Vanessa Thompson from Unravelled Consultants. Image supplied.
Vanessa Thompson from Unravelled Consultants is an expert on sustainability in the fashion industry. After over a decade working for various fashion brands she set about educating herself on sustainable practices and issues, building a network of global contacts who are innovating positive change in the fashion industry. Vanessa launched her own consulting company, Unravelled Consultants here in New Zealand in 2018 and has worked with several leading local brands including Maggie Marilyn, RUBY, Kathryn Wilson and Merchant 1948 to date. Through her work Vanessa shares her rich understanding of the concepts and pillars of sustainability spanning both environmental and social with her clients, enabling them to improve their businesses in a meaningful way.
As she has a great depth of knowledge in sustainability and it’s something we’re passionate about here at FashioNZ, as are many of you, our readers, from next month we’ll be launching a column on FashioNZ where Vanessa will answer your burning questions on sustainability. So if there’s ever anything you’ve wondered about in terms of sustainability whether a broad question or a really specific one you can email us at [email protected] with your questions for Vanessa. We’ll forward them to her and she’ll answer a few each month on our site, that way we can all learn more together and build a resource of answers for you on sustainability. We’re starting with this story this week during Fashion Revolution Week as we are globally focused on the ethics and sustainablity of the fashion industry.
To get to know her better we asked Vanessa a few questions about her sustainability journey, why Fashion Revolution Week matters and who her favourite local brands are?
Tell us about your background, what made you get into fashion and what do you love about it?
I have always been passionate about style, colour and print – and was drawn to it from a young age. Fashion gives us a way of expressing our individuality to the outside world, and nothing beats the way you feel when you wear that perfect dress!
I studied Fashion Design at Whitecliffe College, before being accepted into the London College of Fashion in the UK, where I completed a BA(Hons) in Fashion Management. When I returned home to New Zealand, I spent over a decade working for some of New Zealand’s leading retailers and brands, including Glassons, Max, Bendon and Farmers in their Buying department.
How did your interest in sustainability and ethical fashion come about?
Before travelling one year I decided to do a clean out of my wardrobe, and proceeded to put all of my unloved clothes into the local clothing bin. This sparked a thought… ‘I wonder where all this goes?’… this then led to a search on Google, and from that moment it changed my life.
What made you decide to turn your interest in it into a business?
After I began researching, reading and studying the devastating effects of the current fashion system, it was clear that fashion retail businesses play a vital role in contributing to this global issue. I was in a unique position, as not only did I have knowledge in sustainable practices and issues, and contacts worldwide who were innovating, collaborating and promoting sustainable solutions, but I also had a clear understanding of how retail and fashion businesses operate and how to work with international supply chains. So instead of setting up my own label, I felt my skills were better suited to helping existing businesses do better.
What services do you offer brands with your business?
I formed my consultancy Unravelled to help businesses implement and action sustainable practices. Most businesses I meet have their own set of goals they are wanting help with, but I can also provide them a framework of different initiatives to action in order to make sure they are covering the key impact areas, and can open up opportunities. The areas where most businesses want to start are sustainable alternative materials and fabrics, and reducing plastic packaging. I connect my clients with global suppliers who help with solutions, as well as help guide them on storytelling, and how to avoid ‘green-washing’ their customers. Often it is the small changes a business can make that can have the biggest impact.
Vanessa teaching students about sustainability in the fashion industry.
Unravelling a brand’s supply chain and going all the way back to where the cotton is picked etc. is like trying to put together a giant jigsaw puzzle right? Where do you start when you’re working with brands?
The fashion supply chain is long, complex and in most cases very opaque. It has been built on secrets! This makes it very difficult, overwhelming and time consuming for brands to start digging in from the top down. What I try to explain to brands I work with is it is sometimes easier and more transparent to rebuild their supply chain from the bottom up! By exploring and engaging the raw material suppliers directly, you open up opportunities for new relationships, story telling and traceability from the beginning. You can then follow this through the chain at each stage, creating a transparent and traceable supply chain. For the first couple of seasons, this will be more time consuming for the brands as they look to engage each supplier at each stage of the chain, but once they are used to it, it will become business as usual.
What has the response been like so far to your business?
So far the response has been great, there has been a huge growth from retailers especially in the last six months! The more consumers ask brands questions, and demand better information, the more brands have to step up and focus on the ethics and impacts of their business. Collaboration is key for me as well. I love working with other people, businesses and associations who are also passionate about helping and improving the way businesses reduce their social and environmental impacts. No one will be able to fix these global issues alone.
Why does Fashion Revolution Week matter and what does it mean to you?
Fashion Revolution Week is super important, as it marks the anniversary of one of the biggest disasters of our time. The Rana Plaza in Bangladesh was a factory making garments for many large retailers. The building was unsafe, and on the 24th April 2013 the building collapsed, killing over 1,100 people.
For me, this was absolutely devastating and created so many questions. Why did this happen? How could this happen? Why did all of these people die for clothing? It didn’t seem right. The most worrying fact, was that many of the brands that were being produced by this garment factory did not know that their products were being made there – which then highlighted the lack of transparency in the fashion supply chain.
Fashion Revolution has done great things for the industry, educating consumers on how the fashion supply chain works, and giving them a platform to voice their concerns, and demand from brands #whomademyclothes.
Transparency is one of the key values of Fashion Revolution Week. How would you explain that to someone who wasn’t sure what transparency means in this sense?
Fashion Revolution and consumers are demanding more transparency from brands. Transparency means that brands and retailers should know who is making their products, and then share this information with their customers. I.e. where was the t-shirt sewn together, where was the t-shirt dyed, where was the cotton fabric knitted, where was the cotton grown etc etc? The more transparent a brand is with their customers, the more a customer can connect and ensure their values are being upheld by their favourite brand. There are opportunities for brands to act transparently too, it helps them to avoid risk, create connections with their suppliers, and open up dialogue in their supply chain.
A fashion workroom from one of Vanessa’s visits to check out suppliers.
Which people and accounts do you recommend people follow on Instagram for sustainability inspiration?
Some of my faves are: @fash_rev, @fash_rev_newzealand , @thesustainablefashionforum , @mrspress , @ecoage , @ethicallykate , @venetiafalconer , @fashionourfuture , @getredressed
Who are your favourite local brands?
My favourite local fashion brands are – all of my fantastic clients of course but I also love the offerings of Kate Sylvester, Twenty Seven Names, Marle, Tonic & Cloth, Ovna Ovich, Loclaire, Sunday Projects and Yu Mei.
What makes you excited about the future?
There are so many exciting innovations being developed by collaborations between fashion brands, tech innovators and scientists at the moment – I have a hopeful feeling the future of the fashion industry will look very different to how it does now.