Behind the Commonwealth Exchange

The Commonwealth Fashion Exchange is a major project and new addition to the global fashion and design calendar, pairing fashion design talent with artisan producers from across the Commonwealth’s 53 countries.

February 2018 marks the unveiling of fashion pieces created through The Fashion Exchange project. This first look at the results of important designer-producer partnerships from the Commonwealth’s 53 member countries will take place in London, where the 25th Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) will be held in April.

Fashion designed as a result of these extraordinary partnerships and ‘exchange’ of creative ideas will be showcased at a celebratory reception at Buckingham Palace during London Fashion week, February 2018, in the presence of HRH The Duchess of Cambridge and HRH The Countess of Wessex.

The looks will then be displayed at Australia House, London from 21st February, and in other locations across London in the run up to CHOGM, April 2018.

The Commonwealth Fashion Exchange will have a dedicated platform on Google Arts & Culture. Here a new community will form, giving a global audience access to the looks in an online exhibition along with the stories of these extraordinary partnerships and a directory full of extra resources, leaving a long-term legacy.

THE GCC Principles of Sustainable Excellence

The Fashion Exchange focuses on talent from the 53 Commonwealth countries. Each exchange partnership was sent a brief with the Green Carpet Challenge®(GCC®)Principles of Sustainable Excellence* and asked to produce a fashion ‘look’ showcasing the creative skill and design ethos of each partner.


Because we so often fail to acknowledge the hands behind the clothes, handwork and the handwork economy has become devalued and vulnerable and it has never been more vital to raise its profile. Not least because uplifting standards and protections in the artisan fashion trades gives us the opportunity to directly address pivotal issues such as women’s rights and poverty reduction.

A highly collaborative programme, The Fashion Exchange utilises The Commonwealth’s reach to address some of the pressing issues of our age. The programme has been carefully constructed and managed to help address pivotal issues: gender equality, ethical production and supply chains, innovation, economic growth and poverty reduction.

One of the main aims is to help unlock the potential of the artisan fashion trades which have direct positive impact on female empowerment and poverty reduction.

The Fashion Exchange is managed by Eco-Age, a consultancy at the forefront of re-configuring the global fashion industry for a sustainable future. Eco-Age is also the home of the GCC. Programme participants have adhered to the GCC Principles of Sustainable Excellence, a framework of environmental and social justice principles for the fashion industry.

In partnership with Swarovksi, The Woolmark Company, MATCHESFASHION.COM and NEST, the Fashion Exchange aims to reflect the fact that fashion provides a common language to create new networks and connections.

Some of the clearest and most influential progress in shifting the focus of fashion to environmental and social justice has been made by working directly with designers, who are heavily invested in bringing about positive change for their industry. The Fashion Exchange harnesses the commitment of fashion designers from across the Commonwealth but also increases access to sustainable fashion tools, theory, support and direct experience among the artisan fashion trades. A core aim is to spread technical support for environmental change among producers.

The Fashion Exchange is built on core sustainable values. Over the last three decades fashion creation, production and consumption have become inextricably linked with over production and rapid consumption that results in fashion waste and the premature dumping of garments. The useful life span of clothing is in decline in countries across the world. The Fashion Exchange adds to a global push to delink fashion consumption from waste. It does this in a creative and organic way, by utilsing an alternative supply chain with sustainable characteristics. Those characteristics include small batch production, handwork, local materials and techniques that are embedded in historic and defining cultures. These are the garments likely to become heirlooms of the future.


Research shows that the fashion industry needs to do a better job of highlighting the importance of fashion from these alternative supply chains. Critical to this will be the telling of the narratives that connect the consumer to artisan fashion designers. More research is needed in this corner of the fashion industry, but that which has been carried out shows a defined hunger among today’s fashion audience for more stories of artisan fashion production. The Fashion Exchange and its digital legacy therefore helps to address that unmet demand.

The aims of the digital legacy are to give a global fashion audience the opportunity to engage with the story of highlighted producers and to engage with authentically produced garments rich in local cultures and authentic appeal on an ongoing basis.

Those who cannot make it to the London showcase and exhibition in person, will be able to access an online exhibition and digital platform hosted by Google Arts & Culture.  The online platform provides deep insight into each designer and artisan producer, underpinned by data and insight provided by expert project partners, Nest. The Fashion Exchange digital platform creates a new community and network as well as a compelling educational resource and living directory of artisans and designers from the 53 countries.


The project harnesses fashion’s huge global appeal and a central truth: across the world citizens are creatively, commercially and historically profoundly connected to making and producing.

This is brought to life through the globally appealing medium of fashion, working with highly regarded design talent across the Commonwealth’s 53 countries.

The Fashion Exchange has been shaped to maximise appeal and engagement among The Commonwealth’s youthful demographic; 60% of the 2.3bn citizens of the Commonwealth are under 30.


“I’m overwhelmed sometimes at the level of invisibility of the people who make the things we love. Fashion is a product-led environment, and you get consumed by the beauty of the product and refuse to acknowledge the chain of events that leads to getting it. It can be very unethical”


Critical issues across the $3 trillion fashion industry are well covered and increasingly the subject of academic and industry research. Sustainability initiatives offered by clothing brands have not led to a wholesale system shift in fashion, either in terms of ecological profile or in terms of reducing the cost to people affected by the supply chain.

The industry is dominated by a rapid-to-market and decentralized supply chain producing high volume, relatively low cost fashion pieces called Fast Fashion. This system uses a workforce predominantly centred in low wage economies that is overwhelmingly female.

Fashion is a full spectrum industry, running from the cotton boll through to finished collections. As such its environmental impact is heavy. Humanity is largely clothed in two fibres: cotton or polyester. Cotton is notoriously thirsty for water and pesticide (unless it is organically grown). Meanwhile, according to the World Resources Institute, world polyester production releases greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to 185 coal-fired power plants every year1.

Today’s fashion industry also generates large amounts of waste, both in its production and because consumers discard clothing at an increasing rates. Author of To Die For: Is Fashion Wearing Out the World? (4th Estate, 2011), Lucy Siegle, estimates the amount of new clothes produced globally each year at between 80 billion and 100 billion garments. According to industry estimates waste fabric represents 3-5 per cent of every factory’s inventory2. In the UK during 2016 alone we bought 1,130,000 tonnes of new clothing3. Meanwhile, the projected lifespan of these garments steadily declines. An estimated £30 billion worth of our apparel hangs in British wardrobes unworn.


“The handwork economy is still one of the greatest, most untold stories”


It is estimated that up to 60% of fashion and textiles is made via artisanal production. The artisan fashion trade is a catch-all term encompassing non factory skilled production, with huge local cultural import and low-input craft, including handwork and handlooming. Features of production include the use of ancient techniques handed down through generations and a dependency on local materials, including plants for natural dyes and fibres. Some traditions have evolved over centuries and been influenced by historic trade routes. For example materials such as glass beads may be used thousands of miles from origin. Work may be highly collaborative and centred around a particular location. For example, an entire small town may be dedicated to hand-loom weaving of fabric.

The artisan fashion trades represent the backbone of the fashion industry and yet is under-acknowledged. It has been estimated that the artisan fashion economy is worth $34 billion globally, roughly equal to the coffee sector5. It is also the second largest employer of women in developing economies6. As production often takes place in homes and small workshops, artisans can become part of an informal fashion economy, among the most vulnerable in the supply chain, their working conditions and pay unregulated.

This is not a system that can produce heavily standardised product at high volume and has therefore been penalised heavily. Today, artisans everywhere are finding too many barriers to pass on their legacy. Numbers of artisan fashion producers are falling. There is an urgent need to stem the loss of skilled producers outside of the mainstream, and to invest in the next generation of artisans. Failing to do this will perpetuate and deepen uneven economic development. Conversely, helping the artisan fashion trades reclaim their market position represents a golden opportunity to harness its potential.


“Fashion can be a major growth driver…I saw we could build a business and employ people, give them a fair wage and break the poverty chain”


The Commonwealth Fashion Exchange hopes to build on the work of many NGOs and charities who have helped to stem the exodus of skilled craftspeople and artisans from fashion. Over the years corrective mechanisms, including Fair Trade have attempted to even up the playing field, and help tell the stories of the hands behind the clothes.

The artisan fashion trades represent a logical bedfellow when it comes to sustainability; fashion is produced by a shorter, local supply chain developed over years and often from local materials. Meanwhile hand loomed fabrics have a carbon footprint far smaller than those that have been created by power loom.

However, there is still room for improvement. In fact, development is vital in order that artisan production can reclaim market positions and status. Matching a talented, connected and engaged designer injects new energy and a fresh approach. Working together in sympathetic and symbiotic partnerships The Fashion Exchange aims to help artisan production and designers alike to develop patterns and colourways and explore creative output from each culture and tradition.