Fashion Act Now: The Team Turning Fashion Into Positive Change

Photo: Stefan Lacandler / Extinction Rebellion

The driving forces behind Fashion Act Now, Alice Wilby, Bel Jacobs and Sara Arnold, fill us in on the next stages of their campaign to transform the fashion industry into a force for good in an urgent effort to protect the planet.

What first sparked your interests in sustainability, and how have you got to where you are today?

Alice: I’m a lifelong fan of shopping second-hand. I love hunting down one-offs and vintage clothes are imbued with a joy and narrative that the ubiquitous high-street just can’t muster. I was working as a stylist when I discovered the scale of human, animal and environmental exploitation that fashion was responsible for. So in 2008, I quit the mainstream and started working with ethical fashion, setting up my own magazine, FutureFrock. Since then, I’ve been fortunate to work with some amazing pioneer women in the sustainable fashion space. I went on to edit Eco-Age for Livia Firth, and work with Orsola de Castro and the all-female powerhouse team at Fashion Revolution on their global photographic campaigns, whilst setting up the world’s first sustainable style agency, A Novel Approach, with Khandiz Joni. And I’m also proud to say I teach the Sustainable Fashion Short Course at CSM with Clare Farrell, who is the co-founder of Extinction Rebellion. The climate emergency supersedes all the work I’d done to date, so it was a no brainer for me to get involved with Extinction Rebellion and help establish the fashion space there with Sara and Bel.

Sara: Bizarrely, this can be traced back to a childhood fascination with astrophysics. It fits that this led me to be concerned by the fragility and interconnectedness of life on this planet. I studied fashion design at Central Saint Martins, drawn by a love-hate relationship with fashion and a desire to challenge the often toxic culture of mainstream fashion. On graduating, I wanted to start my own brand but felt I couldn’t until I solved the issue of how you could say you care about sustainability whilst having a business model that requires an increasing number of products to be created and sold. I went to business school to search for a solution and there realised that fashion rental was the way forward. I started a fashion rental platform, Higher Studio, focusing on iconic, hard to find items and nothing new, with aim to incentivise circularity. When the 1.5C IPCC report was released in 2018, I knew that more drastic measures were needed. I read about a movement called Extinction Rebellion that was going to launch. For the first time, I found people talking honestly about the crisis. I got involved, using my expertise, together with Bel, Alice and others, to create campaigns that targeted the fashion industry. 

Bel: I was always aware that the planet was under stress but like so many, didn’t know fashion’s considerable impact. The industry has always had an uncanny ability to hide behind glossy ad campaigns and this extraordinary, almost mythic world that it has created for itself – and I fell for that. It was during the middle of the 2000s when, working as fashion editor for Metro, I became increasingly aware that the amount of product I was being pitched was getting ridiculous – and that the quality was falling away. I tried to cover sustainable options as much as I could in a mainstream publication but something felt terribly wrong. When Rana Plaza fell, and 1,134 mostly young women died making cheap clothes for the wealthier countries, I knew I had to get out. For a while, I focused on sustainable options but the creeping sense that that wasn’t never going to be enough and that the human race was systematically killing the planet with really excessive levels of consumption made joining Extinction Rebellion an obvious choice to make.

Why in particular is Fashion your common focus in calling for change? 

Alice: The influence of fashion reaches far beyond the confines of its own industry. Fashion is responsible for creating trends and driving desire, which in turn fuels the mass production, consumption and disposal of goods across a wide range of sectors. This in turn drives global heating and biodiversity loss.

The fashion industry is also wholly reliant on the natural world; yet it continues to plunder, poison and deplete our natural resources at a rate the planet can’t regenerate. And for all the talk of circularity and recycling, production is set to increase by 63% by 2030. If we continue on this trajectory then fashion will use up 25% of the carbon budget associated with a 2C pathway by 2050.

Fashion also has a huge legacy of environmental damage and human rights abuses to address. Textile manufacture was one of the dominant industries of the industrial revolution, fed by a steady stream of slave-produced cotton. The modern fashion industry has been entrenched in pollution, exploitation and violence ever since, with western fashion empires functioning as a manifestation of this colonial legacy.  

We feel we have a duty to challenge our industry and demand it do everything it can to mitigate its role in the climate emergency and transform this systemic exploitation. We envision fashion transforming into a powerful tool for positive change.

Over the last few years you’ve led Extinction Rebellion’s Boycott Fashion, a group that’s greatly influenced the global conversation around the fashion industry’s environmental impact. Why do you think Boycott Fashion’s campaigning methods were so effective, and how will Fashion Act Now take this to the next level? 

Alice: Core to Extinction Rebellion’s tactics is to “Tell The Truth” and thus shift the Overton Window. When Extinction Rebellion came on the scene, talking about extinction as though it was a real possibility was dismissed from mainstream conversations. Our ‘Boycott Fashion’ and ‘Cancel Fashion Week’ campaigns were about telling truths that others didn’t want to face and addressing those realities. 

We asked: ‘If we are in a crisis bigger than anything our species has ever faced, why are we carrying on with the business as usual, when that was exactly what got us here in the first place? Why are we producing more clothes than ever despite having enough textiles to last us for generations to come? Why do we have a parade of new clothes happening every six months, with buyers and press flying around the world creating waste and pollution and perpetuating the myth that mass consumption is OK, when we know it is driving climate change?’ Fashion Week is absurd but so much of it has been normalised. 

Our campaigns were successful because, firstly, we were voicing things that others felt but didn’t want to vocalise. Secondly, because we were challenging an industry that by its very nature, is predicated on being ahead of the curve and culturally-relevant, and we were shining a light on how divergent it was from reality. And thirdly, we were able to capitalise on fashion’s cultural influence. People enjoy engaging in Fashion and using Fashion as a tool to express themselves, and no one really wants to express that they are a toxic, self serving narcissist, hell bent on destroying the planet. 

Fashion Act Now will, once again, be honest and truthful. The full truth is still very much lacking when it comes to climate and ecological breakdown. We must say that net zero carbon by 2050 isn’t enough, nor a 45% decline in emissions by 2030. We need a crisis response. Still very few people are being truly honest about the ambition needed and that’s the core driving force of Fashion Act Now. 

Fashion Act Now's open letter, published in September 2020.

2020 has quickly become a pivotal turning point for many businesses and industries; do you see this change continuing for the better?

Alice: I’m heartened that finally, through the lens of the pandemic, many businesses have intrinsically understood how reliant we are on a health ecosystem and how businesses can play a role in restoring biodiversity and fighting global heating. It’s a great start but nowhere near what we need to see. This year, due to the pandemic we are on track to see a 4-7% reduction in global emissions, but we need a sustained reduction of 15% a year to keep global heating below 1.5C. Obviously these figures refer to all industries, but as fashion drives so many global consumption trends, we see the tremendous potential for a transformed fashion industry to lead the way.

Bel: I see a split. Half the world is waking up to the enormity of the collective challenge we face, the other half is hunkering down, trying to claw back to business as usual, trying to hide in the all-too-familiar tropes of mass consumption as a form of comfort and leisure that they understand. But change on a really serious scale is coming and those groups, brands and organisations that don’t grasp it will not survive. 

Fashion Act Now is currently crowdfunding to host a summit which promises to bring together scientists, policy makers, garment workers and industry insiders (among others); why did you opt to crowdfund, and in what ways will this be different to previous sustainability summits and panel events? 

Alice: Traditionally this kind of solution finding summits are sponsored by brands and always result in a talking shop of self-promotion that leads to small tweaks and incrementalism.

We no longer have time for incremental change alone. We need systemic and cultural change in order to stand any chance of mitigating our climate impact. We need to focus on decarbonising the fashion industry, managing degrowth, tackling overconsumption and mass production. We also need to address just transition and reparations for workers for when the inevitable degrowth takes place.

Our summit will not be beholden to brands and as you’ve mentioned, will centre the voices of those not usually given a seat at the table. The roadmap we create will serve as an action plan for fashion to mitigate its climate impact, but it will also function as a tool to focus our global network of activists to hold the brands to account. 

You are supported by a powerful team of change-makers, organisations and thought leaders across the industry. Do you think that collaboration is key to driving impactful change?

Alice: We want this to be a global piece of work that represents all continents, and collaboration is the key. There are some amazing organisations and campaign groups, scientists and economists literally doing the work that we need to save the planet and transform the way we operate. What we are missing is a collective roadmap for change that unites all this work. 

So how can we, as organisations and individuals, help on both a short and long-term scale?

Alice: Please support our Crowdfunder! Usually this kind of summit is heavily sponsored by the big brands and that money comes with strings. Crowdfunding will enable us to stay independent and free from conditional funding. We welcome you to join our community and add your voice to the conversation, share our work and help us spread the word. We will also be running digital events aimed at visioning the future of fashion and painting a positive picture of where we want the roadmap to take us – and we’d love to see you there. 

What, or who, continues to inspire you on your mission? 

Alice: I’m mindful of all those in the fashion system who don’t have a voice and can’t advocate for change. I’m always inspired by my niece and nephew. They are so full of joy and life, the idea of leaving them a broken planet to inherit, if we don’t fix this, just isn’t an option. There is an Native American saying, ‘We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children’. That always inspires me to push on.

Bel: It’s always the kids, isn’t it? The thought that my daughter will have to struggle through a desperately altered environment is a thought that continually drives me forward. But it’s also, quite dispassionately, the profound beauty and complexity of everything we’re destroying – the animals, the forests, the oceans. And for so little in return. That sense of waste and the suffering of people, of animals that our habits have created is a constant source of motivation. We need a kinder world.