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The Fashion Debates – Can Fashion Save the Planet?

If you ever have a chance to visit the Condé Nast College in Greek Street, Soho, then do. Like most buildings in this fast-changing area of London, the frontage is the tip of an iceberg. Once inside, the space-age, minimalist, white environment feels like a million miles away from the bustling streets. As well as running various courses concerned with fashion and commerce, The Condé Nast College also hosts the Fashion Debates, a bi-monthly series of discussions on ethical and sustainable fashion, run by its founder, Olivia Pinnock.

If you ever have a chance to visit the Condé Nast College in Greek Street, Soho, then do. Like most buildings in this fast-changing area of London, the frontage is the tip of an iceberg. Once inside, the space-age, minimalist, white environment feels like a million miles away from the bustling streets. As well as running various courses concerned with fashion and commerce, The Condé Nast College also hosts the Fashion Debates, a bi-monthly series of discussions on ethical and sustainable fashion, run by its founder, Olivia Pinnock.


Last Thursday the 24th November, SEEN was in attendance at the latest debate: Can Fashion Save the World? Speakers Lucy Shea, CEO of Futerra; Renee Cuoco, Centre for Sustainable Fashion Manager; and Muchaneta Kapfunde, editor spoke passionately in favour of consumer activism, acknowledging that any aspiration to be 100% sustainable (in terms of world resources) was impossible to achieve, but that we should seek to make what impact we can on dwindling resources like water and oil.

Readers of SEEN will know from our coverage of earlier debates that Olivia’s passion for fashion is not just about highlighting what’s wrong with current fashion business practices. She’s also in favour of consumers getting pro-active about the clothes they buy and the connections they make with the CEOs of their favourite brands, holding them to account for their companies’ behaviour towards employees in the third world, carbon footprint, legislation concerning model weight etc. Olivia began by asking the panel members to give a brief intro to their own backgrounds in fashion and sustainability

Muchaneta felt it was her duty to educate readers about what’s out there in terms of sustainable fashion, enabling readers to shop for the clothes they want, and also to promote the idea that fashion can last and be valued, not just be ‘fast fashion’ destined for landfill. Renee originally trained in design and took an industry placement. She’s worked for small brands and big designers, but was always searching for the meaning of fashion. Lucy Shea is head of Futerra Futerra – an agency that helps brands to change to more sustainable practices both as business models, and in their production of garments.

There are clearly problems endemic to current fashion production, not least in the use of water. It takes 11,000 litres of water to produce a pair of jeans, for example. Polyester is produced from oil – a diminishing resource. There are social impacts on garment workers; poor wages, unsafe working environments, childcare issues… how then can we have the fashion that we love whist looking out for people and planet? Muchaneta spoke of the gap between the desire for sustainability and the need for high quality. Stella McCartney, for example, has expressed this paradigm. However much we want to do the right thing, the quality will suffer to some degree, but as Lucy said, the fashion world is a huge polluter, yet employs 150 million workers, many of them women. Fashion consumers must harness the power they have to change practices.

Olivia wanted to know why the message about fashion sustainability is slow to get through. Lucy felt there was a cognitive dissonance at work, in that people were only too glad to say they cared about the planet but didn’t change their habits. They’d rather change their opinions and say they didn’t care. She felt the way forward was to make sustainability status-led; if sustainable practice hsd a higher status in society then people would take it up and feel good at the same time. Muchaneta felt it was about making sustainable fashion cheaper, accessible and kinder to the environment. It was about changing consumer expectation but also helping brands accept responsibility. Renee mentioned H&M’s ‘Conscious Collection’, which was slowly evolving to help consumers make a more ethical choice. She also spoke of keeping garments for longer and buying less. Lucy spoke about the deadening effect of a ‘Take Back’ box in shops to recycle garments. She was more in favour of a ‘closed loop’ system – certainly feasible given the current efficiency of tech. She’s the founder of ‘swishing’ in which you get together with other like-minded people and swap clothes. So that dress that doesn’t suit you or doesn’t quite fit anymore suddenly looks great on someone else. Plus there’s the social aspect of ‘swishing parties’; everyone has a great time, meets new people and gets fabulous new clothes as a result! As Lucy said: Make the consumer the hero and they will embrace the whole concept of recycling and sustainability.

Muchaneta was in favour of transparency in the whole process of fashion production. Modern tech processes are perfectly capable of informing the savvy consumer about where the garment was made, who made it, and how. You give fashion a face and a name beyond the brand and it adds value. Is the Fashion world ready for this? It remains to be seen…

Olivia was keen to hear what panellists had heard about that excited them, in terms of sustainability. Muchaneta was enthusiastic about fabrics that are water-repellent, which obviously has implications for washing the garment. There was news of plastics from the sea being re-used to make jeans. Adidas also use it for their trainers. Other companies were selling to order rather than stockpiling, which means less wastage.

So, what can we do, as consumers and lovers of fashion? The consensus amongst the panellists was: take action, research, ask questions, above all take responsibility for how we shop. There was a feeling that the new young designers coming up (many of whom were in the audience) will have a huge impact on this. There was a feeling that we needed smaller, more diverse designers. Lucy encouraged us to buy nothing on Black Friday, or put on a swishing party, and join Fashion Revolution for a fanzine that contains provocation and new thinking. Olivia heartily endorsed this positive approach. By NOT pointing the finger and moaning, but by making people feel good about the choices they make, then we make sustainable clothes desirable. We can join in with #onwednesdayswewearethical, for example, so we can spread the good word about ethical, fairtrade, hand-made, upcycled garments on Twitter and Instagram.

Now onto the thorny question of brand activity in the field of sustainability. Are brands making genuine inroads into their sustainable practices or is it just a publicity stunt? Renee thought we’d moved beyond PR and felt legislation needed to set good practice in stone. Nike, for example, are innovative but their business model is untenable, begging the question: how do we prosper without growth? But, that said, the bigger brands are slowly improving. Muchaneta maintained that brands will always take baby steps as business is cautious in new areas, but this is where consumers have real power. It comes down to this – if consumers don’t buy then things will change. And yes, for some brands it doubtless is just PR, but time passes and things change, especially when the new generation of young people come on board, who have grown up with the concepts of sustainability and responsible environmental attitudes, because it was inculcated in them at their primary school. On that note, check out the sustainability page on a brand’s website. They are scared of being shot down but if their page is just waffle yet gives no supplier lists, feel free to ask questions. You’re the consumer, you have the power. There’s nothing wrong with consumption, it’s the impact that’s catastrophic. But it’s worth remembering that change also comes from the top. A good CEO will extend their personal values throughout the brand,

And now a question dear to SEEN’s heart: How do fashion journalists change hearts and minds? The answer is to do our research. In the age of the internet, there’s no excuse! E-luxe is often issue-led, after all. There’s never been a better opportunity to write interestingly about fashion. So many magazines are chock-ful of cliché. Fashion history is a good place to start. Why do people wear the fashion that they wear at a particular time? Olivia was of the opinion that there wasn’t enough good fashion journalism around.

There was discussion about the seasonless fashion year, where you buy when you see it on the catwalk, but all that means are more collections and designers who find it hard to keep up with six collections a year. On the other hand, when there’s a cold snap, people suddenly buy everything, resulting in a wardrobe where there are always 22 unworn items. SEEN is ashamed to say that this true in her own wardrobe. In fact probably more than 22…

There was a great question from the floor: Surely e-commerce is a contradiction in terms with Stella McCartney and Nike shipping worldwide. The panellists felt that 100% sustainability may prove impossible, but that what brands should do is ship within the country. Stella McCartney was very aware of these concerns and also very open about the difficulties of sustainable trade. It would be great to think that one day sustainable fashion will be the norm, rather than the exception. There was much discussion about what was more sustainable – a shop or e-commerce. For example, Zara manufactures in China, then ships to Spain. A customer in China then orders a Zara garment and back it goes to China – clearly unsustainable. This begs the final question: What can fashion do to educate the following generations? The emphasis is clearly on collaboration. If brands work with designers now in college then change will inevitably come. As noted before, the younger generation is coming through with the DNA for sustainability already in their genes. There is simply no excuse for fashion not adopting sustainable practices in the years to come, and that is a heartening thought.


Photography by Jordan Wharf-Young.

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