| creative women with a conscience | Kirsten Lee - ethical fashion academic, educator and social justice advocate

What motivated or inspired you to become an ethical fashion educator?

From my first industry job, I was lucky to work for some incredible early pioneers in ethical textile and fashion, so whenever I had a stint working for a company where those values and systems were not yet in place, I was hyper aware of, and impacted by the disparity. I actually found it incredibly upsetting to work in a situation where I knew my actions, as a designer, had such huge implications but little consideration for the environment and for other people and living beings.

Working as a designer, I realised first-hand what a massive challenge we face in the industry, and how important education is to change attitudes and awareness early on. To provide awareness and skills to new generations who will be our fashion industry in another 4 or more years!

I've been an activist and crazy about issues such as feminism, social justice and animal rights since I was very young. This was largely inspired by my own experiences growing up, and then discovering others faced much worse, via early education. 

Most people I know, when asked about why they shop ethically or went vegan (two of the top polluting industries are animal agriculture and fashion), regard education the key factor.

 Personally, I became politicised initially through my 6th grade teacher, who had us writing letters for Amnesty, taught us about menstruation and feminist issues, and who taught us the detailed Indigenous history of Australia. She inspired me and always comes to my mind as someone I want to emulate

 Films have also had a big impact, and I became vegetarian after watching Baraka when I was 15. Seeing Peaceable Farm at yoga teacher training eventually turned me vegan, after many attempts and years of education and encouragement from my yoga teachers at Jivamukti. I’m passionate about education, because everyone I know who is interested in their personal impact says it was education that inspired the change in their lifestyle. 

I teach first year fashion students, who always care and really want to know how to make a difference. The early stages of education are the most important, as they set up habits and design processes that become the foundation of the rest of a designers’ career. The opportunity to set up new, ethical awareness, design behaviours and thinking needs to be taken advantage of. These highly creative minds could be utilised not just for designing the look of the fashion future, but how it will sustain and enhance the planet and people’s health and lives around the world. 

From your perspective, how would you define or explain ethical fashion?

Ethical fashion is the concept of creating the least harm possible (to living beings and the planet) when designing and making clothes, but it goes further than that, it also extends to fashion that contributes to, and sustains the environment, animals, peoples’ lives, and societies. This concept was introduced to me in the book Eco Feminism by Vandana Shiva and Maria Mies, which changed my life.

How would you compare and contrast ethical fashion to sustainable fashion? Do you think they are both important and in what way/s?

Sustainable fashion, which started trending in the 1990s, seems to focus primarily on environmental sustainability, with a side interest in some social issues (such as minimal interest in sweatshop labor), with little consideration of animals, ecosystems, societies at large, or the bigger picture of  everything on the planet being interconnected. Ethical fashion looks at all aspects of possible harm and impact (including the environment, animals, people, societies, ecosystems, etc). It seeks not only to minimise harm, or even simply to amend it (ie carbon neutral schemes), but to reverse it and contribute back, to nurture and sustain.

Tell us about your role as an ethical fashion educator. What kinds of things do students learn as part of the curriculum? And why do you think to date, this hasn't been included as part of the traditional fashion model for learning. Do you think this is changing? 

My role as an ethical fashion educator is to, firstly, raise awareness of the impact of the fashion and textiles industries, secondly, to teach the myriad solutions so far available, and thirdly, to encourage creative thinking and inspire invention of new ethical ways of making textiles and garments. 

The most important part of this role, in my opinion, is to engage students through fun, exciting and passionate teaching methods (and energy). It is also to facilitate the most helpful and relevant information, to cover all areas of ethical fashion, as a comprehensive and cohesive topic. Learning to design ethically should be exciting! Some of the most effective learning is known to be through novelty, humour and fun, as laughter stimulates blood flow through the brain!

Some of the topics I teach include an overview of the impact of the fashion and textiles industry, examples of ethical labels with exciting inventions in methods and textiles, including many I’ve worked for, textile and design techniques with all impact and ethical options explained, including weaving, felting, natural dye, lacemaking, embroidery, sewing, upcycling, digital print design, 3D Printing, new textile and design technologies, digital design, and creative thinking around inventing new ethical design methods and materials.

In terms of why ethical fashion is still not included in many mainstream fashion and textiles courses, I guess that although fashion prides itself on being such a fast moving industry dictating and with a finger on the pulse of new generations, the education side is much slower to move, and rightly focuses primarily on making students employable. For example, Green Architecture is trending and has sustainability embedded throughout its courses, which is now a requirement. And that industry has far less impact than fashion! But fashion is a completely different model, and fast / cheap is how the industry has been increasing its money in the past few decades. Fashion students need to be employable at the end of their studies, in what is already one of the most competitive industries. So I think once ethical fashion becomes a bigger part of the industry we will see educational institutions forced to offer it in the curriculum, to keep up with job requirements. It is starting to happen and ethical fashion is being taught in more and more places, either underpinning the entire curriculum, or as a separate subject. 

I am excited to discover the most effective way to empower students to design ethically, which is what Im currently doing my masters and PhD (collated) research on. I can't talk too much about the research, as I'm currently conducting it and it's anonymous. But I want it to inform an educational resource that is dynamic, engaging and is the perfect ethical fashion 101 to give to students.

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What do you think is one of the leading issues when it comes to the fashion industry, or an area you feel most passionate about?

That we are actually harming ourselves. We think that the harm being done is to “others” somewhere else, but when we are complicit in any kind of unnecessary harm, we are harming ourselves and our own humanity. And although I feel devastated when I hear that yet another group of species are now extinct, Mother Nature will recover. She always does. After every fire and natural disaster, every bombing…. But we might not. Collectively, we are only destroying ourselves.

How can we as individuals and consumers help to change the fashion business industry? 

It's hard because we are brainwashed by advertising and even the culture we are submersed in daily, that we need to consume to be valued. It’s a conscious daily decision to live mindfully and practice only taking what we need, including garments and textiles. To support this I don’t expose myself to mainstream media or anything that makes me feel like I'm not good enough. And I try to focus on other ways of feeling good about myself (other than shopping). 

When I buy clothes I try to buy locally made, good quality garments from labels I know are actively engaged in ethical processes. I also love to buy quality preloved garments and hold clothing swaps with my friends! That’s basically a description of my entire wardrobe! I only have a certain number of each type of garment (ie 7 yoga pants), and its only when one falls apart that I can get another one – mostly because I'm not allowed to get a larger wardrobe, as my place is a teeny single girl inner west apartment!

When hunting down new ethical brands I always refer to my GoodOnYou app to see how they rate, and also check their website for precise and detailed descriptions of ethical materials or working conditions - or accreditations. When any description of ethical conduct is vague (such as “we care about our workers/ the environment” giving no indication of exactly how they care), it smacks of greenwashing! That’s when I shoot a quick email to the company and actively ask where their factories are, what the working conditions are like, and is the pay a living wage, what sustainability considerations were taken in designing the garment, etc?

Anyone can get involved with Fashion Revolution! The revolution is completely egalitarian.

Anyone can organise an event – Just add it to the page on our website, or just email us when it's up on Facebook and eventbrite and we can connect it to the Fashion Revolution FB page!

Another thing you can do is attend the events! Most are free and they are a great way to learn more about how to be ethical in this area and meet like minded people.

Also, the focus of our whole campaign is social media!

So one of the biggest things you can do is create a post on your social media of choice (or all of them) with: 

  • A pic and love story about your favourite garment with the hashtag #lovedclotheslast to encourage others to share theirs and encourage a culture of value for, and taking care of, our existing wardrobe.

  • A pic of a garment inside out, with the label showing, tagging the brand, and asking the brand for more transparency and rights for workers via the hashtag #whomademyclothes? Some brands respond and it’s a great way to start a conversation that lets brands know consumers care about garment workers and their working conditions.

And if you still want to take more action after Fashion Revolution Week, please contact us to join the working committee, or get involved to be an ambassador or create a committee at your work or school to run events and activities there throughout the year! Contact us. 

As well as an ethical fashion educator, you're also part of the working committee here in Australia for Fashion Revolution Week. How long have you been part of this and how have you seen it grow over the years? As a consumer lead movement, what do you think this says about the future of fashion? 

I was working as studio manager for the first carbon neutral company in the southern hemisphere, Bird Textiles, and was running the Surry Hill studio on my own (the main studio was in Byron). Sometimes I would pop next door to visit Melinda Tually, who had an ethical homeware business I Ran The Wrong Way. We had some hilarious conversations and situations together, and I was sad when I got a job as a designer for a big underwear label and had to leave. Years later, Mel contacted me and told me this new campaign for ethical fashion was starting, in response to the horrendous Rana Plaza disaster. She asked if I would be on the team and I instantly said YES! I couldn’t think of a captain better to steer this ship than her. And we have an incredible team of powerful women on board. It's an absolute honour to be a part of! 

This year we celebrate 5 years of the campaign, and we have gone from 55 countries with a Fashion Revolution committee (in the first year!) to 92! The social media action in the first year was already 40K posts worldwide, which was up to nearly 120K last year! I can't wait to see what happens this year! It's certainly gotten bigger each year, but what really amazed me is how big it was from the start. It took off like wildfire. Our main call to action is social media posting and the first year I remember the feeds on Facebook and Instagram going OFF. I couldn’t even keep up and read them all. There's a great page on our website if you want to see more about how we have grown… https://www.fashionrevolution.org/2017-impact/ 

But in terms of my experience, its been so amazing getting to work with such inspirational humans on the AUS NZ team, and to work with such a power creative woman like Mel, who is also so much fun with such a caring heart! I have had so much fun getting my uni students involved, and also organising events. I try to make them really fun and informative! I think a few years in a row I taught yoga classes for the actual day. But this year I'm planning some events at my yoga studio (which inspires me in all the activist work I do), and at UNSW where I teach Sustainable Contemporary Textiles for Masters. Actually, that’s another big change… In the first year it was called Fashion Revolution Day (to commemorate the day of the Rana Plaza disaster), now there are so many events it's Fashion Revolution Week - and some events are spilling out of the week this year! It may well become Fashion Revolution Month! 

Source: Fashion Revolution AUS/NZ

When it comes to your personal style - how would you describe it and how do you shop? 

I adore bright clothes with bold prints! I also love black, and a colour pop against a black backdrop.

I shop mostly at the markets, the inner west of Sydney has sooo many good ones! Also, local ethical brands, online ethical brands ( I get a hit from discovering hot new ethical brands) and get lots of my casual gear from clothing swaps with friends! All of my yoga pants atm are from swaps! I'm friends with a lot of yogis and yoga teachers haha!

You're also quite the advocate for female collaboration. I'm a strong believer that fashion is a feminist issue - how can we as women be a force for change and empower one another in the field of fashion?

Fashion IS a feminist issue. Consumerism is a direct result of the colonising patriarchy. Again, Eco Feminism enlightened me on the greater implications of this. Worth a read! But we know that the vast majority of garment workers are female (over 80%), many underaged. Women are being severely taken advantage of as cheap labor. Their lives are completely expendable in this system. When many protest or organise, they are abused, bullied, fired, blacklisted, shot at, and some killed. As the great Audrey Lorde said “I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own.” Which again reflects this interconnectedness. While we are complicit in the unnecessary harm of others we are harming ourselves. So in actively supporting the liberation of others, ceasing to harm them, and caring about their quality of life, we are caring about ourselves.

Kirsten is a leading fashion advocate working at the below institutions teaching:

sustainable textiles for masters at - UNSW

fashion educator at - UTS

phD acamdemic at - RMIT University

fashion, textiles + design programming at - Sydney Community College

You can follow Kirsten's fashion advocacy work on insta here: @mskirstenlee