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Louboutins & Landfill: How to be a Sustainable Fashionista

Posted by Ashleigh Toll Oxfam Fashion blogger

25th Mar 2014

"As this festival is dedicated to women of the world, it's to women we turn to educate us, to tell us their stories and to share their wisdom on how we can become better and more thinking consumers. It is women we honour as it's women who are the primary makers of our clothes." - Melanie Rickey.

Melanie Rickey, Dr Kate Fletcher and Jacqueline Shaw at WOW Festival

The recent Women of the World festival at London's Southbank Centre hosted an inspiring weekend of debates, talks and performances celebrating and recognising the achievements of women and girls across the world.

Amongst the many highlights of the festival, which included sold-out talks by the remarkable young campaigner, Malala Yousafzai, Dame Vivienne Westwood and Grayson Perry, was a stimulating discussion on how to be a sustainable fashionista

Chaired by Melanie Rickey, Fashion Editor at (and founding Editor of Grazia), the discussion questioned whether fashion can truly be ethical in a world dominated by fast fashion and the high street.

The panel featured women from across the sustainable fashion industry including Dr Kate Fletcher from the Centre for Sustainable Fashion at London College of Fashion, Jacqueline Shaw, author of the Fashion Africa (which Amelia recently blogged about), Abigail Chisman, ex Vogue editor and founder of Designer Jumble Sale and Carry Somers, founder of Fashion Revolution Day.

Ethical fashion is now estimated to be worth £200 million per year in the UK and has become one of the fashion industries newest markets. But with recent figures published by the British Fashion Council revealing that the British fashion industry is worth a staggering £26 billion to the UK economy, it is clear that ethical consumer habits and an appreciation of sustainably sourced clothes are still far from the mainstream.

The absence of discussion about the Rana Plaza factory tragedy in this month's fashion glossys is a sombre reminder that serious issues of unethical supply chains, appalling working conditions and the lack of rights for the workers who make our clothes are still far from making the headlines.

Rana Plaza, Bangladesh. The factory collapse killed 1,100 in April 2013.

 Image courtesy of Wikipedia

What is clear is that we need to put more pressure on retailers to be transparent about where garments are produced. According to statistics shared by Carry Somers:
· 61% of high street brands don't know where items on their rails were made.
· 76% don't know the origins of the fabric.
· 93% don't know the origins of the raw material. 

Dr Kate Fletcher, whose Craft of Use project challenges 'the dependency of the fashion industry on increasing material throughput' reflected that: "Fashion in the UK is a system of production and consumption that is mindless […] we need to take a long, hard look at society's attitude to acquiring clothes and 'following' fashion." She added that "we need to stray outside of our understanding and ask different questions about the fashion industry. We need to be prepared to do things differently […] and to think about garments and the place that they have in our lives."

Abigail Chisman and Jacqueline Shaw at WOW Festival

Abigail Chisman explained that fashion was viewed as superficial and frivolous by those around her when she was growing up, but it was her continued fascination with the process of making clothes and the journey that garments continue on that confirmed her decision to work in fashion. "We all engage with fashion at some level" she said. "It's about you deciding to look the way you feel. [We] illustrate the way we feel about the world through our clothes."

Jacqueline Shaw agreed that it is our preoccupation with fashion rather than consciously thinking about why we buy our clothes and what they express about our lives that means the high street dictates how we feel we should look. She added that "fashion seasons [mean you] can't appreciate what you are wearing…we all need to consider what we are buying and need  to think more."

The wall behind the panellists was adorned with garments including a stunning, hand-embellished Valentino gown (pictured). Abigail explained how these pieces are "about craft, beauty, lasting and being passed on." She added that the high street's unrelenting efforts to interpret catwalk 'trends' for affordable prices means that it can only ever "recreate them in terms of colour - it can't use the same processes of fabric."

Valentino gown

The media has a tendency to be negative about the possibilities for a more sustainable fashion industry but all the women on the panel agreed that change really is possible. Carry Somers believes that people care much more about sustainable fashion than the media thinks, and Fashion Revolution Day on 24 April is a major step forward in empowering people across the world to making this change happen. 

By simply asking 'Who made your clothes?' on the day, whether it's wearing your label #insideout or contacting the brand you are wearing on social media, Fashion Revolution Day is about raising awareness of the cost of fashion, being curious and doing something about it. As Abigail tweeted after the discussion, "we can all help each other make this happen."

Let us know your plans for Fashion Revolution Day @oxfamfashion or via the comment section below. 
To watch the full discussion, visit

Blog post written by Ashleigh Toll

Oxfam Fashion blogger

More by Ashleigh Toll