Last night saw the bringing together of three very interesting figures; Bia Saldahana, the eco entrepreneur behind the label Veja; Ed Siegle, a novelist who has recently brought out a book about Brazil called The Invisibles; and Lucy Siegle, the Observer journalist and all round eco fashion icon. The subject uniting them in conversation? Whether fashion can save the Amazon rainforest.
I have written about Veja before click here. In the early days of my blog I visited their showroom in Shoreditch and met Aurelie, who enthusiastically explained the process involved in making Veja shoes. I was absolutely captivated; their supply chain was unlike anything I had heard of before. So to hear Bia’s story first hand, how she has spent the past 20 years living in the heart of the Amazon pioneering a process of rubber production that both supports the rubber tappers and fights against deforestation – well, it was a privilege to say the least!
There were a number of points raised which seem worthy of sharing here. When I first received the invitation, I thought ‘well it sounds interesting, but why the rainforest?’ When I was growing up and first became aware of environmental concerns as a teenager, I remember there was an awful lot of attention paid to the rainforest. What happened? I almost did a double take of, ‘rainforest? oh yeah… rainforest.’ Perhaps I haven’t been digesting quite the volume of news that I should have been, but it definitely feels there has been an attention shift towards concerns such as climate change and carbon footprint. Ed mentioned that we have a very 2D image of the rainforest; that we know that we should care about it and do what we can to save it, but it’s such an abstract and distant concept to many Westerners (and it is a concept!) that we don’t understand the character of the rainforest. It has its own personality, through the communities who live there and the different ecosystems. Unfortunately I don’t think we can appreciate this unless we have spent time there (or perhaps read Ed’s book which I’m looking forward to getting stuck into!) As Lucy rightly pointed out, we can get riled about the state of the rainforest now, but in a week’s time it will virtually have gone from our minds. Unfortunately this is often the case with eco awareness (and I can’t deny I am guilty of selective memory and responsibility too).
Lucy went on to say that to her, the most important shift in awareness should be towards where our clothes come from. We have absolutely no idea who or what made our clothes. Worse still, neither do the fashion brands who sell them to us. Lucy said that we need to become more production-focused, so the designers go to the production and find out what they’re capable of, and then base the designs around that.
I instantly had an issue with this. As you are all aware, one of my bugbears of the ethical fashion industry is that I don’t feel the design is as good as it could be. That’s a sweeping generalization and not applicable to many designers, but when you look at the industry as a whole, I don’t think it competes with mainstream design. So I put this question to Lucy at the end: ‘You mentioned earlier about the need to become more production-focused and that design should be built upon the capability of the producer, but do you think that this limits the scope for contemporary design?’ Lucy said that she is not a designer so it is difficult to say. However, she does get approached by many mainstream designers who are extremely disillusioned because they feel they are designing for landfill. In addition, the restrictions in mainstream design are absolutely huge. It is quite a philosophical point, but yes, it does impose restrictions, however from her understanding of design that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Designers should embrace restriction as it encourages them to use their creativity to overcome it. At the end of the day we need to make a decision about whether we connect with our production or not. The trade off for doing so is that we couldn’t design in bulk any more. But who really wants to wear something that thousands upon thousands of other people are also wearing?!
I was really grateful to Lucy for tackling my question so intelligently and eloquently. She is a very captivating speaker and in one hour had already reignited my enthusiasm for ethical fashion! I honestly have never thought of it from the perspective that designers need limitations. Of course they do. Having dabbled in design myself, the prospect of totally free reign is actually quite terrifying to the point of paralyzing. You need a theme to work with, or a challenge to overcome. And what better challenge than to be shown a limited way of producing garments, and then seeing in what ways you can make that contemporary, exciting and inspiring?
Phew, long post! My final mention goes to the girls who are the future face of ethical fashion. Increasingly I seem to magnetize people who are interested in ethical fashion and not sure where to start, or need someone to bounce ideas off. Initially it can be a lonely venture, but once you start meeting people it is such a welcoming industry and there is an incredible support network. So, here’s to Lucy Harvey at ethicalstylist.com, Ayesha Mustafa at Fashion ComPassion, Noel Azirar who is developing her ethical fashion business idea and Katrina Williams who is also in the initial stages of investigating ethical possibilities. They’re well worth a follow on Twitter – these ladies are (or will be) leading ethical fashion into the future!
All in all it was a brilliant evening and above all very inspirational. Sometimes I get tired of promoting ethical fashion; my passion for it seems to swing from a tidal surge to a tiny trickle. I think perhaps I now understand that as with any new venture, it is the people that make the experience. So here’s to more networking and meeting of like-minded people; and to the future of ethical fashion.
PS. If you made it this far I might* send you a prize!
*Might means probably won’t.