their supply chains. Thankfully, Eco-Age, founded in 2007, is one company educating brands on how to improve their practices and production with bespoke sustainability solutions.
With an impressive client list that includes Erdem, Net-A-Porter, Gucci and Marks & Spencer, Eco-Age's expert consultancy team visit clients' suppliers to experience, first-hand, the conditions and environments in which the brands' employees work. They subsequently make recommendations, working closely with brands and suppliers. Eco-Age's criteria align with principles covering social justice, corporate accountability and environmental stewardship. At the end of the process, the Green Carpet Challenge Brandmark is awarded to those brands that are deemed socially responsible.
We caught up with cofounder and creative director, Livia Firth, to discuss changing attitudes towards fast fashion and why she is so committed to campaigning about sustainability.
Eco-Age was conceived just before a trip you made to Bangladesh in 2008. What did you witness on your visit there and how did it change your approach to fashion?
I went to Bangladesh for the first time in 2008 with journalist and broadcaster Lucy Siegle as an Oxfam ambassador for one of their campaigns on the ground against domestic violence. When we were in Dhaka we asked to be smuggled into a garment factory and what we saw was shocking. There were armed guards at the only entrance/exit of the factory, and inside it was so hot, all the windows were closed and had bars and there was no ventilation. It felt like a prison. Each floor was crammed with women on production lines where they had to complete 100/150 pieces an hour (today it is actually more) and they only had one or two toilet breaks a day. No sick leave, no freedom of association, no protection at all. When I came back home I could not pretend I didn’t see it, I hadn’t witnessed what we were (and still are) doing to women on the other side of the world who produce our (fast fashion) clothes.
That trip was almost a decade ago. Have you seen a significant change and improvement in working conditions for garment workers, fashion brands' production and public perception of sustainable and ethical clothing?
Since this trip, Rana Plaza happened in 2013 (the garment factory collapse which killed more than 1,100 people, mostly women) and the world saw what Lucy and I saw a few years earlier. I went back to Bangladesh two years ago to see what happened after that. Nothing much has changed on the ground, in spite of efforts from various NGOs tackling mostly the issue of health and safety in garment factories. The minimum wage in Bangladesh has not moved in the last three years and it is one of the lowest in the world, and subcontracting is still a norm. I could talk for hours about it or you can watch The True Cost documentary (available on Netflix) to get a real understanding about how complex the issue really is. Fortunately, consumer awareness has increased and more people want to know how and where their clothes have been made.
Fashion activism is very on-trend at the moment, with many brands positioning themselves as feminist and claiming to champion diversity. Unfortunately, there's still a stigma attached to sustainable fashion and generally it isn't deemed cool or a priority for most shoppers. Why do you think that is?
I do not agree at all, actually. I think people love to share the stories behind their clothes and are willing to pay a bit more to know that someone (usually women) further down the supply chain hasn’t been exploited for a cheap dress that we might wear just once.
But fast fashion is somewhat of a class issue. For many people, investing in premium clothing that is ethically made and avoiding more affordable brands isn't financially viable. Is that a fair argument?
Fast fashion has made us think that it is democratic and almost our 'duty' to buy so cheaply – but it is the democracy of who? Not of the women who make the clothes, who are enslaved in a circle of poverty out of which they will never get in order to make those clothes for us. And the fast fashion brand owners are not multimillionaires because of people who can’t afford to buy clothes... It’s because we buy relentlessly and without thinking, and we have started to see fashion as disposable. We rarely think of clothes as investments anymore, treating each piece as a treasure. No, we buy on impulse and constantly. Like eating sugar and fast food… it’s this consumption frenzy which defines our era. And it’s fuelled by cheap, disposable clothes.
What would be your advice to our readers who want to start to shop more responsibly or build a more ethical wardrobe?
Generally – just buy less! Buy only things you really, really love and know you will wear for a long, long time. This is why at Eco-Age we came up with the #30wears campaign. At the moment of buying something, ask yourself 'Will I wear it a MINIMUM of 30 times?' If the answer is yes, then buy it. You will be so surprised how many times, though, the answer is actually no. And going beyond this, there truly are plenty of ethical brands today to shop.
If you could speak directly to the most culpable corporations who are not only affecting the environment but the lives of millions of garment workers, how would you urge them to change?
Get serious about this and change your business model! Unless that changes, nothing ever will. They can’t keep producing those huge volumes of clothes, so fast and at those incredibly cheap prices without using slave labour. Although they want us to think they can… But if you do the maths, it actually does not add up.
Which are your favourite fashion brands and/or individuals, whose ethos you most respect and are inspired by?
There are some great brands, such as Behno, Veja, Bottletop, Wrad and incredible organisations such as Artisans of Fashion and Nest. There are so many Instagram accounts to follow – of course @ecoage but also @notjustalabel, @thewearness_, @sustainablychic, @ethicalfashionblogger, @projectjust and many more!
The fashion industry is in a state of flux, with brands exploring the see-now-buy-now model and combining menswear and womenswear on the catwalk. Do you think we as consumers could move on from fast fashion just as quickly as we embraced it?
I think we totally can – why not? What’s stopping us?
The majority of garment workers are women and it really is a feminist issue. What facts would you share with young women to make them fully aware of the gravitas of the situation?
I think no one ever said it better than Ali Hewson, who launched the brand Edun. She famously said, 'We carry with us the stories of the people who make our clothes'. Well… I certainly do not want to carry a sad story, a story of exploitation and suffering. Think about not only the environmental footprint of what you wear, but about each and every handprint of your clothes…