In Episode 14, we interview Sarah Ditty, the Policy Director at Fashion Revolution.
Elsie Welcome Sarah to the Clean Beauty Insiders Podcast.
Dominika Thank you so much for joining us.
Sarah No I’m delighted, thanks so much for inviting me.
Elsie Perhaps you could give our listeners a bit of background into you! Who you are, what you do and perhaps a little bit of your career history.
Sarah Great, yes of course. I’m Sarah Ditty.
I’m the policy director at Fashion Revolution and for those of you who don’t know anything about fashion revolution, we are a global movement campaigning for greater transparency and sustainability in the fashion industry. We’ve been around since 2013 and we were founded as a direct reaction to a big factory collapse that happened in Bangladesh where over 1230 people died making clothes for well-known fashion brands that we all buy on the high street or shopping malls. We’re a big group of people who’ve been working somehow in the fashion industry, from designing to marketing, to sourcing, to working with NGOs in the supply chain.
We got together around a table in the U.K. and decided we all wanted to do something to make sure that a tragedy like this never happened again and that sustainability and human rights issues should just become a conversation in the mainstream fashion world. So that’s what we’ve been trying to do ever since and we’ve had a lot of success in terms of just galvanizing a huge global conversation around these issues and starting to change some consumer mindsets.
My own personal history, I’ve been working in that intersection of sustainability and fashion for the past 10 years. Before this, I worked at the Ethical Fashion Forum, which is another non-profit organization that works to support small and medium-size brands and fashion designers to grow their businesses in a more sustainable way. I’ve also worked in circularity, and we can talk a little bit more about what that means later on, working on up-cycling of textiles, recycling of textiles and creating a closed-loop recycling process for textiles. Before that, I worked to help facilitate market access, aka sell and help fairtrade, artisan groups in communities around the world from Peru to India to sell their amazing crafts in the UK, US and the EU. Before that I did my masters degree in globalization and international development here in London and then way before that I actually used to be a makeup artist myself, so i’m a bit of a skincare and beauty fan myself. That’s I guess how I got into the world of fashion really was through the beauty angle.
Elsie Are you full time at the moment with Fashion Revolution?
Sarah Yes, I’ve been full time with Fashion Revolution since 2016. The first couple of years we all worked voluntarily, it was just this really grassroots organic movement of people just coming together and wanting to create change and then we got a grant from the European Commission and another grant from the CNE foundation and that enabled some of us to take the plunge and dedicate all of our time to working on these issues.
It began about four people more or less working full time and then it grew to 9 people working a combination of full time and part-time, now we’re at about 19 people just even actually over the last year we’ve grown from we’ve doubled our team. But again that’s a combination of people working full time and various forms of part-time. We also have teams in other countries as well who have their own sources of funding or some projects that we do together that are co-funded. We’ve got a huge team in Brazil, we’ve got a team in India, Australia and Germany. We have active teams in over 60 countries in total and teams do bits and bobs in over 100 countries.
Dominika Fashion is one of those industries that global boundaries are irrelevant. There’s so much movement around textiles and manufacturing, in order to really tackle it you have to be global, otherwise, you’re really going to be dealing with such a small proportion of the product.
Sarah I guess it’s similar to beauty, it’s just one of the most globalised industries. The supply chain is so long and also just in terms of the market as well, you have big huge brands like Zara or H&M who have thousands and thousands of stores in almost every country in the world. It really is just truly a global industry.
Dominika Yeah it’s quite incredible when you think about the scale of some of these retailers and the volume of products they sell and so on. Sometimes it’s it’s crazy. As policy director, what things are you tackling? What things fall under policy for fashion?
Sarah Yes a lot of my work is centred around not just my work but my team’s work is centred around advocating for regulatory changes. Meeting with lawmakers at the local level, at the national level and even at the international level with say like the different U.N. institutions and really try to influence their policy-making processes and really raise awareness of these issues because for so many years policy, at least since I’ve been working in this space, at the government level policymakers just never really thought about fashion and clothing as a serious conversation. Fashions obviously it’s fun, it’s joyful and it’s super creative but it’s always viewed as frivolous when in fact the fashion industry is not only a huge economic powerhouse globally but it employs millions and millions of people around the world in almost every country. But it also has a huge environmental impact that experts estimate that fashion contributes 8% of the world’s global greenhouse gas emissions, which is actually more than air travel and shipping combined. To not take it seriously is a real issue. So we’re really trying to make sure that governments and the people making laws and regulations take fashion seriously and take progressive steps towards ensuring that regulation requires the industry to do better when it comes to both environmental sustainability and human rights. That’s what we spend a lot of our time doing that involves as I said going to meetings, going to conferences, e-mailing our elected officials doing research and writing policy statements that we then obviously send to policymakers and trying to just be at the table at influential conversations.
My team also does a lot of research, so we’re responsible for our annual fashion transparency index report which is essentially a review and ranking of the world’s largest and most influential global fashion brands and retailers and we rank them according to how much information they disclose about their social and environmental policies, practices and impacts and its in its fourth edition. This year we looked at 200 major brands. It’s not something we do every year.
Elsie That is a big piece of work. When you’re approaching policymakers, how do you get them to take you seriously? Is it a force in numbers? Do you have to have a big petition behind you?
Sarah It’s a good question. We are actually in a lucky position because we never set out necessarily to do policy advocacy in the first place. We set out really to change the public’s perception of sustainability issues in the fashion industry and really wanted to raise awareness amongst consumers that fashion has a huge environmental impact and a huge impact on people working in supply chains and that we all have the power to do something about it.
When we started to gain traction on social media because that’s how we started out was just a big social media campaign, we have a hashtag that went viral which is “who made my clothes”. Where we encouraged consumers to contact their favourite brands and ask them ‘who made my clothes’ to demonstrate that they care about the people working in supply chains and what conditions they’re working in. That went viral and then we got invited to speak to some policymakers and then it grew from there. I think the interesting thing was in these conversations, we were really the only organization there who represented consumers in a way, who was really able to have a big public conversation with consumers.
The rest of the organizations that seemed to be trying to influence policymakers were really involved in the policymaking level on these issues. Where other NGOs, civil rights groups, civil society organizations, trade unions and industry associations who didn’t really have all that much interaction with the public and with consumers and especially with had much understanding of what fashion consumers are all about. That was quite interesting to go in there and be able to shed some light on that and they think that unique perspective has made policymakers sit up and listen.
We do really try to stress that at the end of the day, it’s not just fashion consumers but it’s their constituents. Also, it’s themselves. I remember being in the meeting at the G-7 summit a couple of years ago in 2015 and a lot of the policymakers were saying consumers should do this and consumers should be more aware and consumers should pay more. I raised my hand and said well ‘who are you wearing today? What are you wearing?’ Where did you buy that? And how many kids do you have? And I bet they want the latest cool trainers’ and actually we’re all consumers of fashion and it’s all our responsibility and let’s not forget that. I think reminding policymakers that they are part of the problem too and also part of the solution has been helpful. Anytime you speak to policymakers though, it’s coming in knowing your stuff, having the credible stats and facts and research and real stories of real people working in the supply chain or real consumers who really care is really powerful as well.
Dominika Just jumping back to sustainability around fashion, we all know it’s a heavy polluter of the world’s resources and a massive contribution to climate change, but can you explain some of the details around that because it’s not exactly clear how you can have a T-shirt and that can massively contribute to climate change vs. a car that obviously has an exhaust and puts fumes into the atmosphere. A little bit around the actual environmental footprint it’s like fast fashion?
Sarah Yeah. A t-shirt will go through so many steps that are completely invisible to us before it ever reaches the shop floor or our computer screens where we obviously increasingly are buying our clothing.
- If it’s a cotton t-shirt, for example, it really starts at the cottonseed level and then it’s purchased by farmers, it’s sown in the soil and then you have the whole agricultural industry around that. A lot of the places where cotton is grown is in places like India, parts of Africa, South Asia and a little bit even in the southern part of the U.S.
- If you grow cotton on an industrial level it requires a lot of pesticides and the fashion industry uses a lot of the world’s pesticides actually.
- It’s also a really thirsty crop, so it requires a huge amount of water to grow cotton and then beyond that you obviously have lots of small scale farmers who livelihoods depend on growing cotton.
- Once it’s picked then it’s sent to a mill and then lots of processes will happen at that middle level to turn it from the fluffy cotton into a fibre which is then turned into a yarn and then that then yarn is then sent somewhere else and it’s turned into a fabric and then that fabric could go somewhere else and then it’s potentially dyed or it’s treated with some sort of finish to make it, to make fire retardant or breathable, for example.
- It’s finally sent to garment manufacture where it will be cut and sewn together and probably packaged and shipped out.
- Even then sometimes there’s other things get added like sequins, gems or embroidery are put and that might even happen somewhere else.
That’s even before it gets to the warehouse and then to the shop.
There’s many different stages at which different types of workers are working in the supply chain, working in a lot of times unfortunately quite unsafe conditions. Sometimes quite dirty conditions, with toxic chemicals and then often for very little pay, especially when they’re in countries that are not very well regulated like Bangladesh or Vietnam or Myanmar.
It then goes to the warehouse where there’s a whole set of other issues. It really is a huge thing and if you think at every stage of that production too, there’s going to be some sort of required an impact environmental impact before it even gets to the consumer. Once we own that T-shirt, the way that we care for it has a huge environmental impact as well. The way that we wash our clothes, the way that we dry them and then what we do with them when we no longer have a use for them contributes a lot to carbon emissions and to our global waste problem. Because that cotton T-shirt also may be mixed with polyester and polyester is made of fossil fuels it’s essentially a plastic. Right. When we wash our clothes, if they’re made of polyester for example, it releases up to seven hundred thousand microfiber is made of plastic into the oceans. It really is an end to an end to end problem.
Elsie The challenges are vast. I think the term sustainability, as a whole, is one that people are still struggling to really understand what it means. Fashion Revolution started from the ethical side of things right, the people behind the materials. Do you aim as an organisation to raise awareness and tackle every part of that sustainability chain as well?
Sarah I think when Rana Plaza happened, for us we really we just saw that the lack of traceability of that long long supply chain and the lack of visibility of all those different stages and all the workers and all the materials and chemicals and everything used to make our clothes is just completely invisible. That was the problem. That is the first step towards achieving sustainability, you have to know about it. If you can’t see it you can’t fix it basically. That’s why we’ve been really trying to focus on increasing transparency and traceability across the whole value chain. From how we’re consumers buy it right through to, down to that cotton farm level.
But you’re right! We’re gonna be here for a while basically trying to shed light on some of these issues because there’s just it’s so global it’s so entrenched and there are so many different steps and stages and I think that that is what makes it really tricky for consumers, because it’s not just the single-use plastic issue where it’s ‘OK let’s ban single as many as possible single-use plastic items’. It’s not that cut and dry, there’s no silver bullet and there’s actually just lots and lots of solutions that need to be done in tandem by us, by the industry, by governments and new suppliers.
Dominika Jumping to the end cycle of the product and the circularity that you touched on at the start. There’s a lot of movement happening in that space and even as consumers we can see that there’s policy changes. France just banned the burning of clothes and I think that’s something that I personally had no idea went on. You just have no awareness of what actually happens with all this stuff. Maybe talk us through some of the initiatives that you guys are working on and raising awareness about. It would be great to hear some advice for consumers for what they should do with their products at the end of their lifecycle.
Sarah Yeah definitely I mean waste is a massive problem in the fashion industry both pre consumers (before it gets to us) and post consumers, so what we do with our clothes when we’re done with them. It is exciting that circularity is being taken seriously and being taken on as a challenge by a lot of the fashion industry now, which is really promising to see. I guess when we talk about circularity we mean moving away from the that take make and dispose model, to one in which the resources used to make a product are able to be used in a closed-loop infinitely. They’re basically designed to be recycled and then recycled and reused either as they are maybe transformed into something else. So we’ve seen a lot of big brands begun to make commitments towards circularity by 2030 or 2050. They’re really trying to move their business models or at least their use materials into a more circular way and we’re also seeing more new disruptive business models that aren’t going to be built on a more circular model. For example, there is a number of clothing rental companies. There’s a load of different platforms now that facilitate the sale of second-hand clothing. There’s even more sharing models, where you share your wardrobe or you rent your own wardrobe out about to share with someone else and even lots of online and offline platforms for swapping clothes. Just any opportunity to make sure that our clothes have a longer lifespan than they currently do.
I guess some tips for consumers.
- First of all, before you decide to buy anything new really think about look at your wardrobe and really think about if you have something you can already wear, be honest with yourself:
- If you’ve got something that actually will do the job, even if you’ve worn it a couple of times already is there a new way you can style it?
- Is there something on it you could change a strap or you could add a little embellishment or something just to give a little bit of a new life?
Basically, the most sustainable garment there is the garment you already own.
First, if you don’t have it in your wardrobe already, maybe you can borrow it from a friend or rent off a rental website. There are loads of them now, maybe if you are going to buy something look at buying something second hand first. There’s DEPOP, Vestiere Collective, the Real Real. There are all sorts of different platforms now where you can find a great selection of second-hand clothing and of course your local vintage shops and charity shops too.
If you really need something, then take some time and do a little bit of research in advance into what you’re buying both of the materials that you’re willing to look at and the environmental impact of those materials. Also, look to see what the brands that you’re thinking know if there’s a particular garment you’re thinking to buy and looking into that brand and trying to find out a little bit more information about them and then really putting your money where you’re wary of where your values are and don’t be afraid to ask questions, don’t be afraid to email brands and say I really love your products, can you tell me a little bit more about how you manage your water footprint or how you measure your carbon footprint? Where is it made? Are they working good conditions etc.
We never say don’t shop from the high street, because sometimes obviously that’s all you have if you’re busy or you see something and you just really love it and it really fits the bill, just make sure that if you are going to buy that piece of clothing that you commit to it. You wear it a minimum of 30 times preferably more that you hang onto it for as long as possible and that even when you’re done with it that it’s going to have a life afterwards. Maybe you’re going to pass it on to someone else or maybe that it’s recyclable. Take care of your garments.
Always wash your clothes in 30 degrees because that actually heating up water takes a lot of electricity and that’s that’s greenhouse gas emissions, that’s carbon emissions and try not to use the tumble dryer as little as possible if not at all. Always try to hang dry your clothes because the tumble dryer also has a huge carbon footprint. Repair your clothes. If if the zipper is broken or it’s missing a button, it’s got a little rip, patch it up! Don’t throw it away, just take it to your local tailor. Finally, if you are ready to get rid of something, see if a friend wants it, sell it on one of these sites like DEPOP or Vestiere collective or take it to your local charity shop. There’s textile recycling bins all over the UK, if that’s where you live, call your council and find out where those textile recycling bins are.
Basically never throw any clothing away, even if it’s a ratty sock or some growth pants or something, those materials still have value and can still be what they call downside gold. They shred up the materials and turn it into insulation that goes into your housing or stuffing the car seat or something like that. We just have to get in this mentality of just don’t throw anything away.
Elsie Not to landfill. That’s such good advice. I’m a massive fan of DEPOP, there’s such great stuff on. I love it.
Sarah It’s great. I mean I can get really sucked into it as well and scrolling and scrolling.
Elsie It almost fulfils what I used to get from strolling down the high street. You’re looking in the windows of shops as you scroll which is just great. I think this circularity thing is really interesting, we were an event last week called Decoded Future and sustainability was a huge part of the day. We saw some amazing talks with start-ups recycling materials. One thing that somebody said that really resonated was a panel with an ex designer of Patagonia who was saying that we need to educate the design students to be designing for recyclability. It needs to come in much much earlier, same from a beauty standpoint – actually cosmetic chemists should be taught, it should be part of the education system for them to be thinking about the impact and the sustainability when they’re approaching formulation design or when they’re approaching garment design. Really interesting. On the subject of education, is there anything that Fashion Rev can provide for consumers or brands by way of courses, where we can dive in and then a little bit more.
Sarah Yeah. It launched last week, we are hosting a free online course. It’s a four-week course called Fashion’s Future and the Sustainable Development Goals on futurelearn.com. You can register, it’s completely free for the next three weeks and you can learn in much more depth than I’ve talked today all about the fashion industry and key human rights and environmental impacts and more importantly what everyday people can do to make a positive difference. It’s open to everybody. It’s super interesting, we’re joined from experts from across the whole fashion supply chain. You can hear right from a garment worker themselves about their own working conditions, to toxicologist talking about pollution to several organizations who work on supporting trade unions to gender equality. It’s really fascinating. I’m so glad you brought up education because it’s the key to a sustainable future. We really need to be training and skilling and exciting and inspiring the next generation of people who are going to work in the fashion industry and the beauty industry and really all industries. It’s starting to change in a lot of universities and even some schools are beginning to put sustainability in the fashion industry into their curricula. But we need it to be taken up much more broadly by every school, starting at primary school to be honest and that’s something we’re on a mission to influence.
Dominika Where do you think it went wrong? We started fashion is being such a positive movement, back in history you can see that fashion was really an art and it was a craft something that you value to know something so throw away something that I’ve been guilty of not keeping much value, feeling its quite meaningless. When did you think that mentality shifted? And who’s to blame?
Sarah Yeah that’s a really great question. I don’t think there’s anyone person party to blame in particular, but it is the way that the whole economy has the been set up and an accelerated particularly since the early 80s. That’s when the whole global economy started becoming more globalized and where lots of manufacturing began to be outsourced to different countries and as a result of things just sped up and everything started speeding up so fast and there was a real race to the bottom in terms of just companies outsourcing abroad to try and always get the cheapest deal. Whether that was as the result of trying to get the lowest price based on wages that their workers received in that country, to the cheapest inputs from fabrics and chemicals point of view as well. And we’re still in that rat race basically, where it’s just moving faster and faster and bigger and bigger volumes. It really is the way that our whole economy globally has been designed. It’s a bleak answer because it makes it sound so huge and so beyond us. But economies and cultures and systems are created by people and by people coming together and taking certain decisions. That also means that we can do something about it by working together to address and to change the systems and cultures in which we live.