Over her career as a fashion journalist, Olivia has acquired a deep understanding of the fashion industry but also of ethical fashion. In this interview, she shares her insights on how the industry is evolving to take into consideration social and environmental responsibility, the tension between local and international sourcing, the need for regulation and what is still keeping ethical fashion brands on the sidelines.
Why did you create the Fashion Debates?
Ethical fashion was something that kept popping up. As a journalist I meet designers and some of them had been involved in that. I didn’t know how bad the situation was in fashion. But while I was freelancing, again it kept popping up and I started to feel concerned about it. As a reporter you have a tool and a voice to raise awareness of these things, but I didn’t have any sort of special knowledge in the field. So I started the fashion debates, which are panel discussion evenings and we look at issues like labour rights in the fashion industry, sustainability, how we treat models -looking after their health and wellbeing – and the amount of unpaid work and unpaid internships that happens in developed countries. I wanted to give each evening its own topic to explore.
Since you started looking into fast fashion, have you observed a change, an evolution in the industry?
There has been a big change. When I first started hearing about it it wasn’t really a focus. But recently there have been powerful movements : fashion revolution, sustainable fashion being talked about all the big trade shows. I still think we have a long way to go, but there is change as well.
#MeToo has been very much swept under the carpet.
I saw that through the Fashion debates you address topics ranging from textile waste to the me too movement to diversity… What do you think is the most underrated topic at the moment or the issue that the industry is the most reluctant to look at?
Interestingly, I was meant to be having an event on #metoo last month, and it’s the first time I’ve had to cancel an event. I feel like that was so telling. I cancelled it because I was really struggling to find a panel. It was very interesting to note that the people I could get to come forward were journalists, mostly freelance journalists who’d written for Refinery 29 and news outlet, not fashion magazines, people who weren’t tied up in the advertising deals, big brands, and using big name photographers to shoot their editorials. I managed to find a model who was willing to come forward and talk about it, but in terms of getting any model agents to come speak, absolutely not. Getting someone on the other side, someone in a position to do something about it, to combat it within their own company was just very difficult because they don’t want to unintentionally upset clients.
I think this issue has been very much swept under the carpet. There was this big exposé this year about all these photographers and I’m pleased to hear Condé Nast took action and stopped working with certain people but on the other hand it’s a little bit late, in particular because it was no secret, everybody knew about it. There has been action taken, but I just think that’s the first step, a lot has to change around the fashion culture, the circumstances around being on set and photoshoots and the modeling industry which is gonna be a quite battle because it’s run by a small group of very powerful people.
It’s also something that’s not being measured and there’s no outlet for these people to speak out without fear of consequences… The reaction from Condé Nast was very much a reaction but there was no next step to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
Absolutely. Condé Nast did introduce a new code of conduct, which they said they would be adhering to and that included forbidding alcohol on set and setting up private areas for models to change. But it’s very difficult to enforce these things.
The circumstances of being at a photoshoot or fashion show are very high pressure environments, very time sensitive. People are under a lot of pressure to get things done quickly. People are mostly freelance or self-employed so you can’t be “going to HR” with a complaint, there is no HR.
Most of the models are very young and inexperienced. Again it’s an industry where everybody’s trying to make it, there’s a real power structure there. There’s the people at the top who are making the model and then a load of people at the bottom trying to get to the top. It’s actually a rife environment for abuse, sadly.
Fashion is an industry where everybody’s trying to make it, there’s a real power structure there. […] It’s actually a rife environment for abuse, sadly.
Because if enforcing those policies is not someone’s actual job title, no one is going to take responsibility for it anyway.
Yes. There’s little protection. I learned recently that Equity, the union that represents actors is also representing models. But they are really struggling to promote themselves.
On a different topic, I saw you’ve been looking at tech innovations a lot, I was curious what innovation you were excited about?
Customization technologies are very interesting. For instance there’s this company, Unmade. I think that’s really cool, it goes beyond problem solving: it does something for the customer and it can be done cheaply as well, which is one of the issue of sustainable fashion. It is more expensive for the time being. To be able to introduce something like 3D printing and say “we are able to custom print you a shoe in your size” is amazing.
Speaking of cost, I’m always wondering about the push for products to be made locally… does it make sense to try to repatratiate textile jobs to industrialized countries when they make such an important difference for developing countries?
That’s a difficult issue to address. Just because there are poor working conditions doesn’t mean we should pull the jobs, but just because they don’t have jobs doesn’t mean we can exploit them.
I think we just need more diversity in the fashion industry. Instead of having this huge concentration of garment manufacturing in India, China and Bangladesh, we need to spread it out a bit. Its the same for natural resources: cotton is great but if you overproduce it, it becomes unsustainable. So if we diversify and put less pressure on our resources and on the workforce it can change.
What fashion has always done is go to different hubs and specialists in different things. In England, we have a great shoemaking history. The Czech Republic is great for hat making. India does the best indigo-dying.
We do need to bring a bit of business back to countries that have a manufacturing industry that is now dying out. But I don’t want to take away jobs from places that need them. We need to work more with governments to improve labor rights around the world. This pressure to have the cheapest possible clothing is the reason why conditions improved in China and everyone took their business to Bangladesh. So, it’s great for the Chinese workers but half of them lost their jobs.
This pressure to have the cheapest possible clothing is the reason why conditions improved in China and everyone took their business to Bangladesh.
I like the idea to have local brands that are serving local markets in an ethical way instead of making clothes solely for exportation and actually develop local craftsmanship. What do you think?
A lot of traditional crafts are dying out. And here, there is something we can learn from the food industry: in countries like France where there are laws that protect certain products. For instance you can’t call a product champagne unless it’s from the Champagne region. That’s so smart economically. What you get then is the building of a brand around a craft which becomes the go-to company for that, and prevents a fast fashion brand from googling prints from somewhere in Africa, ripping them off, reproducing them and putting them on summer dresses for everybody to wear to Coachella.
What do you think is the tipping point where consumers can get over whatever is stopping them from buying into ethical fashion and start buying more responsibly.
It needs to become more widely available. That’s gonna mean that the big brands that people are already shopping are doing more to promote it. Think what you want about H&M, but I think there is something to having a conscious collection in a high street store that actually makes people question the fact that there is a conscious collection and makes them start to question what it is they were buying before.
You can’t just tell people how awful things are. You need to show them a good alternative, a good product, something that is stylish, good for the environment and for the people who made it. Something that will make them question the way they were buying before.
Change has to come from the top down.
Do you think we can expect regulations to become the norm in the fashion industry to enforce more transparency and responsibility?
Absolutely. It has been a challenge for the fashion industry. It’s a huge part of the economy and if governments are addressing climate change, they have to include fashion because it is one of the main polluters. And so we are beginning to see that change happening.
In the UK, the introduction of the Modern Slavery Act has put the onus on brands to be responsible for their supply chain and to do what they can to ensure that modern slavery isn’t happening in their supply chain. There is a big discussion about to happen in Westminster about the pollution caused by the fashion industry. Slowly but surely governments are waking up to the fact that if they’re addressing environmental issues they have to tackle fashion.
What is the extra push that fashion industry stakeholders need to overcome their barriers in terms of how they source and process their production systems.
Legislation. I don’t feel too optimistic, I think change has to come from the top down. I know tons of people in fashion companies that really care about sustainability but they are one tiny clog in a massive wheel. At the end of the day, until your investor cares, your manager cares, you always have trade offs. In a company, the sustainability team is always battling against the design and production teams because they have different agendas and its their management that have to make a decision to prioritize one of the other. This is where it gets difficult.
There’s also the issue that a sustainability team will be auditing factories to manufacture certain products but at the last minute the design team may decide to manufacture something else entirely, which requires manufacturing plants that haven’t been audited but the need to produce quickly will override the need to do it fairly. Again, the person above makes that decision based on what the stakeholders expect. So until some of these things become legal requirements, it’s going to be slow progress.
Ethical brands need to be stocked by mainstream shops, they can’t be withholding their products from the high street.
What do you think is something ethical fashion brands could be doing a little bit better?
They need to think of themselves as a traditional fashion brand: the ones that are successful are ones that act like a classic fashion brand in terms of creativity, in terms of having a great product. They can’t pigeonhole themselves. They need to be stocked by mainstream shops, they can’t be withholding their products from the high street. They need to understand how to communicate with an audience that is not necessarily sustainability inclined to make them choose you even though it might cost them more. It’s easier to do now, but because it is easier to do, there’s more competition.
What can we expect from the fashion debates in the near future?
We are having a conversation about what fashion can do in the war against plastic. And at the end of the year, we’re going to have a debate about copyright infringement, especially now that we’re borrowing ideas from everywhere, people taking pictures from anywhere and using them on their blogs, how to protect your intellectual material.