Why Climate Activism Was the Biggest Trend at London Fashion Week

Originally published on EcoAge

fashion week

Image: Talia Woodin

This season, London Fashion Week saw the climate crisis take centre stage both on and off the catwalk. Brooke Roberts-Islam looks at the initiatives shaking up the way the industry works, and exactly what these demands for action should entail. 

Following a packed month of climate change and sustainability summits in January spanning the World Economic Forum in Davos, The Future Fabrics Expo in London and the Study Hall Climate Positivity conference in New York, February showed little sign of retreat from the appeals to act against climate change. While New York fashion week rolled on with what looked like business as usual, London Fashion Week (LFW) was punctuated by activism, climate speeches, designers presenting clothing they had stolen or swapped or upcycled, and the, now seasonal, Extinction Rebellion climate protest. 

Ahead of LFW on 10th February, Extinction Rebellion (XR) delivered a letter endorsed by Caryn Franklin MBE, Livia Firth of Eco-Age and among others, the founder of London Fashion Week, Lynne Franks OBE, asking the British Fashion Council (BFC) to “cancel September 2020 fashion week” and “ immediately start work on an emergency action plan that aids stakeholders through change.” Extinction Rebellion has asked the BFC to respond before September 2020 with a commitment to this transformation. While their response is as yet unknown, that wasn’t to say that the climate message didn’t manage to dominate London Fashion Week nonetheless.

On day one, the mood was set by the ON|OFF catwalk show which commenced with a speech from fashion sustainability researchers Professor Kate Fletcher and Dr. Mathilda Tham. “Climate scientists tell us that we’ve only got 10 years to change how we live, and also how we dress,” they declared. “For many years we have been dressing like we are somehow separate from the earth; as if our fate is somehow not tied to the health of the planet that is our home. But it is, and we need to change.” They also proposed that ‘Growth Logic’ should be replaced by ‘Earth Logic;’ the name of a report and manifesto they have authored as a blueprint for rooting fashion in creativity, community, curiosity, courage, and care, instead of profit. 

art1.2
art1.3

Images: ON|OFF

Fletcher and Tham’s speech was followed by a catwalk show entitled All Power to the Imagination. The clothes were strewn with anarchic slogans, stickers on the soles of second-hand sandals, stilettos held on with scotch tape and spewing ball gowns, painted as though they were decaying – all while models stomped down the runway to a remix of The Clash’s ‘London Calling.’ These looked like clothes for rebellion and the message felt more important than the medium (which was largely synthetic, not particularly commercial and was peddling the idea of shredding fashion rules). It felt like these designers were lashing out – and rightly so, given that they are inheriting a climate crisis and an industry painfully resistant to cleaning up its act. 

During a conversation after the show with Fletcher and Tham, I asked what the desired outcome of their Earth Logic manifesto is. They are pushing for a slowing down of the fashion industry and adoption of their ‘landscapes’ for redefining and reorganising it. The full manifesto calls for changes including less growth, local scaling and re-centering of the fashion industry. I questioned whether the manifesto would deliver widespread action in an industry that is largely based in Asia (China and Bangladesh, to be specific, given that these two countries manufacture most of the clothing sold globally). Aren’t scalable, technology-based solutions needed to solve the immense problem of waste and overproduction, I asked? 

Fletcher’s response was words of caution against looking to technology to solve our climate challenges. The Earth logic document states that “technology is good at reducing impacts associated with the production of material goods, but it has very real limits. Yet somehow a dream of a techno-fix still permeates society. The only solution is less stuff. There are no other options.” But won’t it take longer than a decade to convince people to buy less stuff? Fletcher thinks not, citing the smoking ban and suggesting that it sparked a swift change in public opinion and behaviour. She and Tham are touring the UK to disseminate Earth Logic and will be speaking at the Copenhagen Fashion Summit in an effort to lobby all fashion industry stakeholders to adopt their radical re-think and re-organisation of the industry.

art1.4

Images: House of SheldonHall

Meanwhile, day two of London Fashion Week saw the launch of Extinction Rebellion’s XR Fashion Action protest effort. This season, the protests too had a creative slant, featuring talks, block printing on second-hand clothes and music outside of the BFC’s main show venue at 180 The Strand. Their actions were bolstered by respected academics and industry veterans, including Professor Dilys Williams FRSA of the Centre for Sustainable Fashion at London College of Fashion. “We ask all involved in fashion to place earth and equality first, to respond to XR demands and to recognise those designers and fashion practitioners who create prosperity in social, ecological, cultural and economic dimensions,” stated Williams.

There is no doubt that XR is shining a spotlight on fashion and demanding that business as usual ceases, but I can’t help but ask what will replace it? What happens next if XR’s 3 Demands Bill (their core aim) is passed? The industry still needs to be transformed, but how will that be done, and by whom? In previous interviews, Sara Arnold, a pivotal member of the XR Fashion Action team, has explained that their aim is to trigger the announcement of the climate crisis by parliament, catalysing a pause in the industry so that all stakeholders can plan for, and implement, a more sustainable form of the industry. However, I would contend that it is difficult to understand how this will be structured and actioned, in practical terms. 

art1.5
art1.6

[Images: Talia Woodin]

Elsewhere during London Fashion Week, Anya Hindmarch replaced her usual catwalk show or presentation with the ‘I Am A Plastic Bag’ collection and filled up her London stores with plastic bottles to make a statement on waste. Phoebe English, an up and coming designer and advocate for slow, low-impact fashion, created her collection from the leftover fabric of twelve London-based fashion design studios, including Simone Rocha. How this works for the production of the collection post-show is not immediately evident, but the use of existing materials sent out an applaudable message.

Yet perhaps most notably of all, the main BFC showroom space at 180 The Strand that was once a vast trade show of brands presenting collections to buyers this year became a paired-back ‘Positive Fashion’ showcase. While still a commercial brand space, it was filled with labels claiming a facet of sustainability in their offering. What was also new this season was the prominent positioning of young emerging designers who are operating under sustainable business models that integrate swapping (Patrick McDowell), upcycling (Sophie Hird) and repurposed deadstock (Duran Lantink). Although not immediately scalable, they had the fashion week audience engaged and talking, both in-person and online via Instagram. Their endeavours served to show that the fashion crowd’s appetite for something new is not related to seasonal silhouettes and colour palettes, but the business model and consumption methods of fashion. 

With the global narrative around sustainability and climate change imperatives rising, it is difficult to imagine a fashion week without the growing sustainability narrative taking centre stage, powered by designers making a stand and activists demanding change. Business as usual looks less likely for the seasons ahead – All power to the Imagination indeed! 

Livia Firth’s Eco-Age – Time to End Our Fast-Fashion Binge

Thursday 16th November marked the 7th Annual Lovie Awards, honouring the best of the European Internet and recognising the talent making waves and effecting positive change across industries including gaming, film and fashion.

This year, Livia Firth was the winner of the Emerging Entrepreneur Award for her fight for sustainable fashion as the founder and creative director of Eco-Age, a brand/marketing consultancy that helps businesses to grow by creating, implementing and communicating sustainability solutions.  More specifically, she was honoured for her Green Carpet Challenge initiative and using the internet to both educate the public about ethical and sustainable fashion consumption and to put pressure on brands to do more to meet sustainable business practices.  On hearing of Livia’s accolade ahead of the Lovie Awards ceremony, I arranged to interview her to find out how Eco-Age is forging ahead with sustainability initiatives and to understand more about Livia’s goals and beliefs about the current state of sustainability in the fashion industry.  Another precursor to this interview was hearing Livia passionately speak in May this year at the Copenhagen Fashion Summit, where she boldly declared that the fashion industry was in trouble given the findings of The Circle report Fashion Focus:  The Fundamental Right To A Living Wage.

Livia Firth (left) and Jessica Simor QC (right) speaking on a panel chaired by Lucy Siegle at Copenhagen Fashion Summit, 2017    Image: Copenhagen Fashion Summit

‘Sustainability’, ‘circularity’ and ‘ethical practice’ are words used regularly in the fashion industry, but often lack specific meaning and clarity for both industry members and consumers.  As we launch into our discussion, Livia Firth makes quick work of breaking down some of these meanings and provides a refreshingly clear and insightful commentary on what is happening in the industry right now and how it is effecting the planet and people.  “Sustainability is a complex issue that needs to be communicated simply”.

Livia founded Eco-Age in 2009 as a brand consultancy providing sustainability strategies and communication tools to fashion brands.  Their modus operandi is to demystify the supply chain so that brands can be sure they are working with suppliers and manufacturers that guarantee responsible sourcing and production of materials and ethical labour practices.  She and her team work with several brands to help them become sustainable and conscious as part of their core operations and values – not as a token ‘project’ seeking to gain sustainability credentials, without true and ongoing commitment to a truly sustainable business model. 

Livia points to a tactic of some large, fast-fashion brands, of producing a product or small number of products ‘sustainably’, that are then heavily promoted in an attempt to create a cleaner, greener brand image, which she dismisses as “bullshit green-washing”, to divert attention from the dirty fashion practices continuing throughout the supply chain in those brands.  She points to fast-fashion as the culprit for the dire and urgent environmental crises coming about now, and cites the endemic use of slave labour and unsafe working practices in the Far East as the root of the problem with the fast-fashion business model, which she says “must change”.  Eco-Age refuses to conduct business with fast-fashion businesses due to the ethical crimes being committed and their failure to provide a living wage.  To that end, Eco-Age works with luxury brands, which she explains as having the R&D budget and story-telling capability through their brands, to produce and sell fashion in an aspirational and responsible way. 

Discussing sustainability initiatives with Livia Firth (right), ahead of receiving her Lovie Award   Image: The 7th Annual Lovie Awards

My conversation with Livia throws up some nostalgic stories about her travels in search of responsibly-sourced materials, including a recent trip to my native Australia, where she visited a farm a stone’s throw (in Australian terms) from where my father farms his sheep.  She spoke of the farmers describing themselves as ‘custodians of the land’ and the sheep their treasures from which their livelihood stems. It is familiar to me – I grew up in a family of wheat and sheep farmers in Australia – and it brings back beautiful memories of when the nobility and longevity of wool was far more powerful than the cheap, fast pull of Primark. 

“I’m 48.  I’m old enough to have lived without fast-fashion.  We knew how to appreciate quality”.  Frank and to the point, Livia poetically describes fast-fashion as the trigger for our ‘divorce’ from fashion made from quality materials, that we historically loved, cherished and passed on.  She explained that her team chat about the state of fast-fashion in their office, commenting on how we have overindulged on fast-fashion, consuming too much, too quickly.  ‘So we’ve binged on fast-fashion and now it’s time for a diet in the form of sustainable, ethically made fashion?’ I ask.  “YES!” is Livia’s emphatic response. 

As we discuss the role of Eco-Age and others trying to transform the industry, it becomes apparent that fashion businesses wanting to transform their practices to meet increasing consumer demands for transparency and low environmental impact will need to function in a socially and politically compliant framework, no longer focussed primarily (or perhaps solely) on profits.  This is where the tension, and the biggest challenge, lies, according to Livia.  Due to planetary changes, including extreme flooding, drought and pollution to waterways, manufacturers are being forced to accept that depleted resources will effect production quantities and therefore effect price (and their ability to sustain the fast-fashion model) in a way that is physically and economically unsustainable – never mind the highly questionable ethics.  When profit margins are hit, action is likely.

Hearing about Eco-Age initiatives from Harriet Vocking, Head of Marketing (left) and Communication and Hannah Levitt, Senior Account Manager (right)   Image: The 7th Annual Lovie Awards

We turn to new technologies to solve some of the biggest challenges we face, both within fashion and other industries.  Livia comments that Fashion Tech Lab, a fund launched by Mira Duma earlier this year, is bringing new technologies to the fore that provide solutions that harness the power of science and that do not come at a huge environmental cost.  Discussing new scientific developments with Livia, she declares “science is our friend”.  “It can help us transition to the future without compromising on ethics”.  Her excitement at developments in materials so far, include lab-grown leather, mushroom and pineapple leathers and Orange Fiber, and she sees the relationship with fashion and technology as growing harmoniously – as long as technological advancements are not at a human cost.  The evolution of robotics, for example, worries Livia, along with the potential impact on future workforces.  When transitioning from ‘human-led’ to ‘tech-led’, taking the time for reflection and regulation to determine where the future career paths lie for those human workers is essential, she says. 

Livia Firth and Mira Duma have been friends for some time.  Describing her as a warrior, Livia tells me about a call she received from Mira after she had watched the ‘The True Cost’, pledging her commitment to doing something to help and describing how seeing the film had changed her.  Mira re-surfaced some time later having founded FashionTech Lab and subsequently enlisted Livia to the board, helping to guide and drive their initiatives forward. 

Livia’s online power is in her ability to harness and direct the voice of ethical practice towards the global stage.  Citing social media as a powerful and exciting tool, she comments that being awarded a Lovie is recognition of her engagement with the public, and indeed other public figures, to inform, educate and enlighten consumers – a powerful piece of the puzzle that requires solving to transform the polluting fashion industry.  “Imagine if every big blogger started to talk about social justice and environmental issues (on social media)!  It would change everything!”

Livia harnessing the power of Instagram to educate and inform consumers

The passion and commitment Livia has to effect positive change in the world’s second most polluting industry is crystal clear.  As an extension of the brands, manufacturers and makers (the fashion industry ‘stakeholders’) that Eco-Age works with, her team created the Green Carpet Fashion Awards alongside the Camera Nazionale Della Moda (CNMI), to bring all members of the industry (including textile mills, seamstresses and tech pioneers) together and publicise their involvement in creating fashion.  Undeniably, telling the story of how products are made and by whom is a powerful tool for engaging the public in choosing products that do not compromise the environment and the lives of others.  Livia harnessed her power with actresses, brands and other high profile stakeholders to help her drive the message of conscious consumption.

The Seamstresses of Maison Valentino Awarded the Art of Craftsmanship by Annie Lennox  Image:  Eco-Age.com

Orange Fiber and Newlife awarded for Technology and Innovation, presented by Mira Duma (centre) and Derek Blasberg (right)

We discussed recycling of textiles and garments and Livia is initially dismissive, in the sense that the deep rooted problems in the fast-fashion model can never be solved by simply recycling the millions of tonnes of products produced every year, which deplete the planet’s resources only to be discarded (or recycled) after a handful or wears.  The lack of provision of a living wage within the fast-fashion business model will not be addressed by creating a circular economy, she states.  She also points to the growing issue of micro-plastics in our waterways from synthetic fabrics, which release these tiny plastic particles into the water with each wash and for which new technologies are being developed in order to ingest or filter them out.  Some headway has been made here, but Livia sees this as yet another example of how the fast-fashion demands for synthetics (because natural fibres are too expensive) has led to environmental problems – causing dire costs to both planet and people.

Wrapping up my interview with the knowledge that we will be meeting at the Lovie Awards, Livia leaves me with the parting news of an upcoming store launch by Eco-Age client Bottletop, creating accessories made from recycled leathers in their flagship store, which is being entirely 3D printed from recycled plastic waste.  Stay tuned for the upcoming story, here on Techstyler.

Header Image:  Livia Firth, Winner of the Emerging Entrepreneur Award.  Image:  The 7th Annual Lovie Awards

Follow Techstyler on Twitter and Instagram