Sustainability Sessions: The Conscious Closet

Photographer: Adam Duke

Hosted by Melissa Hemsley, the fifth Sustainability Sessions focused on the topic of sustainable fashion, with panelists Venetia Falconer, Orsola de Castro, Amy Powney of Mother of Pearl and Professor Rebecca Earley offering their thoughts and hopes for the fashion industry.

Melissa Hemsley’s Sustainability Sessions were born out of the hope that a connection with like-minded people could lessen the anxieties surrounding the climate crisis, opening up discussions on topics from women’s health to career advice within the realm of sustainable living. The fifth in the series titled The Conscious Closet brought together slow fashion advocate Venetia Falconer, Orsola de Castro of Fashion Revolution, sustainable designer Amy Powney of Mother of Pearl and fashion textile designer Professor Rebecca Earley.

The conversation opened with each of the speakers detailing what first introduced them to sustainable fashion and the ways in which their careers and lives have followed suit. For Amy Powney, becoming the designer of Mother of Pearl opened up the opportunity to introduce sustainable practices to the brand, in addition to beginning to “connect the dots” throughout the supply chain. Not only did overhauling the brand’s transparency and sustainable credentials prove to be cheaper for the brand, but also presented Mother of Pearl as a case study for other brands to follow.

From left to right: Venetia Falconer and Professor Rebecca Earley, Amy Powney and Orsola de Castro

Professor Rebecca Earley spoke of her journey from being a textile designer producing and printing her own textiles and prints to better understanding the toxic effects of the chemicals and processes she was using were having on the planet. Now a researcher on circular economy and part of an academic group within the University of the Arts London, Centre for Circular Design, Rebecca spoke of her hopes for the industry’s future, focusing on the whole loop and an industrial symbiosis – the concept of one person’s waste becoming another person’s raw materials.

Fashion Revolution’s social media campaign ‘Who Made My Clothes’ earlier this year encouraged Instagrammers to consider where their clothes were coming from, asking big fast fashion brands to be more transparent about their supply chains. Orsola de Castro explained the origin of the hashtag as “being the simplest yet most complicated question” they could think to ask. She detailed how the campaign highlighted the importance of celebrating the people making our clothes and the power of honesty within the industry. Perhaps Orsola’s most poignant comment was about encouraging people to find what fits, trusting your gut with what feels right and aligns with your morals. 

Venetia Falconer’s focus has shifted since she first discovered the truth about fast fashion, moving from an initial commitment to sustainable brands to now considering consumption as a whole. She discussed her awareness about her socio-economic privilege, shopping in charity shops out of choice rather than necessity. She recognised that she has the time to both think about and action everything that it takes to live a sustainable lifestyle. This is reiterated by Orsola, who questions how the responsibility to consider the environmental impact of our actions currently falls on the individual, when it should instead be falling on larger authorities. Expecting those in less fortunate situations to, on top of everything else, always consider the planet is “unrealistic and unkind”, she said.

It is here where the concept of an echo chamber was brought up. How do you reach those beyond your audience, to begin to change the minds of those who are very much still engaging with fast fashion and throwaway culture? For Venetia, it is targeting the Love Island market; a reality TV programme that not only is heavily sponsored by online fast fashion retailers, but whose contestants also go on to promote fast fashion on social media when leaving the show.

Host Melissa Hemsley and her panelists

The discussion moved on to focus on how we can unite the conversation between consumers, designers and as a society as a whole. Amy Powney and Professor Rebecca Earley weigh in with their views on the educational system currently taught to fashion students. Amy shares her experience with design students asking for advice: “I see a lot of portfolios with students trying to address sustainability, using natural dyes from avocado stones. I’d rather see someone with great design skills that I can then teach about sustainability myself.” The future for Orsola is much more about connecting with other industries; her vision is for fashion students to be working with marine biologists, for example, to better understand fabrics and their environmental effects.

Melissa, being a chef herself, brings up the topic of Organic September and how this can be carried over to the fashion industry. She questions how people are forgetting that fabrics begin on a farm, suggesting that we are closed off from where things originate. It is discussed how, though organic materials are always the preferential choice, it does not always guarantee sustainability: “If everyone just wore hemp, it would no longer be a sustainable material”. There is a need for balance, for biodiversity in order for things to be considered sustainable.

The session ended with questions from the audience, with perhaps the most hopeful being from a listener who worked on the Secondhand September campaign, asking whether by next year the possibility of such a movement will have become redundant. Considering this, the panelists discussed how technology can help to move this along, with resale apps and renting platforms having gained an increased traction. The evening closed with a feeling of confidence for the future of fashion and how, through the constant advance in education and knowledge on the topic, the industry appears to be changing for the better.

Find out more information on the upcoming Sustainability Sessions and how to get involved.


Learn more about where to start when it comes to dressing ethically.

Read our takeaways from the Seven Sesssions: Know the Origin of Your Fashion Product event.

See what’s coming up on our sustainability events calendar.