With Orsola de Castro from Fashion Revolution
While the fashion industry is overwhelmingly known for its environmental exploitation and social injustice, the culprits and structures behind these atrocities remain largely under wraps.
In order to address the issues within the fashion industry, corporate transparency is key. After all, how are we to create change when we don’t even know what is happening and who is responsible?!
In this post and the accompanying podcast episode, we discuss the critical role and current state of transparency in fashion with Fashion Revolution’s founder, Orsola de Castro.
We’ll explore the intertwined relationship between transparency and fashion activism and how we, as citizens and consumers, can act to change the cultural values, policies, and industry norms that enable such destructive practices to take place.
It is through radical transparency and dedicated activism, Orsola believes, that we can build a future of fashion that values people over profits and not only conserves the environment but restores it.
Transparency in Fashion
What is transparency?
In short, corporate transparency makes clear the who, why, what, and how behind a company and its products.
Transparency is the corporate practice of publicly sharing information about the company’s partners, policies, practices, and plans. If we go a step further, transparency could also include corporate and third-party insight into the impacts these decisions have on the communities and ecologies in which the company operates.
In the fashion world, transparency would ideally reveal each step of a product’s entire value chain—everything from how raw materials are grown or produced to how the finished product degrades in the environment. Transparency in fashion could also include information like a company’s carbon emissions rates, how many employees are paid a living wage, and plans to curb plastic use.
The Fashion Transparency Index
The thing to understand here is that there are varying levels of transparency across the fashion industry as there are no global regulations to disclose such information or abide by any standard set of environmental or social practices.
So, as individuals and groups, it can be very difficult to know just how transparent a company is. That is why Fashion Revolution created the Fashion Transparency Index (FTI) to measure what brands know and publicly share about their value chains and their impacts on human rights and the environment.
The index looks at 250 of the biggest and most influential fashion companies and retailers and measures their transparency on over 200 indicators of social and environmental issues, such as animal welfare, supplier disclosure, climate impact, waste and recycling, and forced labor, just to name a few.
The FTI awards point to a company only for the information that has been publicly disclosed on the brand or parent company’s own website. The companies are then given a percentage score and ranked accordingly.
The FTI is not a shopping guide and does not rank companies based on their sustainability or social initiatives. Rather, its purpose is to highlight transparency, or lack thereof, in order to push and hold companies accountable, grow awareness, incentivize change, and pinpoint actions needed to create a more circular fashion economy.
And while the FTI doesn’t scrutinize every single company in the industry, it does a great job of analyzing broad trends within the industry in regards to these issues.
The hundreds of companies reviewed not only represent a wide variety of segments within the industry, but they are some of the biggest players, meaning they are creating and prevailing the status quo. To hold these leaders up to the light of accountability no doubt reverberates across the industry and beyond.
Ultimately, the Fashion Transparency Index is a tool to gauge where the industry is regarding human rights and environmental impacts and where it may be going.
The Current State of Transparency in Fashion
The discrepancy between the known impacts of the fashion industry versus what companies are disclosing about their environmental and human rights practices is tremendous.
The fashion industry is the fourth most polluting industry and is known for its abusive treatment of and unsafe working conditions for workers. And yet, the average transparency score of 250 of the world’s largest fashion brands and retailers was, after all, only 23% according to the Fashion Transparency Index 2021.
To understand and contextualize the current state of transparency in fashion, we need to understand how the fashion industry is destroying the environment and violating human rights around the world. In this section, we will highlight some of fashion’s main offenses and the current transparency practices and rates around such injustices.
The fashion industry accounts for about 10% of global carbon emissions. (Yep, you read that correctly!) Yet, only about 62% of brands publish their facilities’ carbon footprints (think retail stores, headquarter offices, distribution centers, etc.). Only 26% disclose this kind of information at a manufacturing level, and only 17% do so at the raw material level of production.
So, while the research has found that over 70% of the fashion industry’s emissions come from further down the supply chain (i.e., raw material production, preparation and processing, etc.), the fashion companies indexed by the FTI overwhelmingly fail to acknowledge their footprint beyond their own company facilities (if they even do that!).
Water Use & Pollution
If you didn’t already know, water pollution is a huge issue across the industry. Let’s start with the fact that textile processing uses an exorbitant amount of water. In fact, the textile industry (which includes cotton farming) uses around 93 billion cubic meters of water annually—that’s roughly 4% of all global freshwater withdrawal!
Despite this kind of water use, only 31% of brands disclose their water footprint within their own facilities. And worse, only about 5% disclose their water footprint at the raw material level where the majority of water is used.
More than just the blatant use of water, the water used is heavily polluted by the chemicals and plastics used in producing, processing, and packing textiles. Water is polluted almost every step of the way, from toxic agricultural runoffs to the release of microplastics when synthetic textiles are washed. In fact, textile manufacturing is responsible for up to one-fifth of industrial water pollution.
But as you might have guessed…The fashion industry is nowhere near actually taking responsibility or addressing these widespread issues. Only 30% of brands in the FTI are currently disclosing their commitment to eliminating the use of hazardous chemicals. Likewise, only 39% of brands publish measurable goals for reducing the use of virgin plastics for packaging. And again, only 25% of surveyed companies have goals for reducing the use of textiles made from virgin fossil fuels (i.e., synthetic materials).
Overproduction & Environmental Pollution
Overproduction is directly responsible for all sorts of environmental pollution and damage, no matter the industry. So, it’s no surprise that the overproduction, and overconsumption for that matter, of fashion products, is also one of the biggest causes of environmental pollution in the industry.
Beyond the ecological pollution we just laid out, the fashion industry also produces an unconscionable amount of textile waste—in fact, the industry produces about 92 million tons of textile waste every year. Since about 65% of all textile fibers are synthetic, textile waste ends up releasing plastic microfibers (i.e., microplastics) in our landfills and ecosystems. Textiles are the number one source of microplastic pollution in our oceans AND soils. (Learn more about how plastic ends up in our oceans here.)
But as I just mentioned, only 25% of the companies indexed in 2021 have measurable targets for reducing their products made from the virgin fossil fuels that cause fiber shed pollution. And only 21% report taking steps to minimize the impacts of microfiber shedding (e.g., investing in textile technology, improving quality, etc.).
To further the point, only 27% of brands disclosed any efforts to increase textile-to-textile recycling (beyond reuse and downcycling), and ONLY 14% of these major brands actually reveal the overall quantity of products they make per year, a fact that actually makes it, then, very difficult to even grasp the full scale of overproduction and harm that it is responsible for.
As we can see, the fashion industry repeatedly fails to take responsibility or address the environmental horrors of fast fashion, but the thing is, it doesn’t even end there! The same pattern emerges within the social fabric (pun intended) of the industry.
It is estimated that less than 2% of the people who make our clothes earn a living wage. (Yes, please. Pause a second and take a deep breath here…That’s a huge thing to wrap your brain around.)
So…in other words, an estimated 98% of workers in the fashion industry are most likely experiencing brute poverty and cannot meet their most basic needs even though they are fully employed. At this rate, it is surely a systemic problem.
But of course, nearly all major fashion brands (LITERALLY 99%!!!) do not expose the number of workers in their value chain being paid a living wage, and 96% do not publish their plan of action (POA) to achieve a living wage for their workers at all levels of their supply chain.
(Go ahead and take another deep breath, you’ve made it this far. 💨)
More than low wages, fast fashion factories all around the world are notorious for their harsh working conditions. Sustain Your Style, a sustainable fashion nonprofit, describes the harsh reality of most workers:
“Employees usually work with no ventilation, breathing in toxic substances, inhaling fiber dust or blasted sand in unsafe buildings. Accidents, fires, injuries, and disease are very frequent occurrences on textile production sites. On top of that, clothing workers regularly face verbal and physical abuse. In some cases, when they fail to meet their (unreachable) daily target, they are insulted, denied breaks, or not allowed to drink water.”
Orsola brings up the Rana Plaza tragedy as a prime example of such conditions—in 2013, the poorly made Rana Plaza factory completely collapsed within a matter of seconds, killing 1,134 garment workers in Dhaka, Bangladesh.
While supply chain disclosure of partners and practices continues to improve year after year among major fashion retailers, less than half of them (47%, to be exact) actually publicize the manufacturing facilities they work with.
True to form, the transparency darkens as we go further down the value chain, with only 27% of indexed companies disclosing the wet processing facilities and spinning mills deeper in their supply chains.
Want to more fully understand the impacts of and solutions to fast fashion?
Learn all about the environmental impacts of textile waste, how to distinguish sustainable textiles, and how the circular fashion movement is using evolving fashion technology to solve some of the biggest issues in the industry in Grow Ensemble’s “Impact of Fashion” series sponsored by the fashion company Dhana.
The Importance of Transparency in the Fashion Industry
As we can see, the fashion industry remains overwhelmingly opaque, especially when compared to the evident destruction research has repeatedly shown that it’s responsible for.
Orsola points out that the “exploitation of people and nature for profit was always in their [the fast fashion companies’] heads.” She continues, “the majority of these brands are run by multimillionaires that are accumulating wealth that they will never need.”
The truth of the matter then, as Orsola points out, is that the lack of supply chain visibility allows exploitative and dangerous working conditions and environmental damage to thrive because it purposely obscures those who bear the responsibility and power to actually address these issues.
At the same time, the exploitative practices carried out by fashion companies are what further fuel the lack of transparency, and so the two perpetuate infinite and compounding loops.
That is why to disrupt such loops, transparency is needed.
Orsola explains that transparency makes brands understand that “a closed-door mentality is what leads to these kinds of rife environmental and human abuses” and vice versa.
Orsola makes it clear to us, though, that “transparency doesn’t lead you to sustainability.” She elaborates, “it leads you to a place where you can discover for yourself whether it is or it isn’t [sustainable], whether practices are best practice or not best practice.” In other words, transparency is the first step to creating accountability and, thus, is the first step in creating a sustainable fashion industry.
As she puts it, “radical and mandatory transparency absolutely is what we demand, what we request, what can no longer be denied, in this day and age, after tragedies like Rana Plaza and through the injustices of COVID, when we have so much visibility of exactly and precisely how poorly brands behave with their workers and the environment.”
Orsola impores us that the only way forward is through increasing transparency through dedicated action.
Where Transparency and Fashion Activism Meet
Without transparency and the social pressure that ensues when injustice is discovered, the guilty corporate hands have no motivation to change anything. Besides, the people at the top, who are actually making the decisions, are the people benefiting most from the broken system. Why would they fix anything?
That is why the third party of activism is so important to increasing transparency across the fashion supply chain. Dedicated and acute activism increases transparency and, thus, change. Incidentally, the more transparency there is, and the more people are aware of and educated about the issues at hand, the more they will demand accountability and social and environmental change.
In short, activism increases transparency and transparency fuels activism. Indeed, the positive feedback loop that transparency and activism creates is exactly what’s needed to replace the era of opaque and exploitative fashion.
What is Fashion Activism?
Fashion activism has historically meant using the fashion medium to express marginalized identities and philosophies and to advocate for the environment in order to shift prevailing cultural tides and demand corporate and governmental action.
Orsola broadens this definition of fashion activism as fundamentally “redressing where the power is, where the responsibility is” in any way possible. It’s demanding change, even after companies and governing bodies refuse to.
To de Castro, activism, in a nutshell, is to “keep being the biggest pain in the neck that you can possibly be to tell the brands that nothing less than change is the products that we want to buy.”
She goes on to say that activism is also about increasing awareness. She believes that if the public was told the truths of environmental and social destruction since the inception of fast fashion, the fashion industry and, more generally, the human species, would not be in the state we’re currently in.
In short, fashion activism is any action that seeks to create or directly works toward creating a culture and fashion world “that conserves and restores the environment, and values people over profits and growth.”
What Does Fashion Activism Look Like?
So, with these definitions in mind, what does fashion activism actually look like in practice?
Well, the short answer is that fashion activism can take many forms— “fashion is about individualism,” after all! Fashion activism could be not buying something, wearing something bold, signing a petition, or volunteering at a fair fashion organization. (For more ideas on what you can do to get involved, see below!)
In this next section, we will expand upon the relationship between transparency and fashion activism and how they work together in action to bring about a more sustainable fashion industry.
As consumer activists, we have the power to vote with our dollar and advocate for the players we want to see lead the fashion world.
In this way, consumer activism can transform the simple act of buying or not buying something into a revolutionary one.
Of course, awareness of the issues at hand is paramount to consumer activism. In order to choose better, we must know better. Therefore, it is really transparency that allows the consumer to make more informed decisions about who and what they want to support.
Growing transparency and awareness of the issues sets up a broader purview for the shopper—we begin to consider not just the item on the rack, but the story behind its creation.
As Orsola puts it, “we need to develop a new set of criteria” when we shop. She goes on to explain that just as we’re used to checking if a brand has our size, we should also form the habit of checking whether they have published their code of conduct.
Demanding corporate transparency through education and consumer activism, which can include anything from boycotts to mending your own clothes, is one of the only ways to invoke change across the industry. Pressuring brands publicly through transparency and financially through consumer activism will make them more accountable for their actions and more motivated to instill change.
Increased awareness, transparency, and action not only better develop our shopping habits but also help to strengthen the regulatory systems that enable companies to act the way that they do.
As community members, increasing awareness and demanding transparency through activism, of course, starts with our own education. The more we know, the more we can educate others and grow the movement.
As we have discussed, increased awareness and transparency are both the result and origin of activism. If we expand this understanding on a collective level, we, as a united group, will be better able to invoke change in a larger, more sustained way.
For instance, groups such as Fashion Revolution are able to publish hundreds of resources a year to educate the public about the ills of fast fashion. Such programming is not only increasing public awareness but also pressuring industry and governmental leaders to make the policy changes necessary to address the fashion crises.
Where Activism and Transparency Lead
Orsola explains that transparency in fashion and fashion activism is really about addressing and redefining where the power and responsibility are and where they should be. Part of the fashion revolution is imagining what might be possible so that we can make these possibilities a reality through our activism today.
As de Castro envisions it, the future fashion activists are fighting for is one in which companies act with the “intent of being transparent, [are] nature positive, [and are] doing good instead of doing harm.” It is a future of fashion in which companies and consumers not only know the full history of their products but know its history as one that’s uplifted communities and regenerated resources. One that prioritizes circularity, community, and the planet over endlessly growing profits.
Orsola wants to see fashion systems “that [revolve] around the creation and the usage of clothing, [to transition to] renting to swapping to mending” models. She goes on in more detail, “I want every fast fashion store to have cheap, affordable repair stations for their customers in-store.”
More importantly, she demands a future (and present!) in which there is “a concerted effort on behalf of the mainstream [companies] to actually give visibility and support and share profits” first with their supply chain, and secondly with smaller brands who are usually squashed by these “dinosaurs.”
This is because Orsola imagines the structure of the new fashion industry to become “replicable, rather than scalable.” In this way, no one or few entities can inflict the kind of magnitude of environmental and social damage we are currently seeing from large brands. Then, so too can small brands, with small impacts, flourish.
Small, local companies embedded in communities know those communities and ecologies best. Not only are they, therefore, better suited to understand the needs of those communities and empower them, but they are also going to have the knowledge about what kinds of materials are most responsibly sourced and reused—protecting the place they call home.
Through individual and collective consumers, political activism, and robust models of corporate and governmental transparency, Orsola believes this future can be a reality now.
Fashion Revolution: Empowering Change at all Levels
Fashion Revolution is a registered charity organization dedicated to increasing transparency in the global fashion industry in order to end human and environmental exploitation and create, as Orsola puts it, a “fashion industry that conserves and restores the environment and that values people over profits and growth.”
Since its founding in 2013, after the collapse of Rana Plaza, Fashion Revolution has become one of the biggest fashion activism movements in the world. Targeting all cultural, industrial, and political change through their extensive research and programming has made them one of the leading voices of the sustainable fashion movement.
They work to increase awareness and educate people and consumers about the impacts of the fashion industry through their global events, informative blog and podcast, and free and accessible resources.
But what the Fashion Revolution is probably most famously known for is its Fashion Transparency Index, which annually reviews and ranks the world’s largest fashion brands and retailers by the transparency of their social and environmental impacts and practices.
Through this valuable research and the breadth of their operations, Fashion Revolution is advocating for environmental and human rights not only within the fashion companies themselves but at the policy level as well. The Fashion Revolution believes that governments must better regulate and enforce laws surrounding the industry in order to create a circular fashion economy.
Orsola de Castro, Founder of Fashion Revolution
A longtime pioneer in the world of sustainable fashion, Orsola de Castro started her career in fashion as a designer and founded her own revolutionary upcycling fashion brand, From Somewhere, in 1997. Through her work in sustainable design, she, with her partner Filippo Ricci, then started Esthetica, the sustainable fashion showcase at London Fashion Week, which she still co-curates today.
Inspired by creating a space for sustainable brands and designers, Orsola de Castro then co-founded Fashion Revolution in 2013 with Carrie Somers to further increase public awareness of the growing movement.
Most recently, de Castro published her first book, Loved Clothes Last, about how the joy of re-wearing and repairing clothes can be a revolutionary act and why.
“Activism is for consumers to remind brands that it is their [the companies’] responsibility to make the change[…] So, as consumer activists, what we need to do is keep being the biggest pain in the neck that you can possibly be, to tell the brands that nothing less than change is what is the product that we want to buy” — Orsola De Castro
How Can You Become a Fashion Activist?
So, how do we, as individuals, become fashion activists?
Fashion is something we participate in our everyday life. So, there are really countless opportunities to create social and environmental change.
Being a fashion activist and a circular fashion advocate can take many forms. Check out some of the ways you can become a fashion activist at any level, no matter who you are.
As a Consumer:
- Shop Your Closet. The first thing you need to ask yourself before buying new clothes or accessories is: “Do I really need this?” I can imagine that most of the time, the answer is probably no. Ignore the voice that tells you, “I have nothing to wear,” and “shop” in your closet first. Limiting our mindless consumption of clothes will go a long way in reducing our fashion footprint.
- Care Better. If you made it this far into the article, I’m sure you care about a lot of things. Caring for your clothes is one of the best ways to make them last and lessens the need to buy more.
- Repair & Reuse. Don’t throw those beloved ripped jeans out after you went a little too low on the dance floor! Rips and tears are the perfect opportunity for a fashion statement. Those old t-shirts not doing anyone any favors? Turn ‘em into a cleaning rag, or better yet, a Pinterest-ing rug!
- Reconsider Buying New. When we do need to buy something, try the resale shop first! After that, consider buying from brands who upcycle, reuse, or recycle materials.
- Beware of Greenwashing. It’s hard to spot greenwashing sometimes. Marketing can be that good. That’s why it’s important to really do your research. The best POA is to look for third-party certifications or review the company’s impact reports (if they don’t have any, that’s probably a sign to stay away).
- Boycott. This one is simple—if you don’t like the policy or practices a company imparts, don’t buy from them. Vote with your dollar!
- Support Small & Sustainable. On the opposite end of boycotting is supporting the brands that are actually putting into practice sustainable policies and principles. Voting with your dollar also means supporting the brands making the difference you want to see in the world. Orsola urges listeners to especially try and support small, local brands. The smaller the brand, the smaller the impact, after all. They are also the ones that need your support the most!
As a Citizen:
- Educate Yourself. Read, read, read! After that, watch, listen, and read some more! There are countless blogs, books, podcasts, and films that document and educate on the impacts of the fashion industry and what you can do to create change within it. Knowing more about the fashion industry will empower you to make more impactful decisions in the fitting room and beyond.
- Share Information. Share that draw-dropping documentary with your friends and family or repost that infographic of leading environmental statistics on your social media account. Or host an event highlighting sustainable fashion. The more awareness we create in our communities means the more fashion activists there’ll be!
- Organize. Find your fellow do-gooders and demand that companies start being transparent about their policies and practices. Send emails to brands demanding #whomademyclothes or asking how they plan to decrease plastic in their packaging. Sign petitions or join protests that call for governmental representatives to start regulating the fashion industry.
As Orsola puts it, “each and every one of us will behave differently, some will boycott, some will only buy certain things, some will mend and repair, and others will buy less.” No matter what actions you take, you’ll be taking part in the fashion revolution!
Closing: Fashion is Activism
Fashion and activism are intrinsically intertwined, both philosophically and historically. Fashion is poised for activism; it’s how we most commonly express our values, ourselves, and our experiences in the world.
We all have the power to become fashion activists and that is why fashion has been such a powerful mechanism for inspiring change throughout the centuries. It connects people and is “an easier step to make [than other forms of activism] because it can be a creative step to make.”
“Fashion affects 100% of us, and so it can make a huge change,” Orsola explains. That means all individual and collective action in the world of fashion, both for good and bad, will reverberate and create lasting impacts on our communities and planet.
So, really the question we have to ask ourselves is whether we want that change to regenerate or destroy?
It doesn’t matter if you are “wearing your clothes differently, buying differently, interpreting them differently,” as long as you are acting in a way that demands transparency and increases awareness, you’ll be a part of the sustainable fashion revolution.
Additional Resources and Links Mentioned from the Episode:
- Loved Clothes Last
- Orsola de Castro Instagram
- From Somewhere
- London Fashion Week
- Ayesha Barenblat
- Slow Factory
- Céline Semaan
- Remake Our World
- New Standards Institute
- Maxine Bédat
- Fashion Revolution
- Fashion Revolution (find your local team)
- Fashion Revolution Instagram USA
Grow Ensemble Contributor
Alma Rominger is an educator and farmer passionate about regenerative agriculture, composting, gardening for mental health, and outdoor education.
Alma believes that the health of the earth and the health of its people are intrinsically connected and has spent her entire career advocating for both. She currently specializes in Bokashi composting systems and soil ecology through her work with Compost Queens, a women-owned community composting company based in the San Antonio area.