Cotton On & Sustainable Design
by Deborah Miarkowska
So what do we mean when we talk about sustainable design?
Sustainability and Sustainable are words that are used in all manner of ways, oftern with little thought as to what they actually mean. When it comes to sustainable design, the general consensus seems to be that it is to do with designing products with their environmental, social and economic impact in mind, under the guiding auspice of providing for the present, without compromising the needs of future generations.
When it comes to fashion, things get more focused. With so much attention given to the often exploitative labour conditions under which many garments sold on the UK high street are made, and an awareness of the environmental implications of fickle-throwaway fashion, sustainable (fashion) design isn’t simply about taking into consideration the needs of future generations, but also about the present generation and how our demand for clothing affects them, no matter how geographically distant they may be.
Both Tamsin Lejeune Director of the Ethical Fashion Forum and Abigail Petit Director of Gossypium, gave a powerfiul and interesting insight with their discussion around sustainability in design at the Cotton On Conference.
Tamsin Lejeune introduced herself and the Ethical fashion Forum and explained about how she’d been involved in founding the EFF. She faced many challenges initially to get the London fashion colleges on board and willing to even discuss “sustainable design”. She described how she had started by badgering Central St Martins Fashion department, eventually arranging a workshop for their students - only 2 students attended the workshop. This was four years ago.
Today they have much better relations with all the main London colleges. She described how they are motivated to get creativity and sustainability working in unison. She described several different projects run by Ethical Fashion Forum, including their online networking site.
Sustainable design applied to business…
Interestingly Tamsin emphasized how “sustainable design” applies to business organisations themselves as well as the garment designs being produced. At the EFF they consider “sustainable design” to be the attempt to maximise the benefits to people whilst minimising the damage to the environment.
Tamsin then gave a series of examples of different designers and companies who have worked with EFF and are implementing sustainable design practices. These included designers working with disadvantaged communities in countries such as Kenya and even in London - a group of Bangladeshi women in the Brick Lane area. Several of the examples were of designers/companies using recycled fabrics and materials, or using otherwise wasted off-cuts. She gave the example of People Tree as a Fair Trade fashion company who have really raised the profile of ethical fashion through their collaborations with well-known and up-coming designers.
Abigail Petit, Director of Gossypium- Sustainability and Design is it achievable?
“We hear the word sustainability everywhere we go now. It was creeping onto the agenda when I worked as a lobbyist in Brussels fifteen years ago. Already it was starting to replace speed and free markets as the objective of many. Considering this fact, it is taking a very long time to be realised. Why? Because it’s actually very hard to achieve.
Why? Maybe because we have created a world of fast change; we have, collectively and progressively, created a world where the thrill of newness is all around us (don’t feel guilty now, because guilt blocks everything), where instant gratification and getting ahead of others counts so highly.
I don’t know whether any of you were at the RITE conference on sustainable textiles a couple of years ago, but a German professor got up and bravely announced that sustainability was perhaps a little boring. A bit like a marriage! I would contest that neither marriages nor being sustainable need to be boring - it’s just that the changes and evolutions need to be smaller, more subtle, and always fair.
It is hard to be sustainable - it’s easy when things go wrong to throw our hands in the air and change everything. It is harder to stay patient, reflect in more detail, and enjoy the small stuff.
We are here to talk about sustainable trade - it’s so great to see Monika Philbrick from Traidcraft here today. I first worked with her at Traidcraft twenty five years ago - I remember she had to sell the first Fairtrade clothes I came up with. She has been living sustainably ever since; I couldn’t at the time.
Ok I was only twenty two but I had been raised in an upwardly mobile microcosm a bit ahead of my social time and felt the blunted superficial view that it leaves you with very keenly. I became totally committed to finding and creating sustainability - my commitment was enough.
The price of un-sustainability is starting to bite us all now; if growing cotton is not making a living for a family (we are talking revenues of less than £300 a year) they send their best son off to the Gulf, which means no wife and kids in the house, no one to hand over to, and before long no more cotton.
Earlier this week someone put a book into my hands: “The Spirit Level - Why equal Societies almost always do better”. Chapter 2 starts with a quote by Marshall Sahlin:
“Poverty is not a certain small amount of goods, nor is it just a relation between means and ends, above all it is a relation between people”.
Our work starts with that relationship. In the world of textiles I’m sure it was never rosy - there were always the loom owners who made weavers work for a pittance and pay high rents, but living in the next village they could see quite quickly if they could not afford to eat, and somehow kept the arrangement sustainable otherwise they would not get their cloth. Ask Carolyn from Bishopston on that story - her weavers recently got out from under such an arrangement. An achievement Bishopston Trading, can be very proud of.
But now we work globally and people seem able to tip the balance of inequality more freely when they can’t see the result in the street, when they go about their local community. When I took up the challenge in 1997 to work with Agrocel to improve the lot of Indian cotton farmers, I saw the global textile and clothing industry that I knew so well, like an inverted pyramid with the whole might and power of this massive industry balancing on a single fragile point.
The first farmer I met was introduced as “a good farmer”. I took a double take. Straight out of the chemical lists in Brussels where there were green, amber and red lists of good, bad and banned chemicals - my judgement followed the chemicals and the lists. Here I was talking to a human being who was being “a good farmer” - judged by the fact that he grew healthy plants in healthy soil, without wasting water. Growing plants that were resistant and strong and which bore healthy fruits (or cotton bolls). It was indeed a relationship.
My eyes were wide as I watched him walk barefoot in his field, tenderly looking under the leaves of his plants and flicking off any insects he saw there. I was humbled by the simplicity and gentleness of what was going on between this man and his plants. If only he knew how cut throat, almost violent, the journey ahead would be for his precious cotton fibres in their travels from field to flashy megastore.
Our definition of sustainability following these experiences in the cotton fields was simply to treat this product, and its farmer, with the respect that they deserve. Sustainability started in our minds; we, two floating Europeans, saw our farming friends as equals. Simple. In fact it went a little further, if one considers that they act as custodians of our world looking after our CO2, our soil, our water, we actually needed to serve them.
And so we called our brand Gossypium - the botanical name of the cotton seed that the farmer plants in the soil. We vowed to put the cotton and its farmers at the heart of our products. We knew we were starting at the complete opposite end from the rest of the clothing industry, which starts with a perceived or real consumer desire. As you can imagine, working backwards as we do, we have been on quite a challenging design journey to sell products designed to please the farmer first!
Firstly we chose products where people wish to feel their cotton: nightwear, bed linens, underwear and baby clothes.
We learned that people need to be attracted to the products by the colours, that they need to fit well, but we also learned that once they get their Gossypium products home they start to appreciate the quality of the cotton; the fabrics we make without chemical fillers and finishes and the designs that they can wear without tiring of.
But it’s a slow process. It’s easy to sell baby clothes printed with cute designs - grandmothers, uncles and friends cannot resist buying them. The next step follows a few weeks later - as I witnessed in my recently opened Brighton shop last week. A woman came purposefully in, she went straight to the nightwear and selected herself a top and trousers ( even though we didn’t have quite her size). She was buying it, she told me, because she had so loved washing and ironing and cuddling her baby in his Gossypium pyjamas that she wanted some for herself!
And so by definition we have created a slow growing, but sustainable business. Customers come back. We tell as much as we can on the labels - and there are the Fairtrade and organic logos - but you can’t tell someone it’s sustainable; they have to discover it for themselves.
We did create a fashion inside that woman’s family. I’m sure her husband will be in for our sheets and towels next.
Buying “ethical products” is becoming “fashionable” and one thing we do is tag, label and wrap our products so that they become distinctive, feel-good gifts.
For me there are a few different meanings to the word fashionable that need to be separated out. The first is that making something “fashionable” is getting it into a state where people copy others to be seen in it. Not many of our customers take that route actually - especially as most of our products are worn and used inside the home.
The second is the speed of change of design in the “fashion” industry. I remember a few years ago I was selling some baby clothes into Topshop. How often do you change your prints? She asked, and I proudly replied - this one is our best seller, we have had it for five years and it’s still going strong! I was proud. Her face fell. I realised we were working at a tangent and rather than change, we walked away from selling into the classical fashion stores.
But fashioning our own designs and styles is not something we scrimp on. Even when we re-run styles, we tweak and improve them, change the colours, add some details.
Sometimes we long to throw the styles away and get new ones but we daren’t now. Our oldest designs are our most loved by the most number of people. So many customers of our yoga trousers for example will replace them every one, two or three years - depending on their own shopping budget. Some of them wait for the ends of lines sales to do so, but they will always replace them in the end.
Last year we followed the trend for lighter fabrics, I weighed a high street T-shirt recently, it came in at 62 g - less than a bar of chocolate.
Some customers complained bitterly - “where are the heavy cosy fabrics now?” They asked. Others felt more comfortable in light clothes, more akin to what they could get elsewhere. We’ve expanded the range to carry both weights.
Warmth is not usually something to design for but we’ve just designed a range of super cosy pyjamas with hoods and hats for this winter. It’s wildly colourful, with something for everyone. They are going to feel great and last for ages - just in case it becomes fashionable for eco-green, or economic reasons, to turn down the heating….
It takes eight months to grow the cotton, three months of textile processing and one month on the high seas to get a garment from our farmers to our customers. That’s a whole year.
My maxim is that- out of fairness - it has to be worn for as long!
Abi Petit, Co-founder & Director of Gossypium
This facinating session rounded up with a floor discussion and much of this focussed around the experiences of the fashion/textiles students in the audience. Several felt they had been actively discouraged from looking at ethics and sustainability by their course tutors. Tamsin echoed this experience and I think it was Liz from Fashioning and Ethical Industry who offered the insight that a certain generation of tutors probably cannot offer leadership on sustainability issues in design practice because it simply is not something that they are familiar with, and hence the need for organisations such as EFF. A request was put to Tamsin for regional centres of EFF in order to reach those students not based in London, this is something EFF are trying to address.
An interesting, passionate and funny insight into the world of sustainability, with special thanks to Abi and Tamsin.