Tuesday 17 January 2012

Cleaning Up The Fashion Industry

A few months ago I was contacted by a lady named Sarah (pictured above) and asked if she could interview me as part of the research she is employed to undertake in the field of sustainable fashion. Sarah, originally from the USA and presently living in Copenhagen, is currently employed as part of a large team funded by a Swedish company named Mistra who are apparantly researching lots of different angles related to sustainable fashion over a number of years. The aim is to discover ways to transform the global clothing industry into something significantly less damaging, both socially and environmentally. I don't know about you, but I was really heartened to know that there's an organisation putting serious time, money and effort into such an endeavour.

Sarah interviewed me as part of her 'early adopters' section of research. It took a couple of hours, and basically gave me carte blanche to witter away about how I feel about clothing and sustainability and what lead me to feel that way. Sarah, who has a personal interest in this field of studies, later agreed to permit me to interview her, as I really wanted to find out more about the her and her work and share it with my lovely readers.

Sarah: I work with the Mistra Future Fashion project. Mistra is a a Swedish foundation that focuses on environmental research [which] recently put forth
funding for an interdisciplinary research program concerning sustainable fashion called "Mistra Future Fashion." The research project consists of an international collaboration of researchers looking at all areas of the fashion system - from business models to textile production, to policy making and consumption: to better understand how we can push forward a competitive sustainable fashion model. My individual research project is looking at the consumption of fashion - with a focus right now on those who are early adopters of sustainable practices in their fashion consumption. My hope is that by learning from those who have taken a proactive stance, we can push the mainstream audience into more sustainable behavior. It has been a fascinating journey so far and I have met so many inspirational and interesting people who make me more conscious of my own behavior.

I should also say that Mistra has their own press department, etc - so nothing I say should be taken as official statements from them. This is just my opinions, beliefs, etc.

Zoe: How did you get involved with Mistra Future Fashion and how long have you worked for them? How long is this project expected to run for?

Sarah: I started working for Mistra this summer (2011) - and the project goes on for approximately 4 more years and my plans are to stay with it as long as there is research for me to do! I got involved because it related to my graduate research project - and moreover fulfilled a personal interest of improving the fashion industry's current practices.

Zoe: What was your background before working for them?

Sarah: My background includes a buying job in the retail sector (children's and junior shoes), Public Relations work with an advertising agency, general communications work with an art/design/retail firm and a break in between to complete my Master's in user centered innovation. The general "red thread" sewn through all of this is that I have a lot of background thinking about consumers: what they want, how they think, what motivates them. And Mistra allows me to use my power for "good", coming up with ways to motivate consumers to make more responsible decisions for the earth, for society and for themselves.

Zoe: You have a really interesting employment background, I can see why you must have made the perfect candidate for your current role! Your description of using your 'power for good' really made me laugh! At what point did you realise you were working for 'evil'?!

Sarah: In regards to the particular time that I realized I wanted to change paths - I have to say that it wasn't a cathartic moment as much as a general notion that I could not continue putting lipstick on pigs. And by this I mean, attempting to use the role of communications and branding to lift brands that don't necessarily deserve lifting. I had some clients when I worked in the agency that were truly honorable - making great products, humbly and modestly telling their story and working on continual environmental and social improvements. I had others however, that were so blinded by the need for "sales" in the short run that they couldn't really look beyond this, they just knew "green was in" and they wanted on that train without putting in the hard work, dedication and risk it requires. If I were, however, to cite the moment I knew change was needed it might have been when I was working on a processed food product called "stuffed and breaded chicken breasts" that should say enough I think.:)

Zoe: What do Mistra plan to do with the research that yourself and the other researchers are compiling?

Sarah: The general plan is to pave way for a more sustainable fashion industry - both in Sweden and beyond. The multi-disciplinary approach allows the project to attack the issue from multiple viewpoints as there are many stakeholders whose participation is required to make sustainable fashion a long-term possibility. The government, consumers, industry - all play an important role.

Zoe: Why do you think Mistra chose now to under go this research?

Sarah: I cannot offer an an answer to why Mistra made this decision, but can
offer my general viewpoint on the matter. First, I think (and this refers to your next question), Scandinavia takes a progressive approach to all areas of sustainability. Given that the region (particularly Sweden) has a thriving fashion industry, it makes sense to push forward a better standard for the region. Moreover, while sustainability in food, transportation and housing have made great strides in many Western countries, fashion seems to a bit slower on
the uptake - at least from the viewpoint of mainstream consumption. It is time to put more focus and resources on this matter, as the industry contributes to many ills that must be addressed, and consumers need to be aware and conscious of their decisions. Moreover, those companies that are taking a proactive approach deserve to be rewarded for their behavior.

Zoe: Do you feel Scandanavia is more forward thinking than other Western countries when it comes to sustainability issues and practice?

Sarah: I admittedly take a rosy view when I look at Scandinavia - often giving
the region a lot of credit for being more willing to take on progressive change than most. Having lived here for a little over 3 years (Copenhagen and Norway), it is my belief that the average citizen lives a more sustainable life than elsewhere (particularly my home country of America). It is done in a somewhat quiet manner - with everyday life consisting of public transportation, small living spaces, and systematic, government implemented sustainability initiatives for energy, food sources, etc.

I see a more high profile, individualistic approach to sustainability when I look at the UK or United States. Increased vegetarianism, off the grid lifestyles, hybrid cars - there tends to be more outward, individually expressed behaviors but perhaps the average citizen contributes less to the movement. But this is just my sense, I have little data to back it up:)

Zoe: I totally agree about the high-profile actions of the UK/US. I feel the UK makes lots of noise about sustainability with questionable amounts of action actually taking place. Even the UK's biggest offenders for stocking sweatshop-produced and environmentally damaging garments sell tote bags with random 'ethical' messages stamped on them. As if printing a bag saying 'Live Green' or something is sufficient.

I'm very fascinated by your point about how you view the different approaches of Scandinavia and UK/US, and in my view it was totally on the money. Not that I've ever visited Scandinavia, but I can really see that, from what I understand, the vaguely opposing approaches (collective, goverment-led V.s the responsibility on the individual) could represent the mindsets of those nations in general, broadly speaking. What particularly concerns me about the UK/US approach in regards to sustainability and ethical practices, is that it can seemingly absolve industry from responsibility, like industry has a right to say 'Well, we wouldn't create cheap sweat-shirt manufactured T-shirts if the consumer didn't buy them'.

What drew you to live in Scandinavia? And do you think the UK/US could, or indeed should, adopt a more Scandinavian approach in certain areas?

Sarah: It is funny you ask that. My husband's impetus for deciding to do his graduate work here was that he has hoped to use the Scandinavian approach to help companies in the US better facilitate CSR (corporate social responsibility). In that way, I think he is on to something. I don't think the cultures of the US or UK could ever shift drastically to model that of the Scandinavian countries. And if you asked people here in Scandinavia, they would reticently say that they feel their consumer and business culture has started to resemble the Anglo model a bit too much. That said, companies and organisations are little microcosms of culture that can absolutely be contrary to that of the country they do business in. And with that in mind, if companies were to adopt more collaborative and cooperative ways of managing their business, I think real change can occur.

But...then you have the issue of publicly traded companies with quarterly financial expectations. And that short term mentality is ultimately, at least in my mind, at the root of a lot of our ills.

One thing at a time though!:)

Zoe: You say that your research so far has allowed you contact with some inspirational individuals that have had an effect on your own behaviour, in what ways have your thoughts and how you live your life changed of the back of your contact with them?

Sarah: I have gotten more in touch with my own consumption. I think a lot
more about what I purchase, why I am purchasing it, and of course - where it really comes from. I find myself really trying to minimize the excess and feel joy in doing so.

I would like to thank Sarah for taking the time to answer my questions, and for doing so so thoroughly and thoughtfully. I, for one, cannot wait for the research being undertaken by Mistra and its army of researchers to begin making waves in the clothing industry. Thanks for reading!


Unknown said...

Great interview! And I'm so glad to hear there's a company that's thinking along the same lines and researching sustainability in fashion. Hopefully their results will help change people's perspectives for the better

Sue said...

Really interesting interview. Definitely thought provoking. Thanks, Zo!

Geri said...

This was very interesting! Would love to know what their findings are at the end of the study ( even though it's a little way off yet!)

francoise_hardy said...

Really thought provoking interview. Its amazing how often "going green" is used an excuse to spend money on more stuff. Even people who make their own clothes are not immune from accumulating huge stashes of fabric, sewing machinery they don't really need, etc. Just another form of standard consumerism.

skippysays said...

wow, thanks for the great interview! It's great to know there are people and organization like her out there :)

Lavender said...

Fantastic interview, Zoe! And I completely agree with your point about companies in the UK/US selling recycled totes with their brand plastered all over them. I see my family members buying them, using once, then leaving them in the trunks of their cars. Because it's "green" to buy it the one time. Sheesh, I've had the same canvas shopping totes for decades.

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