How dirty is the fashion industry really? Why is it not sustainable yet and can it ever be? And why does crisis keep us awake? Big questions that we are deep diving into with Christina Dean, a sustainable fashion advocate who Founded charity Redress, and luxury sustainable fashion brand The R Collective, both on a mission to tackle waste and clean up the fashion industry.
I dreamt about working in fashion my whole life, and then after landing my dream job, I was rudely awoken to the truth behind the figurative “glamours curtain” of the industry. This is why I have always loved to followed leaders in the sustainable fashion movement. Christina Dean was one of them. Not only does she oose humility and unwavering commitment to addressing fashions dirty faults, she does it with total grace and humour.
Christina Founded charity Redress in 2007, with its mission to reduce waste in the fashion industry and run the leading sustainable fashion design competition Redress Design Award. She also Founded The R Collective, in 2017, which creates sustainable luxury fashion by upcycling luxury brands’ waste materials, which debuted in Barneys New York and Lane Crawford.
Christina is also an award-winning journalist, having written opinion pieces for CNN Style, Huffington Post and China Daily, as is widely quoted in VOGUEs, BBC, New York Times, Forbes and Bloomberg Business Week. She hosted the TV documentary, Frontline Fashion and was listed by UK Vogue as one of the UK’s ‘Top 30 Inspirational Women’.
In this interview (which you can also listen to on the Live Wide Awake podcast here) deep diving into where we should put the fight to make fashion a force for good, how we can navigate through greenwashing and where to pull strength from in moments of adversity.
IMAGE: Christina Dean sits on top of a pile of clothes that surround her. Image by Luke Casey.
What was the catalyst of your sustainable fashion journey?
The catalyst that kick-started my interest or passion in sustainable fashion actually came through my previous career as a journalist where I wrote about environmental pollution and public health issues, which in turn stemmed from my previous career as a dentist.
I basically had this very interesting genesis looking at the environmental impact of the fashion industry and then linking it to different aspects, including our soil, water, people and eventually public health. As you get older, the more you realize that you are influenced by your upbringing. Having parents working in the public health sector it was a topic that stuck with me.
Fast forward to 2005, I was looking at the industrial pollution in China and it just did not sit well with people’s health. Because of that, the protective side of me felt unjust that some of the disadvantaged people of the planet are essentially those who are really most negatively impacted by public health issues. To me, this is just not right. Therefore, I devoted my blood, sweat, and tears with a 100% focus on sustainable fashion since 2007 and that in fact, was how my journey began.
Apart from the social stigma associated with sustainable fashion, I believe you also faced many challenges and setbacks in your journey. How do you overcome them?
Yes, I can attest to the fact that in the early years the social stigma associated with sustainable fashion, such as it being largely regarded as frivolous nonsense. However, this has improved over the years because now people understand that sustainable fashion is not a frivolous and silly thing. Particularly, if you look at the sustainable development goals and of course we know there are 17 of them, roughly, roughly 11 of those SDGs can be positively impacted or negatively by the fashion industry. And I feel whether the outside world has changed or I have individually changed, the fashion industry is one of the best industries to be working in. It is bona fide and draws upon political and economic issues. Above all, it is actually about people.
From being an outsider to the industry for a long time, such as being a dentist and a journalist, I battled my way into the fashion industry through brute force and through brute determination and with a fundamental dog with a bone question. In the early part of my career, I was banging on the outside of the curve of the industry with an expectation of how the industry ought to behave. However, the beauty of it is that it is only through experience that you start to understand what is happening on the inside and it is actually a mix of amazing and awful stuff.
Change is a word of urgency that people use all the time and it somehow irritates me because at Redress we have been using this word urgent, urgent, urgent, urgent since 2007. In fact, we have used it too much to the extent that it means nothing anymore. So perhaps in 2019, I felt jaded whenever I revisited the concept of urgency with the understanding that not a lot is being done about it. Nonetheless, I still held onto my faith in the sustainable fashion industry because I know what the solutions need to be.
Essentially, we need to collaborate. We know we have to do it, but there does not seem to be enough balls on the table to actually get it done. The COVID pandemic has basically shredded everyone’s ego to pieces and crumpled all of us like a pack of cards that falls to the ground. I feel that in our brokenness, there is this great opportunity to be more courageous as we come forward to rebuild our armour and regain our robustness as a society. I feel even more excited now to get all of these collaborative efforts going.
As someone who has been on the ground all these years, could you share with us just how ‘dirty’ the fashion industry really is?
There are so many awful stats across waste, water pollution, climate impact, impact on biodiversity, etc. We have to look at what we are wearing as a product of agriculture through cotton, a product of oil refinery through polyester mix extraction, and so on. A ‘trendy’ stat at the moment is that the fashion industry contributes about 10% of global CO2, which is more than maritime and airlines combined.
To be honest, I think 10% of global CO2 is pretty atrocious. Also, 20% of industrial water pollution is merely just textile finishing and dying, which is awful. Water pollution actually really offends me because water pollution equals soil pollution equals ill health coming back to that very early interest in public health. It is a vicious cycle. Imagine a dumpster truck down your street full of textiles and garments, and all of these materials have been incredibly costly to produce and detrimental to lives concurrently, and every second that truck’s content are incinerated. It’s like putting a match to very valuable resources. In essence, it is basically smacking people in the face who suffered to make those textiles. For me, it is just not right.
How has fast fashion impacted the industry?
In terms of future projections and the current state of activities, we can expect a 60% increase in production and waste by 2030. The impact of carbon is going to increase as well. All of these would be largely owing to the growing global population, which is an inevitable factor. Certainly, it remains to be seen whether or not people continue to shop and over-shop through fast fashion in the years to come. On the other hand, there is a consumer awareness against overconsumption at the moment, which is in line with the SDG goal pertaining to responsible production and consumption. However, the truth is that it will only get worse unless multi-stakeholders in the fashion industry across the supply chain come together to do something about it.
There were many brands that cancelled their orders because of the COVID lockdown as suddenly consumers stopped shopping. Like a chain effect, we also saw garment workers losing their jobs and that poverty was going to increase. From a supply and developmental perspective, it is not sustainable to suddenly cancel all of these orders because many emerging markets are obviously reliant on that. Therefore, it is not realistic to expect people to stop buying fast fashion. Of course, I am not promoting fast fashion at all, but I am just saying that the fashion supply chain is much more economically complicated to development issues and labour forces particularly in developing countries.
Considering that 80% of garment workers are women, and she are likely pass on around 98% of her income to support her kids and the wellbeing of her family. When these women lose their jobs, all of their children and their immediate families suffer from that. Essentially it is actually very important to keep women in work, so as to protect their entire family.
What can we do as an individual to solve this bigger problem?
I think as individuals, what we can do is see our wardrobes as a link to the world and we should be really proud of what we buy rather than chastising ourselves. Having the power to create a meaningful closet is important and knowing how to use this power in the right way is crucial as well. We need to understand that we are a piece of the puzzle that can unravel the bigger solution to the problem we are all facing. If you are a consumer not working in the industry, love your clothes, buy better, buy less, and repair them more. Swap them with your mates, whatever you do, just do not put them in the bin.
While consumption is inevitable, we can consume in a way that we are really proud of. For instance, we can support artists and groups, new innovation, high tech, fabrics, ethical supply chains, fair trade, grannies, corporativives. There are so many amazing things that we can do. So just make sure that we put our money in the right place that really matches up with what we care about.
What about greenwashing and performative acts?
Personally, I find that consumers can be rather negative when it comes to greenwashing and therefore this makes it really difficult for brands actually to even dare to say something positive. Once they do, consumers tend to jump down their throat and shout greenwashing. So what I would say is to give brands a chance, give businesses a chance. Don’t be so quick to judge.
Nevertheless, it is difficult to tell if a brand is greenwashing or not. So the advice for businesses is to be authentic and just keep going despite the critics received along the way. Ultimately, the genuine ones will cut through the noise and prevail. For consumers, a feasible way is to open our hearts, be a bit more trusting, dig a little bit deeper and ask more questions. For instance, when a fast fashion brand does a green product line, we should give our support rather than labelling it at first glance as greenwashing and start dishing out criticisms. Because they are piloting, trialling a different supply chain, different raw materials. If they do not try it, there will never be progress in this sustainable fashion movement. Another example is to avoid sensationalizing all the negative issues in the fashion industry via media and instead support it with a nurturing hand. Rather than searching for those that are incinerating and focus on the industry’s blemishes, amplify the voices of those who are venturing into sustainable innovation.
What are your thoughts on the evolution of the fashion industry?
Artificial intelligence is in almost in every industry, especially as we move into the digital age. However, even with all these digital closets and wardrobes up and coming, we still need the physical shows. We need the interaction of human to human, touch and feel. Essentially, creativity is sparked by inspiration and inspiration comes from the smell of something, the touch, the travel, the collaboration, and minds coming together. The product and service offerings may be digitalized going forward, but there is some magic in human emotion and I feel that that triggers innovative ideas and collaborations that are imperative for the sustainability of the fashion industry. Nonetheless, it is very fun with all these sorts of AI, virtual closets and everything like that. In fact, it does save you having to buy the actual product. It may be the future for many, but I do not think that it is ever going to really replace that tactile emotion that you truly get when you put clothes on.
What were the tools or practices that you adopted to nudge you out of the tough times that really kept you going on strong?
From a career perspective, I have been up against a brick wall many times and the brick wall is always to do with the bottom line. Actually, it is always about how are we going to do this? We have good ideas, good people, but how are we going to execute it? And I think the way that I have always got through them is through this saying which someone once told me – a very dedicated entrepreneur will always find the money.
I also have a lot of faith that the right doors will open as and when I need them, and that I know I will be okay. In essence, the life of an entrepreneur is one that has to constantly deal and cope with uncertainty. I just am so lucky that I can look to the stars and walk on. I can look to the cloudy sky here in London today, and I can smile because I know we are going to get there. It may not be a very practical approach, but faith is something that carries me through most, if not all, of this journey.
Meditation is also my go-to activity, especially during the lockdown. For me, it is to dig deep down into one’s soul and identify ourselves as tough human beings. And when we hit nirvana, we will be surprised to find that there is a lot of inner strength and subconscious strengths that we do not know that we have but we essentially do. Whenever I am unsure about getting out of a problem, I tend to meditate (and also sleep) and I know that the answer will come to me. To this day, I believe in investing in our well-being, faith and trust in ourselves.
How do you think we can all live wide awake?
I have had a real personal crisis and I think actually going through one really wakes you up. And it may not be the answer that you want to hear because some people might not be living in crisis at the moment, but all I can say is a good old, personal crisis will absolutely put an electric shock to the system. So I am fully wide awake because of issues that are going on in my life at the moment.
But if you do not want to be enthralled in a crisis, I would say to live wide awake is to give time to let your senses be alive. I went on a spiritual course a few years ago and the first thing we were supposed to do after waking up was to awake all our senses –to smell, to hear, to feel, to see, and to touch, before jumping onto our emails. So start to get busy with awakening your senses because we are very clever beings and our senses do serve a very big purpose in all of our decision-making in life.
Listen to the full interview with Christina Dean on the Live Wide Awake podcast.
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