| creative women with a conscience | Melinda Tually, 'Fashion Revolution Australia Co-ordinator' & director of 'Ndless: the new normal'.
We spoke to Melinda Tually, the Australian Co-ordinator of Fashion Revolution and Director of Ndless:The New Normal a strategic consultancy advising brands on responsible supply chains, risk assessment and partnerships.
If you haven't already heard about the work that Fashion Revolution is doing, head on over to their website. Fashion Revolution is a global movement that started as a direct reaction to the structural failure of the garment factory 'Rana Plaza' and its collapse in 2013. ‘Who made my clothes?’ has become one of the most popular global questions in the ethical and sustainable fashion space. It's brought so much truth and education to the surface at a time when fast fashion seems to just keep speeding ahead. The main goal of this not for profit movement is to demand greater transparency, ethics and sustainability in the fashion industry. We spoke to Mel Tually, the Australian Co-ordinator of Fashion Revolution about her involvement in this and picked her brain about the rise in consumer demand for a more sustainable fashion industry, where we are at now in this ethical and sustainable space and how we can create change.
I feel as though this years Fashion Revolution Week was the loudest and noisiest it has ever been, why do you think that was the case?
I think it takes a while for any movement or behaviour change to hit its zeitgeist. Certainly the kick off was the Rana Plaza Collapse; that’s the reason why Fashion Revolution was created, but over the past four years it’s become about a lot more than that event to how the industry as a whole operates, both socially and environmentally and we are now at a point that years of raising awareness of these issues is resulting in more mainstream understanding and desire for action. We grew from a day to a week in the third campaign as there was so much demand to hold events and for the conversation to continue past the anniversary of the collapse itself. We now have volunteer teams in over 100 countries and had double the number of events this year so it’s compounding growth. As we grow, the noise gets louder.
Do you think the demand for a longer Fashion Revolution is something that is consumer driven or more from your end as an organisation pushing the agenda?
Fashion Revolution has given people a voice, and it’s demonstrated to the industry that there are indeed a lot of us who actually do want to know where and how our clothes are made. I think its growth is a confluence of increased information being shared from organisations like Fashion Revolution and a general rise in consciousness more broadly. We know the demand is there from consumers. We track data every year. Fashion Revolution has provided the vehicle for it to be expressed. We want to show and prove growing desire because if you don't put data in front of people, there is still a tendency to think demand is anecdotal. Responsible fashion is still not accessible to the mainstream, it’s not on the high street enough, so we are keen to not only support independent labels producing this way but to encourage more of the larger brands to stretch themselves toward more sustainable and ethical fashion. We’re seeing them doing this all the time now so there is much hope! We are very much a consumer led movement though, very open source. Every resource is made available online to make this accessible to anyone in any country, we're letting consumers drive the action and giving them the information and tools to do so.
The Fashion Revolution Movement started as a direct reaction to the collapse of Rana Plaza where labour rights were a key focus for this global movement. However the focus seems to have shifted to not only focus on this 'ethical' side of fashion, but also with a closer look at the 'sustainable' side which includes looking at fashion materials and recycling, and the effect this has on our environment. What would your advice be for someone starting out on this journey who are trying to purchase with both the 'ethical and sustainable' objective?
Don't strive for perfection. No brand or person can be perfect and don't try to tackle everything at once. I do believe that brands though of a certain size have a responsibility to tackle both areas because if you're harming the environment, you're ultimately harming the people that live there so they need to address both issues as they are often inextricably linked. That's why we have to talk about them in parallel. The main advice I give consumers is to pick your passion point and start from that. A lot of people are motivated by animal rights issues, they’ll prefer to choose vegan clothing, they won’t wear leather shoes for example, so they'll seek out brands that promote this and can use that as their entry point into ethical fashion. Human rights and the environment were key to my work before Fashion Revolution and determine the choices I make in my personal life. That's my passion point and how I got into this world. So if workers rights are what interests you, then you might only seek out Fair Trade products for instance, or if your compass is towards the environment, you might choose kinder fibres or second hand, vintage, recycled wares or even practice mending; and that will be your thing. I really don't think you can try to do it all. Even if all brands were like the 'Patagonias’ and ‘Reformations' of the world, they still have to make compromises along the way, ultimately they're still producing product and are the first to say they aren’t perfect nor do they claim to be so I don’t think we can expect that of ourselves either.
Speaking of specific focuses, my passion point is vintage and second hand and I find it interesting that some people have an issue with this because of what it does to the overseas economy and markets of third world countries. Can you tell us a bit about this notion…
That issue is a product of the pace of low cost fashion though. Lets remember that second hand and vintage shops have been going a lot longer than fast fashion and that only started about twenty years ago. Fast fashion is a blip on the radar in the history of fashion. Unfortunately for the younger generations, they've only grown up knowing this, certainly those that are in their teens now. Basically for a 21year old fast fashion is ‘fashion’. The impact on these countries in Africa and the Middle East that you are talking about with the dumping of cheap goods; even though its donated in the West, its actually sold to these markets; is the suppression or elimination of local textile and manufacturing markets. It’s a disastrous consequence of fast fashion for sure but on the flip side it’s seen thousands of people gain employment through the second hand market stalls in these countries so nothing is black and white. Every issue that comes up is complex and can’t be seen through a prism or good or bad, right or wrong. There are so many layers to each issue. I don't think this should be a reason to discourage people from shopping second hand and vintage at all as it does not in any way reflect the full spectrum of what this segment of the industry offers. A lot of what we term as fast fashion is not able to be sold by charities in their local markets which is the reason it is shipped offshore but it is not in the least, as any op shopper would know, the sum total of what’s on offer! There is an incredibly healthy and vibrant market for second hand and vintage clothing that has longevity and it will always be a key part of the fashion sector. It’s growing now through online consignment stores too as people redefine what they deem as value. I have a few key scores in my wardrobe, a belt in particular, that’s decades old and still going strong so I am strong advocate for pre-loved clothing.
Do you think its consumer demand that is driving fast fashion, or is it brands pushing the agenda of having the next trend based item and perpetuating the idea to constantly have new pieces to purchase?
We're being sold a bit of a furfy there, that we as consumers are demanding new pieces in store weekly. I don't remember demanding that kind of pace…maybe I live in a vacuum but I’m pretty sure my friends didn’t either.
I agree, we are being sold a lifestyle. We are being told that if we buy this [thing] we will be happier, that your life will be of more value and substance. This is the same with all material possessions - not just fashion. If we don't have the latest [anything] we are inferior to those who do. I know it’s a cliché, but at the end of the day we need to slow down; we need to slow everything down. I think its also a matter of teaching the younger generations how to style things instead of buying things straight off the rack, and showing them that they can create 'new looks' with mixing and matching what they currently have in their wardrobe. Utilising their resources, rather than seeking out more pieces. It's not just teenagers that are victims of fast, fashion. It's also adult women who are shopping weekly too...
Sure, there is a wide demographic consuming fashion at a fast pace. There’s trends for any age group. That’s the current cycle. I don’t think you can separate this from social media either. It’s a machine that fuels the desire. I’m glad I grew up without it as I do think the pressure to keep adding ‘stuff’ to our life wouldn’t be half as much without it. We just had mags and that was the only source from which to get new ideas and they came out once a month, as they still do, imagine if we were back to that as our only source of inspiration. Obviously socials have tonnes of positive benefits too and create amazing communities both online and off but I think it is hard to push the message of ‘slow’ when our digital diet is very, very ‘fast’.
The problem lies in how we see fashion as disposable. If you're going to buy low cost fashion, treat it well, respect it, make sure you dispose of it thoughtfully. Alienating people and chastising people isn't going to help the message. It's trying to get them to understand the effect it’s having, how people and the environment are affected by it. The message that we are the ones driving the pace, that we are the ones demanding it needs some reflection though.
What would you say to families who can't afford to buy ethical and sustainable clothing because it’s beyond their means?
Instead of buying many pieces, save and buy one good quality piece and look after it. Mend what you already own. We actually spend less now on clothing as a portion of our weekly budget then we ever have before. Back in the day clothes were more expensive. We placed a higher value on them and looked after them more. Pricing is a huge determinant on our behaviour. You can now buy five school shirts for $10. Where is the incentive to mend something like that? When I was at school, our shirts were much more expensive and we only had two or three for the whole year. They weren’t treated as disposable. We had to look after them and they would get mended if torn.
I’m not sure if they still exist now, but we would also take them to the uniform shop at school when we grew out of them and buy other second hand uniforms. At that age we only wear them for a few terms or for a year or so before we grow out of them so there’s tonnes of life left in them. I think the uniform shop is a genius idea, I hope they’re still around. You are literally re-circulating items within the same community year after year. We need to teach kids to look after their belongings no matter how cheaply we buy them. We didn’t start off like this so we know other ways, it’s just a matter of behaviour change.
How do we get the message across?
Questioning the system. There’s generally always a way we can do better so the more we raise awareness of the issues and promote the solutions and methods of change the more the conversation can take place and greater numbers of people can join in. That and reminding everyone there are people behind our clothes, real people with the same needs and hopes as ours. They deserve the same dignity and respect that we demand and the environment does too.
Do you think a strong moral compass and a passion for social justice, and equality is necessary for change? Do you think adopting this way of life is derived from a value-based system?
I think values can develop through awareness. I was a devoted little shopper when I was a 15 and 16 years old but I also had a strong social justice compass from a very young age. It wasn’t really until my best friend introduced me to being more environmentally conscious when I lived with her in my early twenties though that I started to become much more aware of the issues and motivated to act on them. She was a dedicated greenie so I learnt a lot through her from just being mates so I do think that you can be influenced or triggered to act and create change. The more those values take hold the more you want the way you live your life to reflect them so you’ll seek out those in alignment, brands in the context of fashion for example, and question those that aren’t.
So how did you enter this 'ethical and sustainable' avenue of fashion?
When I started my store eight years ago, it was very much about selling stories, not just selling product. All the products I stocked went through a vigorous screening process and so many of them represented amazing tenacity on behalf of the makers, it was a joy to be able to share the stories behind them. I sold a lot of Fair Trade and sustainable products, not really fashion though except for a few items. There were very few brands around then that were suitable and I wasn’t set up to do so. Fashion is different to any other type of product to retail. It’s so different now, there’s been an explosion of brands in this space. It makes me feel a bit vintage myself.
Whilst I had the shop I became very interested in the changes taking place in the fashion sector, which were numerous, and was doing a lot of research. It was whilst on a trip to London in 2013 that I became involved in Fashion Revolution when it was still an idea that was being developed. At the same time as I kicked off our first campaign, the year after, I began consulting to brands. I felt my knowledge could be better utilized assisting those in the industry and I wanted to effect change on a larger scale.
Where are the bigger stores at in terms of this ethical space?
They are all working at this to different degrees but they are definitely addressing it. Broadly speaking, we have a long way to go compared to those in the Northern Hemisphere but that can be said for a lot of industries. There is some great work being done by local retailers in collaboration with leading international initiatives so some of our bigger brands are at the forefront of the international scene. You might not know it as we are more reticent to talk about it publicly here but it is definitely happening and we are engaged with many of them.
At the end of the day, in addition to consumers driving the demand, it’s largely down to leadership. An emboldened CEO can achieve a lot.
So you think change needs to come from CEO's at the top?
With board and shareholder support, yes. It’s critical for management to have a consistent view on the issues and for that support to drive decision making at all levels of the business. Change makers within an organisation can only do so much.
Do you think on a consumer level - if there is a demand from us - the message will reach them and they will respond with change and action?
The messages do reach them and their teams and you’d be hard pressed to find a CEO that isn’t cognizant of the changes taking place in the industry and the shift in focus towards considered consumption. Many have been acting on this for quite some time.
Some companies still might be more reactionary than strategic in making it a core value of their business but that is definitely changing. There are always laggards who will be forced to change but that is in any industry you can think of, fashion is not unique in that sense.
Would you say the resistance to change is purely a financial one?
It can be sure. Culturally though too, as in a company culture.. Turning your business around, reinventing supply chains, assessing environmental footprints, even tracing existing supply chains takes financial commitment. You need to employ teams of specialists to lead these programmes so a brand does need to make an investment to do so. The claim that it doesn’t cost anything to change is not true. Of course, the argument not to change can be a much more expensive one.
So through Ndless you offer your services in consultancy for brands, do you feel there is a demand for this now given where we’re at in this fashion space?
Yes, definitely. We're definitely going through a change. People are being hired as ethical sourcing managers, which didn't happen three years ago. Rana Plaza definitely shifted the sand. Some companies reacted immediately, and others are only addressing their supply chains now but it was never going to be a fast process. No one can expect an incredibly complex and huge industry with entrenched systems to change overnight. They're getting visibility on their supply chains now that they never ever had before. It's not uncommon for businesses to not know where their factories are so it really is moving in the right direction.
Given we now know that there is a demand for change, and larger scale brands are feeling the pressure from consumers to put this into action - can you tell me a little bit about the more positive effects some innovative labels are participating in and embracing for example 'closed loop systems'. I don't think the average consumer would know too much about this, so I'd love for you to share your knowledge on this...
It's essential rather than just useful to be including circularity in the industry now. Essentially it is the opposite of the linear model which dominates the industry, that of take-waste-make. Ensuring that products are designed to eliminate waste or where there is waste that it can be re-used again ie, as an input or nutrient is critical as we reach peak resources and need to lessen our reliance on raw materials.
There are a lot of brands looking to the circular economy and closed loop solutions as a way to address and mitigate their impact. It’s also critical to look at what is actually in the materials, natural versus synthetic fibres, chemicals, dyes etc.
Obviously re-using plastic is the most prolific example from recycled nylon fishing nets to recycled plastic bottles, most brands are incorporating these materials into their ranges now. adidas, Patagonia, Levis, Nike, Tigerlily, Outerknown. Synthetics cause their own problems like microfibre shedding in the oceans from our washing machines for example, so there’s a lot of research being done in that space but as I’ve said earlier, we won’t have a perfect system. We just have to be diligent in improving it when we discover its shortcomings and develop the tech and facilities to fully realise closed loop solutions that are accessible.
So like coffee cups?
Yes, even if coffee cups say they're biodegradable, we don't have accessible systems to break them down at present. Even if they have the bio liner in them. They don’t biodegrade in landfill as there are not the conditions for them to do so. It’s coming though so that won’t be far away. As will similar innovations in the fashion industry. There has been a lot of work done at proof of concept stage, it’s just scaling them now so they can have real impact. Exciting times. Regenerative systems will be the norm in the design world soon enough.
I think it's really important you've mentioned this last point about being regenerative and giving back because I think often as consumers we think that the way to effect positive change is through avoidance; we tend to not look at how we can actually take initiative and participate by doing good and adding value.
Well avoidance, buying only what you need, certainly plays a big part but there are a lot of ways as you say we can take action and add value. Helping people see the value in vintage as you do for example, or supporting and encouraging brands making the effort to be responsible, using a public position to raise awareness amongst followers, sharing mending stories to encourage others to see how a quick fix can extend the life of their clothes. There’s always a way to share the love and contribute J
What happens after Fashion Revolution week is over? What work is involved all year round, what happens behind the scenes and what can we look forward to for next year?
I work on the revolution every week of the year now as there is always something going on. Presentations, speaking engagements, hosting events, liaising with industry, brands and retailers. Our next zine is about to come out too, with the theme ‘Loved Clothes Last’, so listen out for that shortly and then there are always a lot of emails to reply to…. a lot.
Next year is the fifth anniversary of the Rana Plaza collapse so there’ll be lots on… watch this space!