Life As I Know It: Fiona Cartmel

In the latest in our Life as I know it series, our sustainability analyst Fiona Cartmel shares her journey in sustainability so far and the impact it has on her career and daily life.

My first memory of sustainability was when I was 2 living in Cape Town (South Africa) and there was a large oil spill off the coast. My family and our neighbours adopted a penguin that had got caught in the oil. It stayed with us for a week, washing the oil off its feathers, nursing it back to health so it could be released back into the wild. 

Images: Washing the rescued penguin in South Africa

My next memory was when I was 9, and I was obsessed with water and Water Aid. We’d studied it in school, learning about the lengths that people had to go to around the world to access clean water. So, I organised a sponsored cycle around our local reservoir in Somerset to raise money for Water Aid. 

At secondary school, I had the most inspiring Design & Technology teacher, Ms Webster, who first sparked my interest in the impact of the fashion industry and is the reason I am in my current profession. During a textiles class, she showed us a film about cotton’s supply chain, and the huge impacts it can have. It focused on the cotton farming around the Aral Sea in Uzbekistan, which resulted in the sea drying up due to the sheer amount of water needed to grow cotton, as well as the chemical use and irrigation. This had disastrous impact, not only on the environment, but also on the livelihood of the surrounding fishing villages that relied on the sea’s fish both for income and staple food. From that point onward, I was fascinated by both the environmental and social impacts caused by the fashion and textiles industries. 

I studied fashion at Edinburgh University’s College of Art, choosing to go to a university that balanced design and innovation, with academic studies. I focused my degree on sustainability, taking it is as a key design consideration in all of my projects and tasks, and learning as much about the industry and its supply chains as I could. 

Image: Fiona and friends on their sponsored cycle ride for Water Aid

During one of my summers at University, I completed a design internship in Accra, Ghana, at Trashy Bags. They produce accessories using waste plastic, from old billboards to the plastic sachets they drink water from

To learn more about the theory of sustainability, I undertook courses on sustainable development at University. My dissertation focused on consumers’ perception of places of manufacture and the workers’ associated pay and quality of life. I also compared what brands, like H&M, were promising to the realities of what they were delivering. I found that there was a clear disparity between H&M’s claims and the reports of circumstances in factories, proving that having a CSR policy and making promises is not a guarantee of a company’s sustainability. These broken promises, and, in my mind, green washing, as well as the atrocities that were common place against the workers, increased my drive and desire to do something to change the industry. 

This passion fed into the practical side of my degree. 

Despite not being taught formally about sustainable design practices, I taught myself about low impact materials, zero waste cutting techniques, natural plant-based dying and even concepts around transparency and communications. In my final year, I grew my own lab-leather from a combination of kombucha scoby and cider vinegar in my bedroom (not something I would recommend, unless you are adept at tolerating smells). 

Fiona working in the studio at Trash bags

For my final year collection, I wanted to challenge the industry. Creating a collection that questioned how we could be allowing such waste, human rights abuses and environmental disasters to occur. My whole collection, bar an indigo-dyed linen from offset warehouse, was made from waste from the fashion industry. I emailed all of the UK mills, clothing factories, and accessories manufacturers that I could find, asking if they could send me their wasted fabrics, off cuts, deadstock and damaged material to use. The response was amazing, I received such an array of materials, from cutting room scrap silk used for underwear, to vast meters of Irish linen with a water stain in the centre. My aim was to use them in a way that celebrated the different fabrics, textures and colours, giving purpose and life to these otherwise wasted materials. 

Images: Pieces from final year collection

As well as the waste, I wanted to challenge the disposable nature of clothing. My pieces were made using a hand turned smocking machine. This is essentially a very old and small tool that feeds material through three corrugated rolling pins onto a set of threads, crimping and pleating it as the rolling pins are turned. It creates a beautiful texture, forming tiny folds along the width of the fabric, while also having the ability of joining scraps of fabrics together. Eight of 12 of my pieces were created from this fabric. Each row of pleated fabric took hours to hand-make, and each garment took tens of rows of fabric, all hand stitched together to form the garments structure and shape. The hours of intricate work that each garment took was purposeful. I wanted to bring a sense of craftsmanship to my pieces, making them valuable, lasting and not part of a throw away culture. They were intended to have longevity, and to never to be appropriate for mass production. The hours of labour that each took was my way of reflecting the labour that goes into the current fashion industry. The repetitive turning actions of the smocking machine was meant to emanate the repetitive jobs that the garment works preform every day. 

Images: Piece from final collection and smocking machine used

My final collection was shown at Graduate Fashion Week in London, where I won the Vivienne Westwood Sustainable Fashion Award, resulting in a 3 month internship with them the following year. I also entered the BFC Burberry Fashion Design Competition, and came runner up, again winning a design internship. 

After university, I carried out my internships, both at design houses that upheld my values and interest around sustainability. I learned so much about how the industry works: from the precise, exceptionally talented pattern cutters and seamstresses, to the endless model fitting, to the shows at Paris Fashion Week. 

It was a fascinating journey, but one that I knew, since I was 15 and shown the video of the Aral Sea, that I didn’t want to be a part of. I wanted to be outside, changing it, evolving its principles and systems.

During my exit interview with Christopher Bailey, the then Creative Director of Burberry (and one of my all-time heroes), he asked me “if Father Christmas could bring you any job for Christmas what would it be?” and I answered that I dreamed of a job where I can influence and improve the industry; where I can work with multiple brands to help them to take more responsibility for their people and planet. I wanted to ignite and drive change. He put me in touch with Livia and I had a call with Charlotte Turner, our materials expert, who then asked me to send her my CV for an intern opportunity that was coming up. I started at Eco-Age in June 2017. 

Sustainability has been apart of my life since I was young. From the debates at the supermarket tills over the need for plastic bags when I was 10, to the mounds of material waste that my mother drove all over the country to collect for my final collection, to the continued insistence to my housemates now about using eco-cleaning products; I have been fortunate enough to have amazing parents, family and friends who have supported (and put up with) me.

Read more from our ‘Life as I know it‘ series.

Meet the rest of our team.