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The Low-Down: F4TE Week Live Virtual Panels

As a First Year, new to both St Andrews and the St Andrews’ Charity Fashion Show (FS), I was unsure about what to expect when I attended the 4pm Zoom conference on “Modes and Methods of Change within the Industry” on Saturday 17th October 2020, organised for F4TE (“Fashion 4 The Earth”) Week. I was very pleasantly surprised by the discussions and relevance of the Fashion Industry’s problems, as well as suggestions of further changes towards sustainable practices that the industry can take.

I was particularly impressed by the extent to which the panellists stressed that, as individuals, we have a voice. Not only did they share a link to PayUp (www.payupfashion.com) where you can sign a petition going directly to CEOs and executives in the fashion industry, putting pressure on them to honour the wages of those workers being forced into homelessness or starvation due to the current climate, but there was also frequent discussion of actions we can do in our everyday lives. This was particularly focused on avoiding fast fashion and chain stores, buying fewer items and keeping them for longer, and making sure we know the complete history of the clothes we buy.

Particularly in the context of the fashion industry, the conference highlighted that environmental and social issues are not separate, as people claim, but interconnected, meaning we must press to implement political change thereby forcing government change to the rapidly growing, yet unregulated, industry. Ayesha Barenblat passionately described how the two big problems in the industry today are overproduction and wages; 100 billion units of clothes are produced a year and many end up incinerated by the end of that year, and the industry operates on debt. Patrick Duffy voiced the example of how, following the explosion of the Covid-19 epidemic in March, $40 billion worth of orders were cancelled after the garment makers had already made the items. They therefore did not receive money for work they had done, thereby drastically reducing the wages, in a time of crisis, for already underpaid workers. Consequently, 270,000 students signed a petition that was sent to CEOs, and eventually recovered $20 million, proving the panellists’ points: we do all have an individual voice, and we must all use it.

As attendees trickled into the the call from 4pm, they were greeted by the four panellists informally discussing the politics surrounding garment workers’ rights: the panel, moderated by Daphne Grant (head of Sustainable St Andrews), consisted of Ayesha Barenblat (founder and CEO at Remake Fashion, a non-profit organisation), Patrick Duffy (co-founder of Global Fashion Exchange (GFX)), and Nicole Rycroft (founder and execute director of Canopy Planet). A few minutes later, the conference was given a welcoming formal introduction by Cordelia Hare, Head of Social Responsibility for FS, who emphasised the detrimental impacts of the current fashion industry on our world, both social ($1.5 billion worth of garment orders have been cancelled in Bangladesh alone) and environmental (the fashion industry accounts for 20-30% of the plastic disposed into the ocean), emphasising that their “hope is that [we] will leave this discussion as a more conscious consumer and [we] will spread this to others in [our] community”.

There was no doubt throughout that Ayesha felt a deep personal connection with the topic at hand. After disclosing how she used to go undercover into factories, seeing the social and environmental impact personally, she went on to tell us how her Pakistani-American heritage meant she saw first-hand how garment work could be dignified work but how “instead of lifting up a generation of women out of poverty” it is “keeping [them] trapped in that cycle of poverty”; there is no doubt that she left many feeling emotionally touched and inspired when she told us how she gives back and is so passionate about helping garment workers because “she could be me, and I could be her”, because human beings “who look just like us” are suffering pregnancies, sexual assault, rock-bottom wages etc, all for what we see as simply a pretty £5 dress. With this same inspirational drive to help the fashion industry overcome these injustices, when asked how “powerful” she thinks she is, Ayesha eagerly emphasised that she sees herself as merely an ally, that the frontline workers so often forgotten are the ones with power and that she has been granted the privilege to amplify the voice and fight of these workers. 

Nicole, self-described as a “professional tree-hugger”, focuses largely on the environmental impact of the fashion industry and aims to work with unsustainable brands to provide them with economic and political incentives to change. She urged consumers to consider the unsustainability of current fashion standards, informing us that 150 million trees are absolved into the industry each year – although, she did also request to “shift the terminology”, expressing the profound observation that humans are too often referred to as “consumers” rather than “global citizens”; Nicole takes issue with how consumerism has become the defining feature of humanity. She also dropped another shocking statistic upon us, informing us that 75% of new diseases (including recent pandemics!) have been due to the disturbance of intact landscapes, emphasising the need for largescale conservation. Perhaps the most hopeful surprising information from Nicole came from her description of “greening” the Harry Potter series, during the Q&A. Knowing the social impact of the Harry Potter series, Canopy (Nicole’s environmental non-profit organisation) wanted to ensure publishing was as environmentally friendly as possible. Initially, Canopy worked only with Canadian publishers to ensure The Order of the Phoenix (Book 5) was not printed on endangered or ancient tree wood. Following this success, J.K. Rowling reached out to other worldwide publishers; by the time Deathly Hallows (Book 7) was released, 25 countries had printed it on paper “free from endangered forest fibres” and 40 academic papers had been writing on the process. For Nicole, this shows the power of inserting yourself into a cultural movement, such as Fashion, which is “culturally relevant and culturally shaping”. 

Patrick begun by expressing his gratitude to the other panellists and to the university itself, while his tale likely parallels many students’; he openly admitted that he had “no idea” what he was getting himself into when he first started his work with GFX and that he had a “radical pendulum shift” after realising that, although he had always lived an intense competitive life in New York which was “always a race to the top, how to be better”, the atrocities in the fashion industry are very real, even if not to the American eye. Following a journey to Copenhagen where he got a “peek behind the curtain”, he became convinced not only that he must make a difference, but that we are all capable of doing so and every choice we make can have an impact. He acts as an example that it is possible for individuals to have their eyes opened to the dark side of the industry and was perhaps the most relatable to many watching attendees. Patrick affirmed that he also lived a “normal” life before dedicating himself to GFX and was never an activist beforehand, giving all attendees the hope that no matter how useless or futile they think their efforts are, absolutely any individual can instigate change.

Stella Coulter, Executive Director for FS, closed the talk with a short speech, reiterating that the push for sustainability at St Andrews is far from complete and her hope that this push will spread not just throughout FS but on a university-wide level. This hope, I think, will succeed: sitting in my H&M jeans while watching the conference, squirming uncomfortably, I was given a lot of food for thought which I have since spread to friends. The more groups, like FS, force us to confront uncomfortable realities and truths we may have never even considered, the larger change we can make. This is only the beginning.

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