co-founder, fashion revolution
Talking transparency in the supply chain, what each one of us can do to be more conscious consumers and what’s really behind the making of the clothes on our back.
On April 24 2013, a multi-story story commercial building, located in the Dhaka district of Bangladesh, collapsed due to structural failure. 1,134 people lost their lives and a further 2,500 were left with life-long debilitating injuries. The building, called Rana Plaza housed a garment factory used as part of the supply chain for several well-known international brands. The incident remains the deadliest accidental structural failure in modern human history.
Fashion is unavoidable. Even if you think you’re removed from the world of high fashion or even high street fashion, every single human in the western world consumes it in one way or another. The Rana Plaza disaster forced the world’s attention to turn to the people behind the veil, the people who make our clothes and the conditions they are forced to work in.
Carry Somers, co-founder of Fashion Revolution, can only be described as a heroine to those working in the factories used by most of the brands we know and love. But instead of a cape, this heroine, in up-cycled finery, is modest, incredibly passionate and one of the most motivated women we have come across.
By 2020, Bangladesh is expected to see $50 billion in revenue from the readymade garment sector, which is sustained by a reported 7,000 factories across Bangladesh alone, with 90% of garment workers being women. Despite the sheer volume of money flowing through the industry, these men and women often work for less money per week than we spend on lunch, in conditions where safety is a constant concern.
Fashion Revolution was founded in 2013 in reaction to Rana Plaza, with the aim of creating a world where our clothing is made in a safe, clean and fair way, but their mission is not a simple one. Carry has campaigned in the House of Commons, created a movement, which has now been adopted across 100 countries worldwide, and developed the Fashion transparency index, which requires brands to be more transparent about their supply chain. However, there is still so much more to be done.
In advance of Fashion Revolution Week this April (23rd-29th), The FEMININE spoke to Carry Somers about transparency in the supply chain, what each one of us can do to be more conscious consumers and what’s really behind the making of the clothes on our back.
Can you talk us through the process of starting Fashion Revolution? How did you approach such a mammoth task?
In the aftermath of the Rana Plaza collapse, everywhere I looked, there were newspaper articles calling for a more ethical fashion industry. The lack of transparency in fashion supply chains meant it took many brands several weeks to work out what their relationship was with that factory complex.
I knew we needed to find a way to channel public concern into a longstanding campaign so that the victims of Rana Plaza, and all the other tragedies that have occurred in the name of fashion, will never be forgotten. That’s when Fashion Revolution was born. However, I wasn’t one of the many people meeting in London who were trying to formulate a response to the disaster. The idea for Fashion Revolution literally came to me in the bathtub, and it seemed good enough to get out of my lazy Sunday soak and do something about it.
Initially, I contacted Orsola de Castro, known as the Queen of Upcycling. She was as well known as a pioneer on the environmental side of fashion as I was on the social side, so seemed like a good person to run the idea past.
We set out to be a positive and collaborative platform, working with citizens, policy makers, unions, NGOs, brands and retailers to showcase best practice initiatives. We advocate greater transparency and social and environmental responsibility in the fashion supply chain. So we approached everyone we could think of in the UK with an interest in helping to build a better fashion industry.
By the first anniversary of the Rana Plaza collapse we had grown to 62 countries, and now have over 100 countries on board. Our country teams around the world are an integral part of the movement with their own networks all working towards the mammoth task of creating a fairer, cleaner and more transparent fashion industry.
What were your biggest challenges in the process?
The greatest challenge continues to be transparency. No brand scored over 50% in our Fashion Transparency Index and the average score was 49 out of 250, roughly 20% of all possible points. I hope we see an improvement in the 2018 index, which is out in April.
Workers and the environment are still suffering as a result of the way fashion is made, sourced and consumed. A report published as part of our Garment Worker Diaries project found that only 44% of workers felt safe all the time at work and 40% had seen a fire at their factory. Our 2017 Fashion Transparency Index found brands were sharing very little information about the results of their supplier assessments and don’t publish much about the results of the efforts made to fix problems in factories. We would like to see wider disclosure of assessment findings and remediation efforts.
Transparency will lead to greater accountability, which in turn will ultimately transform the way in which the fashion industry works.
I think we can all agree that whilst fair trade and sustainability practices have come a long way, there is so much more to be done. What are your goals for Fashion Revolution over the next few years?
I believe there are two main ways we can speed up the pace of change over the next few years: through consumer pressure and through legislation.
We need to see greater levels of disclosure. There is still so much crucial information about the practices of the fashion industry that remain concealed, particularly when it comes to a brands tangible impact on the lives of workers and on the environment. The Fashion Transparency Index found that only 55% of brands were publishing long-term social and environmental goals and only half of brands were reporting on progress towards achieving these goals.
Greater transparency will help consumers make more informed decisions as they become aware of the human and environmental impact of their purchases. As transparency becomes normalised within the fashion industry, we can then address the social and environmental issues it reveals.
What can we do as individuals to reduce the stress on the fashion industry and be more conscious consumers?
We love how clothes can make us feel, and how they can represent how we feel about ourselves. They’re our message to the world about who we are, but instead of constantly buying more and more, we want people to fall back in love with the things they already own. The more we love our clothes and the more we care for them, the longer they will last.
'Fashion is a female dominated industry throughout the supply chain: 80% of garment workers are women. However, 71% of modern day slaves are also women.'
How are women represented behind the scenes in the fashion industry?
Fashion is a female dominated industry throughout the supply chain: 80% of garment workers are women. However, 71% of modern day slaves are also women. As a result of the Modern Slavery Act, brands need to ensure they do their due diligence throughout the supply chain right back to the cotton farmers and other producers of raw materials. At the moment not one brand in our Fashion Transparency Index top 100 brands is publishing where their raw materials come from. Fashion brands need to do more to empower the women who make our clothes. I believe fashion can enrich the lives of both the wearers and the producers.
You founded a Fairtrade hat brand, Pachacuti, some 20 years before creating Fashion Revolution, pioneering fully transparent and ethical production. What can today’s fashion brands learn from your experience?
Pachacuti was the first company in the world to be Fairtrade Certified by the WFTO and had been a pilot for the EU Geo Fairtrade project, which aimed to provide visible accountability of sustainable provenance, both for raw materials as well as production processes.
One of the things considered revolutionary was that we traced the production of our Panama hats using GPS technology to the exact co-ordinates of 154 of our weavers’ houses. This isn’t an easy job when only 45% of their homes are accessible by road. Pachacuti weavers were delighted that this research data helped correct a historical misnomer and Panama hats could be tracked back to their true country of origin — Ecuador!
If Pachacuti can prioritise the time, money and effort to be fully transparent back to the raw materials, I don’t understand why not one of top 100 brands in the world in the 2017 Fashion Transparency Index has published a list of their raw material suppliers.
You had a fairly tumultuous start to Pachacuti including robbery and death threats, can you tell me what your biggest learning curves were throughout that period?
I think the main thing I learnt was that I am a pretty resilient person and not easily deterred when I’m on a mission! I was determined to fight the injustice I saw in the textile industry in Ecuador and nothing was going to deter me from my aim of improving the lives of producers who were economically, socially and geographically marginalised.
Your work with both Fashion Revolution and previously Pachacuti takes you all over the world, how does that continuous travel impact your personal life?
It was very hard at the beginning of Pachacuti. My daughter Sienna was born four years into the business and I was back at work straight away – she came to a festival with me at just one week old. At six weeks she was with a child-minder full time and often spent weeks staying with friends when I was travelling. Although I very much regret not being able to spend more time with her as she grew up, I don’t think this has been a disadvantage to her at all. Independence and flexibility are some of the most valuable gifts we can give to our children.
One of the things I was most looking forward to when I gave up Pachacuti to focus on Fashion Revolution was travelling less – how wrong I was! In the past year I have been everywhere from Bilbao to Bangladesh, with several trips back to Latin America.
2018 is 100 years since the first women won the right to vote in the UK. How do you see gender equality 100 years on?
We will be focusing on gender as one of our spotlight issues in the Fashion Transparency Index this year so it will be interesting to see what the leading 150 fashion brands are disclosing about their equality efforts for their employees and for the women in their supply chain.
The new UK law requiring companies to publish their gender pay gap is certainly a step in the right direction but more needs to be done, and faster, to bring about equality in fashion and other industries.
Greatest piece of advice you've ever received?
My inspiration for setting up Pachacuti was reading Anita Roddick’s autobiography. I decided that if one woman could make such a difference in the beauty industry with no experience, there was nothing to stop me from doing the same in the fashion industry! She has so many good pieces of advice, but my favourite is 'If you think you're too small to have an impact, try going to bed with a mosquito in the room.'
In the Fashion Revolution fanzine, Money Fashion Power, the team has included a postcard that readers can send to a public official to ask what they are doing to ensure the government holds companies responsible for the impact they have on the lives of people working in their supply chains. Click here to buy your copy.