| creative women with a conscience | Jacinta Fitzgerald from Project JUST researcher on all things ethical and sustainable

 Image:  Project JUST  website

Image: Project JUST website


What I love is that people are approaching the problem from completely different angles, recognising that making the industry more sustainable requires a multi faceted approach.
— Jacinta FitzGerald Project JUST

Jacinta FitzGerald is the Head of Research at Project JUST, an online guide to responsible and ethical fashion; a tool to help consumers shop more mindfully and consciously.  Jacinta has a specific interest in sustainable fashion and is excited about the future of design innovation and circulatory in the fashion system. Head on over to the Project JUST website to learn more about their mission and the vigorous research that takes place to investigate brands’ supply chain ethics and sustainability. The team at Project JUST believe that, "Informed and empowered consumers have the power to transform the fashion industry to an ethical and sustainable one with each purchase". Our founder Natalie chatted with Jacinta when she visited Sydney from her hometown in New Zealand, and this is what she had to say....

 

People have a growing curiosity to find out about the ethics and sustainability of a brand, but sometimes find it challenging to balance the two as consumers. Do you think it’s possible for a brand to be both ethical and sustainable, and therefore shop these values from the one brand?

What we’ve found through our research is that brands are on a spectrum, that there's no brand that is 100% perfect. It really is a case of figuring out as a person what your values are and seeking out brands that match those values. There are many great brands out there working hard to do no harm across their supply chains, to have a reduced impact. For some brands focussing their resources on their environmental impact is their primary focus, for other brands, they have chosen to focus on the labour practices in their supply chain, while some brands are starting down the road of tracing their supply chain back to raw material levels. Many of the brands we research have recognised specific areas to make improvements and have set targets to achieve these, so its not productive to take anything away from a brand like this. Which is one of the reasons why we've steered away from giving brands rankings. It has the potential to be misleading to consumers if data is aggregated in such a way that nuance is not taken into account. 

What would you say your particular interest is, what part of the future of fashion are you excited about?

I'm very excited about circularity in the fashion system, along with new innovations in materials and in design. I grew up in a country that has placed a high value on its environment, so for me the environmental aspect of fashion has always been important.  Innovative developments in creating textiles, in dyeing and finishing treatments and in minimising or eliminating environmental impacts of the entire life cycle of a product is an area where I see a lot of developments and a lot of opportunities for ways to disrupt the current system. New textile innovations coming through that are created from fully recycled and recyclable materials, so they are not drawing on virgin resources at all, and can go back into the system at the end of its useful life. Or fibres that are created in a lab. A professor in the UK once created a dress from a polymer that completely dissolved as part of a fashion project. And emotive-sensitive textiles. These things are exciting because they are new ways of looking at an existing system. When you look at it from a consumer perspective, addressing peoples desire to change their image, their look, and the transformability of fashion – these are areas which I believe are key to addressing peoples desire to buy more and more clothing. There's a lot of potential in this area, and I love that people are starting to design with this is mind because a lot of the change has to come from the design stage.

You mentioned in our conversation that you had your own fashion label in New Zealand that was quite successful. Why did you move away from this side of fashion?

I was thinking, there has to be a better way, this can't be the only way. So I did a yearlong research project through Otago polytechnic in 2011 focussed on sustainability in the fashion Industry. Through this, I really got to understand that sustainability was the only way forward, it was the future, and so I wanted to learn as much as I could. I was inspired by designers that had substance behind their labels, and why they were doing it; why Stella McCartney was not using animal products , why brands were using organic cotton rather than conventional, why all these different people were taking a stance. This really reinforced that my love for fashion could be a force for change - even though that may sound like a cliche. It's something that connects everybody!

That's right, its one thing that we all do, we all wear clothes!

Even the person who doesn't care about fashion, and only wears a black t-shirt and black jeans is making a fashion statement...

So going back to your research work - knowing that people want to consume fashion, how do you at Project JUST guide people to make better and more informed purchasing decisions?

We research brands for their supply chain practices and present it in an impartial way through our brand wiki, so our users can make their own informed decision about different brands. We recognised that many of our users wanted a clear signal, so we have also developed a Seal of Approval, effectively this is a guide to the best brands we have found across different category areas, such as denim, swimwear, basics etc.

We've found that our seal of approval is a great way to encourage shoppers to make better decisions by telling them who to shop from. People always say to me, I understand all of this is a problem, but where should I shop? Just tell me where to go. This is why I can see how reports and apps are getting traction, because often people just want a simple directive, to know where to shop. Our answer is to do thorough and rigorous research and partner with industry experts, which we do for the seal of approval committee. The committee makes the decision about which brands they think should be awarded the seal so in this way we ensure it's a credible process. 

 Image:  Project JUST  website.

Image: Project JUST website.

Can you talk us through what the process involves when researching a brand? What kinds of things are on your checklist? 

We have 8 different category areas that we research brands against. We look at the size of a brand and what their business model is, how long their garments are designed to last. So for fast fashion this is shorter than for durable goods. Then we look at a brands transparency, and how much of their supply chain it can trace. We look at their social practices & workers rights, their environmental practices & impact and then we look at their intention - what are their plans for improvement, and how do they measure this. We also look at innovations and any community initiatives; this might be multi stake holder initiatives that they are part of or community programs; such as helping women workers in their factories open bank accounts, providing healthcare services or, if they're doing something in their own HQ area like funding the local school sports uniforms.

We look at each brand in its entirety, which allows our research to be nuanced to take size and scale of a brand into account.  

Not all brands have certifications; these can be very expensive to set up, so a brand needs to make a conscious decision to use their resources in this way. And not all brands can afford to do that, they might rather work hard to set up a good supply chain and invest their money in that. 

Right, rather than getting the 'label' of the certification, they'd rather make sure all procedures are sound internally. 

Exactly. So we really try to look at each brand with a holistic approach. 

Do you find that there are brands out there who may very well be doing the right thing in their supply chains, but actually don't want the label of being an 'ethical or sustainable' brand? 

There are some brands like that, but I think more and more they recognise that it's something that we need to talk about. There are lot of brands that have set themselves up to be sustainable from the very beginning and that is a core part of their values, and for those brands its very obvious. Then there are some brands like Mara Hoffman, which started off as a design oriented brand, which is now working to integrate sustainable practices into its operations. We have given them theRising Star status as part of our Seal of Approval process, because they're working really, really hard to make improvements and we wanted to recognise that. 

When looking at workers rights - so the more ethical side of fashion - one of the things I get asked quite a lot is, if we're to support local manufacturing, and shop small and local, then aren't we as consumers taking money away from those workers in overseas countries that need it? Shouldn't we support overseas production?

On the one hand I think it's important to support local manufacturing so that we don't lose all of these specialist skills, and have a strong local workforce. As a brand there are a lot of advantages to producing locally, and being able to visit your suppliers regularly. On the other hand you don't want to take work away from developing countries. I think the volume of work coming through does need to be addressed, along with issues like working hours and wages. It seems to me like the balance isn't right with the hours of work, the amount of money being paid and the amount of garments being made. 

The average working week is 48hrs per week, 6 days a week and factory workers can do 2 hrs overtime each day on top of that - which equates to a 60hr week. This is often what is done legally, but when there are delivery deadlines, what is actually being done illegally is another story...

When we look at Bangladesh, 80% of their GDP comes from the garment industry, so its understandable that the government doesn't want to increase minimum wages, because brands will then move on to other low labour cost countries with their orders. So it's a very complex issue.

How much do smaller independent brands actually know about the factories that they use and do they have the power to influence change?

It's a tricky issue for small labels.  They may have the best intentions of doing things the right way, and producing small, but when they take their production run to a factory you’re competing with other brands to get your work made. We’ve found its beneficial for brands to develop a close relationship with their factories, so they can work to ensure that their garments are made not only to their desired quality and deadline, but so they can understand the conditions and work to affect any changes that might be needed.

I've been to factories in China, and you can go and visit them and they look great, but you don't know what happens when you've left, and you don't know about the workers who might live on site - if and when they go home. You don't know if they leave at 5 o clock, or if they stay until midnight. Its an unknown. Brands want their garments made to meet their delivery dates, and if that is delayed their whole system is set back. So it's important that brands, especially big brands, have reasonable expectations around delivery dates and work with their suppliers to ensure undue pressure is not put on a factory, which could lead to poor practices.

To think that these garment factories - 80% who are women - don't have avenues to voice these concerns is just so upsetting. What are some things you can do as brand or consumer to educate yourself on labour rights issues?

One thing to look out for here is if a brand is an advocate of and has provisions for the workers in its factories to join or form a trade union and have the right to collective bargaining. I think that's what's so good about the rise of transparency, and with brands starting to disclose their suppliers. Brands are realising that customers and NGO’s like us at Project JUST are demanding more information - it's like Everlane and their radical transparency claims. Brands don't know that consumers care unless we make a noise about it. This is why Fashion Revolution is such a great platform, because its generating noise in this space. It’s creating awareness. That’s the first step.

So how can we do better on a day-to-day basis? 

I have always been about the why; from a young age I've always been curious to find out more, to know more, to ask questions. So I think through having an open mind and questioning the status quo, the way we have always done things, and looking for a better way is how change will happen. I don't know how to change people so that they are more open to change, but that's one of the biggest barriers to change, that people aren't open-minded to different ideas...