Melinda Tually from Fashion Revolution on how we can create change

Melinda Tually, Australasian co-ordinator for Fashion Revolution and director, NDLESS: The New Normal. Image supplied.

Clothing is something that everyone buys but how often do we think about where that clothing is made, who made it and the conditions that it was made in? The answers aren’t always that easy to find and often mean those workers are underpaid, overworked and are sometimes putting their lives in danger so that we can have new clothing. That is something that Fashion Revolution is aiming to change in the wake of the Rana Plaza factory collapse which killed 1,138 workers in Dhaka, Bangladesh on April 24th 2013. The movement has picked up global momentum over the last five years and asks consumers to use #whomademyclothes to get brands to answer transparently and clean up their supply chains.

Melinda Tually established Fashion Revolution in Australia and New Zealand in 2013 and is a well-respected fashion and retail specialist who advises brands on ethical sourcing, sustainability, supply chain risk, communications and partnerships. Her expertise in Fair Trade accreditation, legislation and knowledge of international and local NGO’s means she is able to assist businesses to develop best practice strategies that are ethical and sustainable. She is incredibly passionate about creating positive change in the fashion industry and is on the Global Advisory Committee for Fashion Revolution.

We caught up with Melinda to find out more about the growth of Fashion Revolution, how you can get involved and why it matters.

How did you first get involved in Fashion Revolution?
I put my hand up at an event where I met Carry Somers and Orsula de Castro (founders of Fashion Revolution). They were introducing the concept of Fashion Revolution just a few months after Rana Plaza had collapsed. They said we want to start this thing called Fashion Revolution Day and we’re looking for people to take part and I was like ‘yes, I’ll run it in Australia and New Zealand.’ So it was an idea then and we got to work with creating the movement and I’ve been running it ever since before the first actual campaign in 2014 on the first anniversary of Rana Plaza took place.

The stats for Fashion Revolution’s social media hashtags last year were huge. People may belittle social media activism but in the case of Fashion Revolution it does work. How has it helped drive the movement and the offline activities?
Yes, there were 533 million impressions of the hashtag and over 2 and a half million people around the world took part offline and online. The stats really shot up last year it was crazy. We’re passionate about bringing people offline as well. I think were around 900 events around the world for Fashion Revolution last year. We’ve got fifty events in Australia and New Zealand alone this year which I’m really proud of. Because it’s an open source movement which is why we have all the resources, the kits and how-to guides and everything to download to encourage people. We want this to be a ground up, grass roots movement. So to see all of these people create their own events and have their own conversations around it, screenings, swaps, panels. It means that it’s working because we’re just giving them the tools and saying if you want to put something on put it on and they’re wanting to put it on. The desire to have this conversation and to know is really there. We’re very passionate about having these offline, in real life conversations as well.

There are so many great resources on how to get involved and the transparency index, garment workers diaries and things to download. There is a lot for people to digest and think about how they want to bring that into their own communities, was that all created to help get people talking?
Yes, because I think there are different entry points into the conversation. Some people are passionate about animal rights, some people are passionate about the environment, some are out for worker’s rights. So there are different entry points for everyone to come into the conversation and then they end up learning more once they’re in there and taking that away. So it’s nice that we’ve been able to do that. I think we’ve tried to give everyone an access point.

There is a great section on Fashion Revolution’s website about education and what you’re doing with schools because it’s so important to be educating young people on these issues. Can you tell me some more about that?
We’ve got lots of schools involved and we have a student ambassador programme for universities around the world. We just had our Google hangout with the them the other night and they’re the future. Even if they’re from different faculties, you’ve got geography faculties and social movement faculties, not just fashion. Because obviously the ecosystem of fashion is not just with designers. It’s with logistics, it’s with economists and everyone. That’s been really fascinating to see all the different faculties that they come from and why they’re passionate about it and what role they think they have in the journey.

The ambassador programme is something I love because if anyone is going to change things it’s going to be them. We need them to be educated in order to change things because if they don’t know and they don’t have the facts we’re just going to keep maintaining the status quo. They’re the generation that are growing up with the climate crisis and the generation that all of this is at the forefront because they’re growing up with social media. I didn’t have all of that coming at me all the time when I was growing up because we didn’t have digital media and we didn’t have news in our faces every minute and they do, and they can’t turn away from it so they’re growing up with this consciousness that we didn’t have when we were younger.

Consumers using the labels on their clothes to ask brands #whomademyclothes?

With Fashion Revolution what you’re essentially asking people to do is ask questions from their favourite designers and brands with #whomademyclothes? What does that conversation look like and how has it been playing out?
We’re trying to open up the conversation and we’re giving people that platform with the #whomademyclothes tool to say have this conversation with the brand. The brands are all on social media now as well. We want people to have a positive conversation as well, we don’t advocate boycotting or naming and shaming or bullying a brand because no brand is perfect and nobody should expect them to be. We’re trying to unravel and unpack a traditionally opaque industry and that doesn’t happen overnight. So you have to let the brands do their work and get on with it and not critique them for not having done something because there is so much to do and there is so much to unpack and there are humans in these teams as well and they can only get through so much.

You can’t re-write sixty years of something in six weeks. So we’re trying to say start that conversation and ask brands these questions and if they know, great, they can come back to you as they’ve done their due diligence and work. If they haven’t done the work then it’s an opportunity for them to say ‘hey boss, a lot of people are asking up these questions and we don’t have the tools to answer them or there is work here and we need to start working on this.’ We need to recognise that transparency isn’t something that the fashion industry is built on. We know that people have been employed in businesses to address this off the back of the campaign because each year they’re like ‘guys we need to be able to answer this and we don’t know.’ So they have hired people and started ethical sourcing programmes to be able to respond which is a fantastic result. If they didn’t have visibility before a lot of them are getting visibility in their supply chains.

Unravelling a brand’s supply chain and going all the way back to where your cotton is picked etc. is like trying to put together a giant jigsaw puzzle right?
Yes, and the way that the world is globalised and the way that production is globalised, they didn’t set it up so you could see all those steps. Nobody wanted to, nobody thought that it was important. So to then walk backwards and try to open up those doors that were closed is really hard.

Seeing lots of other organisations and movements as well like Child Labour Free where people are focusing on lots of different aspects of their supply chain is great to see as well. It’s such important stuff but trying to break it down and fix your supply chain step by step must be an absolute mission? How have you seen the response from brands to what the movement is doing?
It’s been really positive. David Jones have just launched a massive campaign collection focused on Australian-made ethically accredited brands. There’s been GStar, Marimekko, M&S, Zara etc. answer the question. Jeanswest in Australia have showcased their workers. I think a lot of them have seen that this is an opportunity to say we’re not embarrassed by our supply chain. We do know our factory workers, we’re happy for them to say hi and to connect you with them and we’re happy to show you where our factories are. We know we’ve got work to do and yes it’s not perfect and yes we’ve got issues here and there but by and large we’re working through them and if you want to come on the journey with us then great and we’ll let you come on that journey.

We’re not a name and shame movement, we don’t bully brands, we don’t boycott them, we don’t isolate them and pit one brand against another. I think that’s the strength of the movement because we recognise that the issues are industry wide to solve. They’re not going to be solved by any one brand. One brand isn’t going to solve living wages for the whole industry, another brand isn’t going to solve factory safety for the whole industry. We have to collaborate and come together and therefore our call to them is as an industry come together. Not, hey brand you need to be doing more than this. It’s a collective responsibility and I think because that’s our strength, that’s our message, brands have responded and gone ‘ok, yeah, you’re right we need to step up our conversation, we do need to be more transparent.’ We realise that that’s the expectation now, it wasn’t before Rana Plaza really. I mean there were brands doing that like Patagonia publishing their lists way before that but it wasn’t the mainstream expectation. Times have changed and they recognise that and they’ve recognised they need to change with them and have this conversation.

Cotton pickers answering with #imadeyourclothes.

It’s great to see brand’s publishing their ethical policies on their websites, especially locally when there are lots of brands that are designed here but made in China or Bali etc. but they make it clear on their websites what they’re doing. It’s not that no one cared it’s just that previously no one was voicing their concerns in the same way?
Exactly, I think Rana Plaza did change that because I don’t think people realised how dire it could be. I don’t think they realised that people were dying in the name of fashion. Certainly, they weren’t dying in the name of all fashion but there were accidents before Rana Plaza and there have been accidents after it and I don’t think people really understood that. Some people were going to work to sew a tshirt and ended up under five stories of rubble. So I think that did make more people think ‘oh I should be asking this and I should be questioning this and I do want to know.’

I’ve read that some of the brands didn’t actually know that their labels were some of the ones that were found in the rubble?
Yes, because of the subcontracting. That is what came out of it, that it’s no longer ok not to know. So when they say we had no idea it’s like that’s actually true and we understand that but that’s what’s not ok about it. We’ve lacked that much visibility that you had no idea where and in what conditions it was being made and that’s what we’re saying is no longer ok. Even if it’s at arm’s length you need to know.

Transparency is one of the key values of Fashion Revolution. How would you explain that to someone who wasn’t sure what transparency means in this sense?
I think one of the biggest asks of Fashion Revolution is to publish your factory lists. Then transparency in terms of identifying where your production is and brands can start that in very different ways. They can start with saying these are the countries we produce in, best practice now is to publish an actual list of factories addresses and an even better practice now is to identify what that factory is making, whether they are men or women, the proportion of migrant workers, whether there are unions in place. All of those pieces of information give unions on the ground and organisations on the ground information if there was ever an accident they could identify and say there is 3000 people in there and there is a union there so we should go and advocate for that union and give them that information.

Because what we saw at Rana Plaza was they were literally having to pick through the rubble to identify the brands there to find that accountability. Whereas if you can immediately see that that factory has had an accident you can see the brands that are working there and say to the brands ‘hey you need to get on this, can you contact the managers, this is an emergency situation.’ It doesn’t have to be as torturous as going through limbs and picking out a label to be able to say ‘hey, you were there.’ Publishing is one of the biggest asks of transparency and there are lots of other asks of transparency like pricing transparency where people are literally having to reveal their margins. I don’t necessarily think that that’s necessary as businesses are allowed to make money, you’re allowed to put a margin on something, you’re allowed to cover your costs but that is another extension of this hyper transparency and other brands are drilling down and this where the threads are from, this is where the material is from, this is where the packaging is from and they’re doing that. So, it’s all out there now for anybody to take from it what they will.

The other thing we’re seeing is people going against fast fashion and rethinking how much they actually consume. It’s not just how garments are produced it’s the fact that they’re produced in massive volumes and a lot of it just goes to landfill. It’s been great to see consumers rethink what they’re buying and how much they’re buying.
And to look after what they’re buying. We’ve got the Loved Clothes Last campaign as well which is fantastic and helps people fall in love with their clothes again and realise that it’s ok to have something that you’ve worn for five years and still be wearing it because if it makes you feel great what’s the problem with it? And just to embrace longevity and durability in clothing. Olivia has got her #30wears hashtag as well to encourage people to wear their garments more and commit to wearing things more than once. To fight that idea of disposability.

Social media has increased the pressure on young women in particular to wear new outfits all the time and that idea of disposable fashion has never been more prevalent. Have you found that to be the case in your research also?
Yes, there’s definitely peer pressure to be seen in something new all the time and I think social media plays a huge role in that and it preys on that sense of insecurity. I think a strong sense of self goes with that idea of embracing ethical fashion, longevity and slow clothing. You have to know in yourself that you’re ok wearing something five times at that age group, particularly when the message is you’ve got to be wearing something new and shiny every week otherwise you’re not cool. So I think social media has gone hand in hand with that increase in volume.

Some of David Jones’s response to Fashion Revolution Week 2017.

Fashion in general is always talking about what the latest thing is, it’s a trend based industry after all. What are some of the questions that are being asked now in response to the change in thinking with the rise in ethical fashion and more awareness around the issues in fashion?
The media is responsible as well for fuelling those trends. I think it’s a moment in time when the industry is questioning itself in every which way. Like am I a brand coming out with ten collections or should I just come out with four a year? How do I stay in business when others are doing ten or twenty collections a year and I’m only doing four? How as a media organisation am I working with advertisers but at the same time when we’re promoting a slower consumption pattern is that conflicting with each other? Everyone’s having this duel conversations at the moment and it’s going to be interesting to see where things land. It’s incumbent upon the brands, it’s incumbent upon the media, everyone has their role to play and decisions to make.

A couple of years ago there wasn’t the same level of interest in ethical fashion but it seems like the number of people that care has increased, have you found that to be the case?
I think things have really changed in the last year or so, our stats from 2016-17 spiked and it was just bonkers, everyone said to me last year ‘what have you done differently this year?’ And I was like ‘I swear to god, I have no idea. I don’t know what happened but it just went off.’ I think we’ve just tipped the scales now and it’s just fallen into that next bracket where everyone is wanting to take part. I feel like things have really stepped up in the last 12 – 18 months and I think it’s going to keep gaining momentum.

There was always a group of people who were aware of shopping ethically but there has been a global shift in consciousness and it’s filtered down now to the masses and the people that shop at chain stores. It’s been interesting to see customers pushing back against who brands who didn’t do so well on the Baptist Ethical Fashion Guide in the past couple of years. Do you think that’s because people expect better?
Expectations have changed but a lot of brands have been on the back foot and I don’t think it was an evil intention and I don’t think they set out to pull the wool over people’s eyes. It just wasn’t a priority and I think we have to take responsibility for that as well. We weren’t asking these questions, five, six, seven, eight years ago either. There were a small group of people who were that have always been asking these questions but we as consumers were never asking these questions so it’s a bit rich for us to sit there and go ‘oh my god, you’ve done nothing.’ Were were you five years ago? I don’t recall all that conversation then either so we need to take stock. We weren’t calling for it so we need to give the brands a chance to catch up. Yes, you can argue there the ones producing so they should be responsible but we weren’t in a world where traceability and transparency and product stewardship was something that was the norm. Very few brands took that mantle on and they were in the niche so it wasn’t in the mainstream so we have to recognise our role as part of that as well.

One of the many things to come out of this is the renewed interest in the idea of buying things second hand and repairing things you already own and shopping your own wardrobe, what have you noticed in that realm? 
There are some great bloggers now that are helping people reinvent their wardrobes and looking at different ways to style one dress to create different looks. There’s more reinterpretation of the wardrobe and it’s allowing people to be more creative. It’s not just like I bought this and this is the way I wear it. It’s I can wear it this way or I can amend it to be completely different. It’s so exciting watching the different types of events people put on and there are so many make and mend workshops and swapping is huge. People just can’t seem to get enough of fashion swaps. I can’t believe fashion swaps are so popular but it’s quite social and I suppose it’s satiating that need for newness without that feeling that you’re contributing to an excess volume of product.

Another part of that is the rise of garment rentals again, especially online.
I just did a survey last night and found ten different garment rental businesses in NZ. We have a big one in Australia, Glam Corner, and there are lots of smaller ones. I visited Rent the Runway in New York last year and that’s an impressive set up. They’ve got a shop front and people are using it not just for night outfits but women are using it for their work outfits over there. Which I was quite surprised by. I thought they were just going in for frocks but there were a lot of women in their late thirties and forties getting work outfits. Because Rent the Runway have just released a monthly subscription and the customers were going in and getting different tops and things for work and I just wasn’t expecting that. They were rotating stuff and taking advantage of this subscription which meant they could get lots of different tops. You’re shopping these rental these places so you are still getting new stuff each week. It’s a huge business, they’re tipping consignment and rentals to replace conventional clothing consumption.

What do you want consumers to take away from this particular Fashion Revolution Week?
I think this is a real chance to remember that this is the five year anniversary of the Rana Plaza collapse and five years since the genesis since of Fashion Revolution and I think this year we are really looking to reflect on that. To commemorate the lives lost again but to look at what we have achieved as an industry and where we have moved forward and where we are yet to really gain traction moving forward. I think there are some areas where we have seen some great successes and we should be celebrating that because you have to celebrate to keep the momentum going. I think it’s really important to call out the good things that are happening while still shining a lot on all the stuff that needs to happen but you do need to do both.

And really questioning why we haven’t seen progress in some areas and what did the industry do right here to see progress and what has stifled progress here and why haven’t we gained traction? And really use it as a chance to take stock and look back in that way. We obviously want people to keep asking #whomademyclothes?, still lots of brands aren’t having the conversation and aren’t transparent. Nobody should be bullied into doing so, brands have to find their level of comfort before they start talking. We need to encourage them as it’s a conversation that’s still going on and we want to know that from them. And then look back and see where we need to focus as an industry because there are so many issues. The plethora of issues that are being addressed is mind-numbing.

I actually work with brands as a consultant doing exactly what #whomademyclothes is asking and there are just so many different issues and you’ve got so many different NGOS asking for different things as well. Whether it’s animal rights, environmental rights or labour rights and we’re trying to address everyone’s concerns as well as actually do the work. It’s tricky and I sometimes think maybe is that why we haven’t seen progress in certain areas because we’re trying to do a bit of everything because everyone is wanting a bit of everything done and you’re like I just want to be able to move forward here and see some progress but it’s terribly hard when the issues are broad and everyone wants to see something.

Sometimes there will be three people in a team doing this in a company of thousands and a lot of the bigger brands have hundreds of people in their ethical sourcing teams overseas. They can really make a meal out of something and announce something and it means something. Some brands have half a resource, have one person, have three, have five and it’s hard to gain traction, particularly in the space of a year when you’re trying to change some big issues, 12 months is not very long to achieve that. So I also understand how hard the journey is but it does come down to the direction of management and how much they invest and want to see traction in this space because ultimately if they want to be a pioneer and a leader in responsible fashion they’ll put the investment in that area to assist those people to achieve that.

At the end of the day we all make decisions that affect this every day, we should all be taking responsibility and doing our part right?
Yes. We’re all stakeholders, whether it’s a sixteen year old fashion lover or the head of a fashion company. And that’s something we want to get across as well. We’ve all got a role to play, we’ve all got a voice in this, there’s no point in pointing fingers. It’s a shared responsibility and together we can create change.

Images supplied.

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