Paris, France – I don’t often have the chance to go to cultural events on ethical fashion, mostly because they don’t happen all that often, wherever you are, and even less so in the Middle East and North Africa, where I’ve been spending most of my time in the past 2 years. So when I’m in Paris, I try to show up to as many events as I can to meet new people and collect new stories. I’m all about stories.
Loov Kultuur’s kick off event at IFM was not disappointing in that regard. If you missed the event, make sure you check out the work of the main speakers: Reet Aus, whose documentary Out of Fashion was projected, and Sakina M’Sa, founder of ethical concept store Front de Mode, who debated with her and the audience on the fast pace and sustainable future of the fashion industry. As I was listening to them speak, I found that the two had both opposite and complementary approaches to upcycled fashion. This is an (incomplete and) commented account of their interaction.
Reet Aus’s Out of Fashion is definitely a must-see movie if you are interested in sustainable and ethical fashion. Reet Aus’s interest in up-cycled fashion stems from a refusal to become part of the classic fashion production system that she studied in fashion design school. So as soon as she graduated from her masters, in 2002, she started working with recycled materials. Her documentary, shot over five years from 2009 to 2014 retraces the fabrication process of a pair of $19 Zara jeans that takes her to the manufacturer Beximco in Dacca, Bengladesh. Once there, she develops a relationship with the company that allows her to try and find ways to use some of the waste generated by fast fashion to design and sell an up-cycled fashion line. The documentary touches on the social and environmental inequalities that fashion contributes to deepen: low wages, toxic work environments, child and forced labor, pollution of water streams, waste of natural resources, waste of textile resources…
The movie culminates with the refusal of a major fashion conglomerate (PVH I believe) to up-cycle their wasted fabric because it wouldn’t be “for the right reasons.” “Right” meaning economically profitable to their investors, which demonstrates the work that has yet to be done for power houses and conglomerates to understand that sustainability in the fashion industry is more than necessary, it’s an economic opportunity. Like anything else though, it’s a matter of time and if when they shot the documentary H&M execs were not ready to make a change, four years later H&M is embracing sustainability with a plan to become fully circular by 2030.
Sakina M’Sa has a very different background. Growing up to blue-collar, Comorian immigrant parents, her interest in up-cycled fashion is more a by-product of her interest in “social fashion.” In other words, of using fashion as a means to strengthen the social fabric of marginalized communities not halfway across the world, but right in France where she grew up. Her ambition was therefore to find creative solutions that can have both social and commercial value to society. Early on she created an inclusive business model that relied and focused on creating economic opportunities in underprivileged communities through a brand whose entire fabric supply comes from Kerring’s seasonal 50,000 meters of excess material.
“We hear a lot about sustainable development. I like to talk about desirable development. The consumer should be attracted by beautiful objects at democratic prices.”
– Sakina M’Sa
Where they are complementary is in their approach of the customer. For Reet Aus, convincing consumers to make that choice, that transition, is a matter of opening a dialogue and explaining to people the impact they can have. “People are intelligent. When you talk to them, when you explain to them how fashion is made, they can understand and make better choices. And upcycling is not a new thing, a lot of people have been doing it for years.” Part of Reet Aus’s clientele is highly conscious of their environmental impact, they seek out ethical fashion. But some people are first and foremost attracted to the design and the environmental aspect is an upside of the product. “I know the customer mostly in Estonia best but they are mostly very educated people. The upshirt is becoming popular with kids – they start to understand the concept and they buy the shirt because of it.”
Sakina’s approach builds on Reet’s: converting consumers is not solely about educating them, it’s about attracting them with beautiful garments and “democratic prices.” “We hear a lot about sustainable development. I like to talk about desirable development. The consumer should be attracted by beautiful objects at democratic prices. Beauty should be accessible to all.” She designed her concept store Front de Mode with the aim of creating a space where people from different backgrounds can meet. “Fashion shouldn’t divide but unite.”
One of her most well-known creation was Puma’s iconic Grip Bag which she revisited in 2009 by integrating in the design her signature upcycled blue allovers that she uses in all the Front de Mode collections. The hardest part of that project was convincing PUMA that it was feasible. “Since we were up cycling fabric, no two bags were exactly the same and that was a bit off-setting for the brand, but eventually they embraced it.”
It’s the same issue she has with distributors. They are often intimidated by the fact that there are no series: no two garments will be exactly the same because pieces of fabric will be used differently every time. But for Sakina that’s nothing to be discouraged by. On the contrary, it is a welcome creative challenge. “Sometimes with Kerring we get 300 meters of one fabric and 10 meters of another. When that happens you have to be creative and figure out how to use smaller pieces of the shorter roll throughout your designs. That creates cohesion in the collection. It’s a challenge but that’s what makes being a designer interesting.”
“Where major groups are concerned, it takes time, but there’s no point in being moralizing. We have to lead by example and show that it is possible to work differently.”
– Sakina M’Sa
To communicate on her brand, Reet and her team evaluated he entire production system and the impact of a garment’s lifecycle on the environment and then decided to narrow the information down to water and energy usage, so as not to overwhelm the consumer with data. So when you make a purchase, you know how much water and energy you are saving: roughly 75% and 95% respectively on average. Based on her research, she collaborated with the Stockholm institute to develop an upcycling certification delivered to third parties upon evaluation.
Reet has opened the dialogue on up cycling with many brands. “We have been helping some of them understand their environmental impact, they are digesting the results: 20% of waste in production represents a huge financial and environmental cost. But it’s hard for them to figure out how to integrate that in their design and production cycle. They’re used to working in one specific way and integrating upcycling in that is very difficult.”
Although the ethical and sustainable fashion movement is getting more interest and more traction, recycling only represents 1% of products on the market. Sakina insists though that real communication channels are being set up: “where major groups are concerned, it takes time, but there’s no point in being moralizing. We have to lead by example and show that it is possible to work differently. That’s what we did with Puma’s Grip Bag.”
“We talk about environmental issues, and we know how to solve them. We just don’t have the resources to do it. Law and tax are the only two ways to make things change. That’s why I have a black and white vision: if you can’t make it ethically then don’t make it at all.”
– Reet Aus
For Reet, recycling is the second best option, the last resort when up cycling is not viable. “There is a lot of material that while they cannot be up cycled can be recycled. There’s a lot of potential for this. The hardest part though is having an impact at the post-consumption level: there are no good solutions because the textiles are made of mixed fibers. In Germany’s largest recycling center 900 workers sort out used clothes. It’s complicated, it’s expensive but we do manage to recycle 1%. It’s still better than putting it in the trash.”
The discourse on toxicity is an important leverage to have the industry change its behavior. Since she launched the movie in 2015, Reet shares that what shocks viewers the most is the high toxicity level found in one pair of Zara jeans. But people are more concerned about the potential risk on their own health than about the implications of this high level of exposition to toxic products on the workers on the production chain. Every day, toxic water is dumped in the river where local people have to wash, eat and drink from. It is estimated that exposure to these toxins for a even a few hours a day can cause cancer within two years, and death shortly after. It’s shocking, but it’s not enough.
Once consumers change, once they become as concerned about the toxicity of what they wear as they are about what they eat, the industry will start changing too. There is a lot of research on the topic but more solutions can be found by the industry than by the academic world. “This is the most complicated part of it.” Reet tells us. “We talk about environmental issues, and we know how to solve them. We just don’t have the resources to do it. Law and tax are the only two ways to make things change. That’s why I have a black and white vision: if you can’t make it ethically then don’t make it at all.”