Interview with Carry Somers, founder of Fashion Revolution Day4 years ago
Bruno Pieters interviews Carry Somers, founder of Fashion Revolution Day
Bruno Pieters is a Belgian fashion designer and art director highly regarded for his avant-garde creations and sharp tailoring. In 2012, after a two-year sabbatical from the fashion industry, he launched Honest by, which has a 100% transparent supply chain. Honest by wants to shed light on the questions: where is it made and by whom. Bruno Pieters believes that fashion is a celebration of beauty and that the story behind that celebration can be equally beautiful.
BP. HOW DID YOU COME UP WITH THE IDEA OF CREATING A FASHION REVOLUTION DAY?
CS. After the Rana Plaza disaster, everywhere I looked, there were newspaper articles calling for a more ethical fashion industry. All of us within ethical fashion circles wondered how we could channel the energy and momentum. The Rana Plaza catastrophe was a metaphorical call to arms. The idea for Fashion Revolution Day literally dropped into my head in the bath a few days after the 24th April. I could so easily have stayed soaking in my hot bath and ignored the idea, but it seemed like a good enough idea to act on. I reluctantly got out of the bath and emailed the most obvious person I could think of to run past this idea, Orsola de Castro, co-founder of Estethica at London Fashion Week and co-founder of From Somewhere.
The next morning, having received Orsola’s enthusiastic response, Lucy Siegle, who writes the Ethical Living column for the Observer, phoned me and she was equally convinced that an annual Fashion Revolution Day was exactly what was needed to channel current concern into a longstanding campaign so that the victims of Rana Plaza and all the other tragedies that have occurred in the name of fashion will never be forgotten. Fashion Revolution Day would be the impetus to bring about real change in the industry.
BP. DO YOU THINK ONE DAY WE WILL LOOK BACK ON THIS DAY AND SAY, THAT IS WHAT IT TOOK FOR THE WORLD TO WAKE UP? DO YOU THINK THIS IS IT?
CS. Similar disasters have had a longreaching effect. The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in 1911 in New York where 146 people died helped to solidify support for workers’ unions like the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union and led to widespread reform. In less than a year, Fashion Revolution has become a worldwide movement, now in almost 60 countries. On 24 April, people around the world, high street shops and high couture, cotton farmers and factory workers, and anyone who cares about what they wear – will come together to call for change. It is a global platform which we can all use to ask questions, raise standards and set an industry-wide example of what better looks like. By celebrating best practice, we can change lives.
BP. WHAT HELPS YOU TO KEEP GOING AND DOING WHAT YOU DO?
CS. My staff and my husband, Mark, have been a fantastic support and are running Pachacuti for me. Other than designing the SS15 collection, I have been able to focus solely on Fashion Revolution Day. I am working incredibly long hours on Fashion Revolution, but the messages of support we are receiving from people and organisations around the world, news of events taking place from Kathmandu to Barcelona, and the positive response from the press have all been a constant source of encouragement and motivation.
BP. WHAT DO YOU HOPE TO ACHIEVE WITH FASHION REVOLUTION DAY?
CS. This year we are asking the question Who Made Your Clothes? This should be a simple question, but a recent Australian Fashion Report found that 61% of brands didn’t know where their garments were made and 93% didn’t know where the raw materials came from. We need to re-establish the broken connections in the supply chain because greater transparency is a prerequisite to improving conditions.
Long term, we have 4 objectives which we will work to achieve:
- Raise awareness of the true cost of fashion and its impact at every stage in the process of production and consumption.
- Show the world that change is possible through celebrating those involved in creating a more sustainable future.
- Bring people together the length of the value chain to communicate: to ask questions and share best practice.
- Work towards long-term industry-wide change and get consensus from the entire supply chain around what changes need to happen.
BP. WILL THIS BE AN ANNUAL EVENT.
CS. Yes. Once this year’s events are over (we have several events spreading into May, at the House of Lords and SHOWStudio, for instance) we will collaboratively decide on a theme for next year. We are initially planning for the next five years.
BP. HOW HAS THE RESPONSE BEEN SO FAR?
BP. WHAT IS YOUR OPINION ON THE FASHION INDUSTRY TODAY?
CS. The majority of the fashion industry is burying its head in the sand. As a global movement, we can bring the message straight from the cotton farmer, the mill dyer, the knitter, the weaver, the seamstress directly to the consumer, to show the truth, to show where change needs to happen, and how we, as consumers, can make a difference. For real change to happen, every part of the supply chain has to make a commitment to change, and that includes us.
BP. WHAT DO YOU LOVE ABOUT FASHION?
CS. I love the artisanship around fashion, beautifully made garments, embroidery, one-of-a-kind pieces. I like expressing my individuality through what I wear, which is why I rarely shop on the High Street, and am always seeking out vintage ‘50s print dresses.
BP. DO YOU BELIEVE THAT HIGH FASHION IS MORE ETHICAL THAN HIGH STREET FASHION TODAY?
CS. I believe that there are exemplary brands in both High Fashion and on the High Street. There are also brands in both sectors who are slowly embracing sustainability and others who are doing very little.
BP. HOW CAN WE BE SURE A PRODUCT IS ETHICAL? WHAT DO WE NEED?
CS. This is the question I keep being asked and there is not one easy answer.
We are asking people to Find Out, Be Curious and Do Something About It. We have a fantastic ethical fashion trump card game onine, where you can rate the clothes in your wardrobe against that of your friends on the website www.free2work.com. The cards can be downloaded here and instructions for playing are here.
We also have a host of other Resources on our website under Further Reading
Ethical Consumer will shortly be coming out with a product guide to rate the ethical and environmental track record of the UK’s main high street clothing companies, so that will be a great resource.
BP. THERE HAS BEEN A LOT OF TALK ABOUT BETTER WORKING CONDITIONS AND ‘LIVING’ WAGES, BUT SO FAR NOTHING HAS REALLY CHANGED SINCE THE TRAGEDY LAST YEAR. I’VE JUST READ A RECENT REPORT BY THE CLEAN CLOTHES CAMPAIGN THAT STATES THAT RETAILERS ARE BARELY MAKING ANY CHANGES. ONLY 4 COMPANIES HAVE STARTED TO INCREASE WAGES (INDITEX, MARKS&SPENCER, SWITCHER AND TCHIBO) AND IT IS STILL NOT A ‘LIVING’ WAGE. THE COUNTRY’S OFFICIAL MINIMUM WAGE AT THE MOMENT IS 68 US DOLLARS WHICH IS 49 EURO OR 40GBP. MOST BRANDS AREN’T PAYING MUCH MORE THAN THAT. THOSE 68 DOLLARS A MONTH ALMOST SEEM TO BE A SYMBOLIC AMOUNT THAT NEEDS TO BE PAID TO AVOID THE TERM SLAVERY. YOUR COMPANY IS FAIR TRADE CERTIFIED. WHAT IS AN OFFICIAL FAIR TRADE SALARY IN BANGLADESH ? IS THERE A BIG DIFFERENCE?
CS. There is not an official Fair Trade wage in any country. Fair Trade covers 10 Fair Trade principles, of which a Fair Wage is just one. Wages are undoubtedly a very important issue, but certainly not the only issue when it comes to worker satisfaction and when I have surveyed our Pachacuti hat weavers in Ecuador, other issues such as year-round, stable employment are equally important. I work in Ecuador and, for our work on the WFTO Fair Trade Guarantee System, we have conducted a cost of living survey, measured income against the cañasta familiar, the monthly basket of essentials for a family, and charted our prices against what the middlemen are paying. We have also conducted a weaving time trial as most weavers pick up and put down their panama hats throughout the day and it is very difficult to obtain an accurate estimate of time taken to weave a hat. As part of our work on the 3 year EU GeoFair Trade project, we also measured 68 social, environmental and economic indicators to get a real idea of the impact of our Fair Trade purchasing on the sustainable development of our producers.
BP. I KNOW FROM EXPERIENCE THAT COMPANIES ARE SLOW TO CHANGE UNLESS IT AFFECTS THEIR SALES. FOR INSTANCE NIKE WAS ABLE TO ADAPT THEIR ENTIRE PRODUCTION CHAIN WHEN A CHILD LABOUR SCANDAL BROUGHT REAL FINANCIAL DAMAGE TO THE COMPANY. THEY ARE NOW CHECKING ALL THEIR SUPPLIERS ON A REGULAR BASIS TO AVOID A NEW SCANDAL. TODAY THEY ARE EVEN CONSIDERED TO BE A LEADER IN THE FIGHT AGAINST CHILD LABOUR ACCORDING TO A CONVERSATION I HAD WITH THE ILO. WHAT CAN THE PUBLIC DO TO HELP? I ALWAYS SAY DON’T BUY WHAT IS NOT MADE ACCORDING TO YOUR OWN VALUES. AND IF A BRAND ISN’T CLEAR ABOUT IT DON’T MAKE THE PURCHASE. BUY FROM BRANDS THAT OFFER THE INFORMATION YOU NEED TO MAKE THE RIGHT CHOICES. BUT I KNOW PEOPLE DON’T LIKE TO HEAR THAT. WHAT IS YOUR ADVICE TO SOMEONE WHO DOESN’T WANT TO BE A PART OF THE PROBLEM ANYMORE?
CS. Again, Be Curious, Find Out, Do Something About it. Email or tweet to the brand asking Who Made Your Clothes? I have had a reply which at least told me where my clothes were made, if not who, from all the brands I have contacted apart from one.
BP. DO YOU THINK THE FASHION REVOLUTION DAY CAN HELP MAKE THE PUBLIC UNDERSTAND THAT THEY ARE NOT THE PROBLEM BUT THEY CAN BE A PART OF THE SOLUTION?
CS. Fashion Revolution Day gives everyone – wherever they are, whoever they are and whatever they’re wearing – the opportunity to show their support for better connections and transparency across the fashion supply chain by making the simple gesture of turning an item of clothing #insideout on the day. Consuming is about fulfilling needs: and one of our key needs is the need to belong. I believe that our need to belong within society can be satisfied not just through buying beautiful fashion, but also by building connections with the wider community of the people who made these clothes. Designers can meet human needs by offering fashion with emotional significance. By telling the story behind a garment or inviting the customer to be part of the design process, our need for of creativity, identity and participation can be satisfied. Consumer demand can revolutionise the way fashion works as an industry. If everyone started to understand that they can be part of the solution, we’d see a radically different fashion paradigm.
BP. WHAT WILL HAPPEN ON THE 24TH OF APRIL?
CS. Events all around the world, from a catwalk show through the centre of Barcelona, to a workshop in Kathmandu on responsible practices in small and medium dye houses. In London, we have events happening on and around the day from Somerset House to the House of Lords.
BP. FROM WHICH BRANDS DO YOU BUY?
CS. I love Pringle and also Issa London, both of which have been very helpful in replying to my question Who Made Your Clothes? I’m still waiting to get more specific information about Who, rather than Where. In the meantime, one of our Advisory Committee members, Ian Cook, has tried to trace my Pringle Dress through a series of quotations for people to ‘stitch together’
BP. HOW ‘GREEN’ ARE YOU?
CS. Green is my favourite colour
BP. ARE YOU THE CHANGE YOU WANT TO SEE IN THE WORLD?
CS. It is hard for one person to change anything. That’s why we need everyone who wants to see change to be part of the Fashion Revolution. Rana Plaza has opened up a policy window for significant change in the sector. It gives us an opportunity to set a new agenda to overcome the causes. I believe that by collaborating throughout the fashion industry, collecting evidence, and working alongside the experts, Fashion Revolution can showcase realistic sustainable solutions and translate them into a reality that works for fashion.
BP. WHAT IS YOUR FAVOURITE QUOTE OR LIFE MANTRA?
CS. “If you do things well, do them better. Be daring, be first, be different, be just.” Anita Roddick
BP. WHAT IS YOUR DREAM?
CS. A holiday, once 24 April is over!
BP. THANK YOU FOR THIS INTERVIEW.