Fashion Question Time: Rights, Relationships and Revolution
Fashion Revolution is a global fashion activism movement which aims to create a global fashion industry that conserves and restores the environment and values people over growth and profit.

Fashion Revolution Week
"is the time when we come together as a global community to create a better fashion industry." Fashion Revolution Week takes place once a year, the week coinciding with 24th April, the anniversary of the Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh, a factory which manufactured clothing for many of the biggest global fashion brands. Rana Plaza collapsed killing 1,134 people and injured more than 2,500 others, mostly young women, making it the fourth largest industrial disaster in history.
This year Fashion Revolution week ran from the 19th – 25th April and it was a week that focused on all things sustainable fashion. It was kicked off by a Fashion Question Time titled Rights, Relationships and Revolution. The questions covered how the fashion industry intertwines with climate and racial issues as well as considering the question of how governments can play a part in enforcing sustainable fashion practices within the industry. The panel was diverse and comprised Nicole Rycroft (founder and executive director of Canopy), Nazma Akter (a Bangladeshi trade unionist, founder of AWAJ Foundation and Sommilito Garments Sramik Federation), Lara Wolters (a Dutch politician and member of the European Parliament) and Sunny Dolat (a stylist, production designer and creative director, co-founder of The Nest Collective and member of Fashion Revolution Kenya).

The Founder and Global Operations Director of Fashion Revolution, Carry Somers, prefaces the question time with a speech about the effect humans have on the environment. Specifically, Carry mentions the explorer Alexander von Humboldt and states that "Humboldt was the first person to link colonialism with the devastation of the environment". It is clear from Carry's speech that we must "recognise that everything is connected" and that translates to the fashion industry as well: everything in the fashion supply chain has a cause and effect. Nothing can be taken in isolation. For, as Humboldt says, "everything hangs together, if one thread is pulled, the whole tapestry may unravel".

Here we have written up the key points covered by the panellists during the Question Time.
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How does the relationship between climate justice and racial justice play out in the fashion industry and what should companies be doing in this area?

Lara Wolters makes the point that social media is a good force in the revolution against fast fashion because it gives a voice to oppressed people who were before unheard. Oppressed people have been able to shed light on the global consequences of the fashion industry. Thanks to this technology, problems in the fashion industry (such as forced labour in the cotton industry in Qingyang, China) "get exposed much more quickly". Consequently, brands can no longer sit "on the side-line in some of these questions". However, even though these problems becoming more visible, Lara highlights that we don't yet have all the solutions but we need to keep up the consumer pressure.
Lara also highlights that she is a policymaker at the European Parliament and is working on a proposal for a 'Duty of Care' and a 'Do No Harm' law for companies regarding human rights and the environment.

Sunny Dolat speaks about how the fashion industry relies a lot on black, brown and indigenous labour and how the people that are going to suffer first as a result of the climate crisis are these groups. In the areas where these groups live, for instance in Bangladesh, the wastewater from the fashion industry is polluting their rivers and the areas surrounding the factories. Therefore, these people are going to face the environmental consequences of the fashion industry first, not those sat in first-world countries.

Sunny also points out that brands operating in new factories need to learn from the mistakes of what has happened in other factories. For example, in Ethiopia they have received government incentives to build factories, but Ethiopia doesn't have a minimum wage. Brands should learn from the error of not paying workers a living wage in their other factories and not bring this mistake to Ethiopia.

Do you think any form of consumption can be sustainable under capitalism or do we need to revolutionise all our world systems for a sustainable future?

Nazma Akter says that the people who are at the top of big companies are the people who make the legislation and policies. These are then the same people who cause hunger and exploit workers. So, Nazma states that you can't have sustainable fashion and worker rights with the way the system is set up. She also goes on to say that the Rana Plaza collapse was in 2013 and asks what has changed. The people at the top are so disconnected from the workers' day-to-day lives and their struggles. According to Nazma, brands haven't physically visited the factories during Covid-19 and they haven't shown any action to ensure that the factories are Covid safe. As such, the workers are expected to just get on with their daily working life as if the pandemic doesn't exist.
Do you think we can normalise government incentives to brands and retailers who choose to adopt meaningful and responsible innovations?

Sunny says that in Kenya farmers are experimenting with more sustainable materials such as banana fibre, nettles and water hyacinth. He thinks that the government should incentivise farmers to research these new materials so that we don't go back to the days of Kenya being full of cotton farms. He adds that, as well as incentives, there should be penalties for brands who don't choose responsible ways of working.

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Lara believes that the voluntary certificates companies can get these days encourages greenwashing because it's easy to obtain a certificate to say you are doing something sustainable (e.g. 1% For the Planet). What you need is governments bringing in legislation which enforces sustainable behaviour, this is what is going to create change. She emphasises that if the people who actually want to do good and create sustainable fashion products aren't supported by legislation, then those who are not striving to do good can end up making more profit in comparison. This is because these companies are not investing in sustainable ways of working and aren't penalised by the government for this.

Can the panel talk about the relationship between the fashion industry and deforestation, specifically relating to the ways in which the fashion industry contributes to land grabbing and infringes upon the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples?

Nicole answers this by making the point that the link between deforestation and indigenous peoples' rights is very strong. For example, in Indonesia, where there is a large amount of viscose production, indigenous people have been struggling for a long time to try to regain access to their own land.

How do we get big brands to question their growth initiatives and take the steps to make less, make better, and pay more?

Nazma makes the great point that people cannot live without living wages. This is incredibly important, she says, because of the fact that Primark makes a massive yearly turnover and the Bangladeshi garment worker salary is less than $100 a month. This issue needs to be resolved because they no longer want to be treated like charity. They want ownership and they want their profit share and Nazma encourages businesses to listen to its workers.

Nazma goes on to make the impassioned point that the huge amount of pressure put on garment workers to keep up with the volume of clothes makes them ill. To create a sustainable fashion industry, brands need to prioritise the health of their workers and look after their food, housing, clothing, health and education. Nazma ends by saying that we need to be thinking about the next generation, the garment workers' children, because they depend on things changing.
Lara points out that the true cost of orders being cancelled during the pandemic is not just a loss of brand revenue on balance sheets. The true cost is people going hungry, people being displaced and fired from their work. Lara also says that there needs to be more consumer rights so that we can take action against companies for their wrongdoings. She makes the example that, if you own a Volkswagon car, you can take them to court about the fact that they are incredibly polluting but if you don't own one then you can't take them to court because you're not a consumer of Volkswagon, even though you're affected by the fumes. This is an example of a lack of consumer rights.

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In light of the industry's quest for justice and planetary equilibrium, how do the panellists think we should be thinking about growth, taking those often-opposing forces into consideration?

Nicole says that growth shouldn't be linear, it should be circular. We shouldn't be relying on raw materials. We need to start using things in a more circular way and that means choosing recycled materials and agricultural residue. She wants brands to encourage renting and repairing. She makes the important point that you can grow a business without increasing the amount of units produced. You can grow it through renting, repairing and recycling. Brands need to be making these changes now because in 15 years the raw materials won't be there for brands to access. Therefore, it's beneficial for them as well.
How can the fashion industry work to uphold the rights of children, both as vulnerable parties in the supply chain and as inheritors of an ever-changing planet?

Nazma says that factories need to have correct maternity procedures in place. Especially when women do come back to work and there are no childcare facilities at the factories. The children then have to be sent off to their grandparents which makes the parents upset at work, leading to mistakes.

How long do you think it will take until we can achieve a fashion system that respects all people, plants, creatures and ecosystems?

Nazma says that if everybody got their act together today, we could do it tomorrow. We've got the UN Sustainable Development Goals which should hopefully help.

Nicole says scientists have given us 10 years to turn around our supply chain, so we have until 2030 and Covid has shown us that we can change overnight if we need to.

To end the Q&A, Orsola de Castro (Founder and Global Creative Director of Fashion Revolution) states that "there are no experts or learners in this life, we are always and continuously both. We need nothing less than a total redesign of our systems and values if we wish to continue to evolve within this nature." She continues to say that, regarding supply chain transparency, "we need mandatory transparency beyond tier one, compulsory due diligence, living wages, laws and regulations to protect everyone who is affected by the fashion industry." She leaves by saying that "this is not just a business opportunity, this is first and foremost a moral obligation."

You can watch the full Q&A on YouTube on Fashion Revolution's channel.
Article by Catherine McAteer