This November, responsible fashion advisory The Right Project launches two new online workshop series on responsible fashion. Founders Roxanne Houshmand-Howell, Joss Whipple and Kellie Dalton share how this year has been pivotal for the fashion industry and how they hope their platform can continue to encourage change.
How did you first become interested in sustainability?
Roxy: In 2001, whilst working in Fashion PR, I met British fashion designer and pioneer of responsible fashion, Katharine Hamnett. Katharine has been campaigning on social, environmental and political issues since the 1980’s in particular the negative impact of the clothing industry and conventional cotton farming. Her passion for environmental and social justice had a huge impact on me. I worked for Katharine for over 10 years, developing brand partnerships, adhering to stringent ethical and environmental standards in developing our collections, no compromises on aesthetic. It was super challenging and involved huge investment in developing fabrics and meeting factory minimums because we were the one of very few brands in the world working this way.
Kellie: My Mam is an incredibly talented knitter and maker. Most of our clothes growing up came from her so I had that first hand experience of the time, skill and creativity that goes into everything we wear. She knit at home for high end brands and I remember as a teenager doing the maths about how much time she spent on a piece, how much she was paid and how much it sold for. I was really shocked and wanted to understand why the profits were not hers to have even though she’d done most of the work. I started to research ethical fashion brands who talked openly about fair wages and workers rights. Katharine Hamnett was the only one really challenging the industry at the time – campaigning about social and environmental standards, while creating beautiful products to prove it could be done in a more respectful way. I wrote her a letter in 2006 asking for work experience, Roxy replied three days later. And here we are today.
Joss: Sustainability was a big part of my upbringing, although it was never called that, it was however more linked to the choices my parents and grandparents made around food and other household goods more than clothing. The deep connection between sustainability and textile materials became a core focus for me during my three year degree in design and making (1996-99). I was studying metal smithing and textile design in a time before the internet and I felt compelled to know more and to be accountable for the material choices I was making and their inherent impacts. My thesis title was ‘Hemp for Textiles in the 1990s’, I did interviews with people on landlines and saved the final version on a floppy disk!
What inspired you to launch The Right Project?
Roxy: I worked for Katharine for nearly 14 years, I progressed from PA to Company Director managing all facets of the business. I knew for my personal development I had to consider my next role, the search for the right project. Katharine commented about how much I supported others who were curious about how to develop their own brands and business responsibly, she suggested I start an agency. One of my first clients was Traid. We’ve since work/ed with YNAP, Ninety Percent, Sunshine Bertrand, Patternity, Reve En Vert, Vivienne Westwood…
How has the Right Project evolved since you launched in 2014, and what changes have you noticed in the responsible fashion during this time?
Roxy: I initially sought out the advice and support of Joss Whipple who I met in 2006 at Esthetica during London Fashion Week; she has a wealth of experience and knowledge on sustainability and ultimately my go to for brands wanting to assess their purpose and product. We initially created training workshops for management and product development teams around the impact of the industry and new ways of working for both fashion brands and the wider industry.
In the past two years we have partnered with sustainability strategist, Kellie Dalton, to support brands in understanding how to embed responsibility into their business DNA, how to set goals and implement changes, measure their impact and communicate honestly and transparently.
It has taken a lot of time and investment to get to a deeper understanding of the fashion system and how interconnected the issues are. We don’t have decades for every fashion professional to get to a similar level of understanding and start applying solutions. It needs to happen now.
The Global Fashion Agenda stated in their 2019 report, ‘The Pulse of The Fashion Industry’, that over 40% of the industry are either finding it a challenge to get started, taking initial uncoordinated and opportunistic actions or just doing the basics. The report also stated that ‘if the industry does not implement changes at a faster rate, it will not be able to achieve the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals or meet the Paris Agreement commitment to limit global warming to below 2 degrees by 2030’.
The fashion landscape has changed significantly in the last year, at least the debate around it has. How you make products, how you sell products, how you run your brand, how you treat people who work for and with you, how you portray yourself in the fashion space and who you are in fashion for – it’s all under social, environmental, cultural and economic scrutiny.
We are at a pivotal juncture, where pressure to reduce the impacts of the industry is coming from all sides and the call for a rapid transition to a new system is getting louder. There is pressure for brands and fashion professionals to act and do the right thing. It’s a journey we are on together as an industry.
The recent pivot to online workshops is an opportunity to combine and distill what we have all learnt over the past 20 years and pass it on as quickly as possible to as many fashion professionals as possible. Our learning sessions offer a practical approach to sharing what we know. There is so much information out there and almost too many downloadable versions. We wanted to create something more personal, direct and tangible so people don’t feel even more isolated by having more information but not knowing what to do with it. It is our hope that our sessions will make people feel comfortable and confident to take action and become part of the push for change.
What are the biggest challenges and prohibitors to progress that fashion brands face in becoming more sustainable?
Where brands often fall short is a lack of awareness as to how their systems are contributing to a vast number of deep-rooted systemic issues – be they social, environmental or cultural. There needs to be an acceptance, particularly at a senior level, that this is the reality. There is a real opportunity now to take a step back, listen and learn with humility about what fashion and all the people connected to it need.
One of the biggest obstacles is reaching those at management level and on-boarding all stakeholders in doing the work. Often the obstruction is investors and CFO’s unwilling to commit to prioritising people and the planet over profit.
Most businesses are focused on growth: more product, more stores, more money. Conversations about de-growth, supporting living wages for garment workers and regenerative farming, are too challenging.
We know that change in legislation may be the only way to really see significant change. The rise in B-corps are heartening, but we need to see more of them.
2020 has seen big promises for change come from high up in the fashion system, with brands such as Gucci deciding to ditch the seasonal approach. What other key developments and landmark moments do you think the fashion industry has had in relation to sustainability in recent years?
Fashion Revolution, Earth Logic, the horror of Rana Plaza, the dismissal Environmental Audit Committee recommendations, and the continued exposure of systemic racism and cultural appropriation. Our tolerance for the world has shifted. The landscape is so entirely different, a lot of the success lies in the micro-level changes. For example, the individual mindset shifts and the quiet return to heritage craft, cultural traditions and even regenerative agriculture. People want tangible, local, long term solutions that they can see themselves and others in the value chain thriving in. It’s about systematic change, perhaps unseen through the mainstream fashion lens.
You have just launched a new five-part webinar series for fashion professionals looking to use their agency to drive change. What is the goal of this series, and what can participants expect to learn?
For November we’ve launched two series, ‘Responsible Fashion and You’ ‘Responsible Fashion in Practice’, running five workshops over five weeks.
The goal of the series is to reach more people than we have been via our bespoke consulting services and to provide a safe space for fashion professionals to develop and share their learnings. We hope that people will come away from these sessions feeling encouraged to continue their own version of sustainability practice and purpose, knowing that there are a myriad of ways to start and to progress and that every decision does make a difference.
There has been a slow but certain rise in internal sustainability-related positions inside fashion companies over recent years. What advice would you give to young professionals looking to move into this space?
We want people to feel hopeful and excited about all the work that is required. We want people to feel like they can create the positions that are missing – don’t be afraid that you don’t know enough, none of us do, and that’s why we need each other’s fresh ideas and energy.
Beyond sustainability-specific roles, do you believe that those already working in these areas of the fashion industry can start to push for change from the inside too? If so, how?
We can already see how the industry is seeking knowledge. The purpose of our sessions is to enable individuals in understanding how to implement change with confidence on the issues, the business case and the terminology.
There is no one definition of sustainability. There is so much to consider when managing a responsible business, water use, chemical inputs, waste, working conditions etc. It can be confusing and overwhelming. When we work with brands and individuals, we consider how they can implement small changes into their daily work and lives. We know that the fashion industry ultimately wants to learn how to be part of the solution and that’s the best place to start.
In the new year we will also be launching a series of ‘off the shelf’ sprint sessions, hosted by people from our networks. It will be a super focused and affordable access to their expertise on very specific topics such as ‘Cotton’ and ‘Circularity’.
For anyone hoping to launch a sustainable fashion business, what three things should they consider in their business model from the outset?
- Relevance to place
- Product / service balance
- Capacity to consistently transform
There are so many ways to be a ‘sustainable fashion business’ and the possibilities are endless across the entire value chain. People should research what fashion really needs before starting out.
Finally, do you think as opposed to simply reducing its impact, fashion can ever be an active force for good in the world?
The clothing, footwear and textiles industry can make for vibrant and innovative livelihoods and communities if we address and compensate for the true value of what natural resources and people’s time and skills are really worth. In fact it already does, in many ways, we just need to change the emphasis. It’s up to all of us to make sure this happens.
To quote Sarah Mower’s Letter of Hope to the industry, ‘Hope can’t be passive. It has to keep on going, and if we’re to earn the right to feel optimistic, well then, we have a duty to take part in making the world better.’
Interested? The Right Project are running a launch offer of 40% off with the code timetoshift40.