In the latest in our Life as I know it series from the Eco-Age team, our Head of Sustainable Fashion and Textiles Charlotte Turner shares her journey in sustainability so far and the impact it has on her career and daily life.
I have always loved fashion. Not in the trends, catwalks and glitzy fashion week way some might imagine it (which really represents a very small portion of the industry), but in the nitty gritty, behind the scenes, systems, supply chains, materials, provenance and workmanship way in which it actually touches the lives of millions of people around the world. This is where my focus on sustainability stems from.
Fashion is an area of our lives where there is opportunity for each of us to affect positive change, and this is something I have focused my entire career on.
I don’t remember when the word sustainability was first introduced to me, but I remember learning at school how the Aral Sea had all but disappeared due to cotton cultivation, causing economic and health impacts that are still felt today. I was both horrified and intrigued that such a ubiquitous material that we all have in our wardrobes – that is still often simply accepted as ‘positive’ and ‘natural’ – actually hid such dirty secrets, from intensely high water and chemical use in its cultivation, to forced labour in cotton fields, and even alarming farmer suicide rates attributed to debts caused by pesticide reliance. This isn’t to say that cotton and other textiles can’t be produced in ways that are less harmful to people and planet, but I learned that it is more complicated than meets the eye – and that can be said for the entire fashion system. This started my ongoing interest in textiles and their true impacts.
It also launched my belief that environmental and social impacts are intrinsically linked. Whilst the textile industry might not seem obviously linked to people and communities in the same way as garment production, its associated impacts, from water pollution to deforestation, do impact the health and livelihoods of people around the world.
I will caveat this by saying that I am not perfect – there are still impacts in my life I want to reduce, plastic being the biggest one, so on a daily basis I try to be more conscious of what I buy, from bamboo toothbrushes and mineral based makeup, to refillable cleaning products and fabric scrap busting wax wraps to replace products like clingfilm. Living a busy life (and honestly not being a huge fan of cooking), convenience food is probably still my biggest downfall, and something I definitely want to improve on.
I grew up in a family where making was the norm, so have always had an appreciation of what goes into creating something – for instance my Grandma sewed many of our clothes and toys (I still have some that she made for me). My father was an enthusiastic woodworker and DIYer, and this instilled in me a DIY attitude that my partner and I share in our home that we have been renovating ourselves for four years (and counting!), reusing as many materials as we can and choosing natural materials wherever possible. I was originally inspired by my father to become a furniture designer-maker, however, when I was 14, I discovered and fell completely in love with textiles, and ended up pursuing an education and career linked to fashion and textiles – this has been my complete focus for the last 18 years.
Since childhood I have also been exposed to different cultures and ways of life through my father’s work for the Foreign Office, most significantly North, Central and South America, as well as Portugal and even Montserrat, one of the smallest islands in the Caribbean that was almost destroyed by a volcano. This gave me a long-standing and innate interest in culture and heritage, as well as an awareness of the global human and environmental impact of the production of consumer goods, and ways we can intervene to turn the negative into positive.
I went on to study fashion design and development at the London College of Fashion, learning about every aspect of the fashion supply chain. Supported by an incredible tutor, Amanda Johnston, who co-authored the book Fabric for Fashion, (and who I went on to work with for several years), I was one of a handful of people with a specific focus on sustainability during my degree. At this point, ‘sustainable fashion’ was still a nascent term, despite the fact that designers like Katharine Hamnett has been campaigning since the 1980s on environmental and social issues in fashion, particularly relating to cotton. CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) was still a little spoken of term in fashion, and transparent communications regarding social and environmental risks, impacts and mitigation were virtually non-existent in mainstream and luxury fashion.
During my studies it also always seemed natural to me to use the resources I had available to me, from old shower curtains to fabric offcuts from my Grandma’s collection or rejected and waste fabrics from brands. The first time I ever purchased fabrics was for my final collection – intensely researched for the optimum ethical and environmental performance, from hemp and wool, to organic cotton and peace silk. Since then innovations in textiles have moved a long way, with dozens of beautiful, high-performing and commercially available options available, created from new and waste raw materials including recycled fishing nets, responsibly sourced wood and waste from the food industry, and even lab-grown leather.
Along with this focus on textiles, my research explored how the fashion industry could contribute to skills development and rehabilitation within prisons and vulnerable communities, supporting livelihoods through women’s cooperatives, and concepts around zero waste and seasonality.
Images: Natural dyeing and sewing.
However, despite this passion and focus on sustainability, I was torn. I wanted to participate in fashion as I loved being able to dress to reflect my different mood and character each day. I studied on Oxford Street and lived down the road from Brick Lane, so shopping was around me at all times. ‘Sustainable fashion’ wasn’t something that was prominent or particularly accessible, so whilst I primarily bought vintage and second-hand, my wardrobe still contained garments from the high street, where I didn’t fully understand their provenance and impact. I had so many pairs of vintage shoes I displayed them on shelves like sculptures, and I was accidentally building an archive of historical garments, enchanted by their quality and story. Lovely, but I was still buying too much.
So, I completely stopped shopping and blogged about the experience, and this process immediately had a huge impact on my behaviour. I could still use fashion as a means of expression, but I didn’t have to constantly buy – and I didn’t want to anymore. I could use styling, sewing with remnant materials, mending/alterations, customisation and clothes swapping. Nowadays we are also seeing a growing emergence of clothes rental services, challenging the usual concept of ownership.
Images: (L) Seychelles, (R) Canoeing in the Canadian lakes
Another huge turning point for me was when in my third year at university I got to spend 15 months working in industry, and this is where the lightbulb truly came on. I spent 6 months working with Orsola de Castro at From Somewhere learning about upcycling and building a sustainable brand, and 6 months as a design assistant at C&A in Belgium designing garments and printed textiles, learning how a large-scale fashion business works. I spent a further 3 months in Mexico with Carla Fernandez, where I had the opportunity to meet and work directly with artisans creating exquisite silver work, chamula wool and rebozo textile weaving.
All of these experiences gave me a deeper understanding of the realities and possibilities of the fashion industry, and the role I could play in helping to move in in a more positive direction. Following university and a year at Christopher Raeburn, I realised that to have a bigger impact and influence beyond a brand’s direct customer, I needed to become more involved in education – from students to established brands. This brought me to freelance consultancy and The Sustainable Angle, where I spent more than 5 years researching and communicating about diverse materials with a reduced environmental impact, and the Centre for Sustainable Fashion at the London College of Fashion where I was further exposed to sustainability for fashion education. During this time, I was involved in lecturing, delivering practical workshops and mentoring students and emerging brands, something that I still love doing today.
Images: Knitting and natural dyeing
Most recently, I have become interested in the potential impact of fashion and making on well-being and mental health. Following the sudden death of my father in 2017, my journey through grief led me to discover the healing power of creativity and making, and last month I documented my handmade clothes and accessories on Instagram during #memademay (quite an achievement as I’m not a fan of having my photo taken!). I rediscovered how incredibly therapeutic the process of creating something is, but I would also highly recommend having a go at sewing, knitting, natural dyeing or any kind of making for anybody who wants to further understand the fashion system, or the true value of the products we buy – it takes a lot of time and resources to make the clothes that we wear!
Knowing that it takes human intervention as well as resources drawn from our environment to create the products that we surround ourselves with means that every time I look at a product, I imagine what went it to making it, and the conditions it was made in. This helps me to better understand and value it, and decide whether it is something I feel positive about having in my life.
Today my driving force is education; helping brands, manufacturers, students and consumers understand the realities of the industry, the potential risks and impacts of their choices, and how more positive actions can be taken. I don’t believe it is fair to put the weight of responsibility onto the customer, and so I am committed to helping brands to rationalise their product offer, understand and monitor their supply chains, and develop and implement sustainability strategies addressing employee education, and business areas from working conditions to resource efficiency and materials choices. Perhaps most importantly, I wish to help them transparently and honestly communicate with their customers, enabling them to make informed decisions based on trust.
Throughout my career and role at Eco-Age, I have been lucky enough to contribute to projects such as the Sustainability of the Fashion Industry UK Government Inquiry, sustainability related conferences and research projects, mentoring emerging brands, participating in panels relating to topics from sustainable consumption to sustainability skills for employability, and lecturing at fashion schools with the aim of enabling a more informed and engaged workforce to implement systemic change in our industry.
Whilst there is still more I want to do in my everyday life, it is certainly a privilege being able to collaborate with people across the fashion industry to try to affect change in a global system that connects us all on a daily basis.
Read how crafting and making have helped Charlotte on her mental health journey.
See more from our ‘Life as I know it‘ series.
Meet the rest of our team.