Presented by Intent Journal with the National Gallery of Victoria, our founder Courtney Holm sums up the overall themes of our latest public discussion.
We were so incredibly honoured to be able to speak at the National Gallery of Victoria for their Triennial EXTRA series. Thanks to Intent Journal and their program 'Fashion FOMO', we were able to share our knowledge and journey to date for how to navigate the current fashion system as a brand and as human beings.
Below we have compiled some of our key thoughts based around our discussion with Janice Petersen (SBS World News) and Jade Sarita Arnott (Arnsdorf). Please note this is not a word for word transcript, just a brief recollection of key themes and our responses. We hope to post a recording of the event in the coming weeks as well. Enjoy.
On why we chose to prioritise ethical business practises:
I came to a point in my career where I was so overwhelmed and disgusted with so many aspects of the fashion industry that I felt I either needed to get out altogether or step up and do something radical to change it.
When I studied fashion design, I never really learned about that side of fashion. It was actually getting into the industry, getting some experience and then starting my first label that really helped me to see the industry for what it was. I had a vision for how fashion could be transformed into something that was as beautifully considered behind the scenes as it was in the so called ‘spotlight.’
On how to manage FOMO in business and personal life:
I no longer feel the need to conform to the traditional fashion calendar and pace. At A.BCH we release one piece at a time, rather than seasonal collections driven by trends. The race to finish a collection by a particular date, and hope that people like it, is one I have voluntarily pulled out of. My deadlines are self determined and based on customer wants and needs rather than the other way around. I still feel a desire to create new-ness but it is in a much more constrained way.
In my personal life I consider everything more analytically, doing due diligence in seeking an item out, researching who I’d like to buy it from, and why. That way it is a conscious and rational decision, and much less likely to end in regret or landfill.
On transparency and finding a way to stay competitive:
You cannot have real environmental or ethical sustainability without transparency. It is the only way to shine a light in dark places- and fashion has plenty of those. Sweeping statements and well intended CSR policy is no longer enough, because we see, over and over, that the companies with these sentiments can rarely prove them in action. When disaster strikes, retailers point to their well written codes of conduct and the blame is shifted around from retailer to manufacturer to sub-contractor and in the end the people who pay for it are the ones at the bottom of the supply chain. I believe we are entering an age where transparency will be essential to running a successful business. No company will be able to just hope for the best or expect customers to take their word for it. Ethical practises will need to be proven and entire supply chains will need to be opened to the public eye.
On disposable fashion and circular design:
When I first started A.BCH, I wanted to create a label that provided simple solutions to these complex problems and present them in a way people could understand and take action on. The more I learned about what real environmental sustainability meant for a fashion businesses, the more I realised I didn't know. Over time, I came to understand that it would not be enough to use organic cotton in a t-shirt if that t-shirt was dyed with high impact chemicals, sewn together with polyester thread and finished with nylon labels and conventional cotton trims. There is something to be said for certain inputs like fabric being more environmentally friendly than the conventional approach, but if at the end of the garment’s life, it goes to landfill anyway, well only part of the job is done.
To help me figure this out, I developed lifecycle assessments for every garment and its components before they were even created to ensure the overall environmental and social impact was indeed better than the conventional alternative. Biodegradability or pure material streams for easier recycling are musts at A.BCH, but that needs to be considered from the beginning of a garment’s design process. The lifecycle assessment takes into consideration regenerative fibres, chemical usage, carbon emissions, water usage and human impact. It looks not just at how the garment came to be, but how it is worn and cared for as well as its end of life. It might mean sacrifices for us on the design end from time to time. For example I haven't been able to find a zipper that can easily be removed for recycling or biodegraded safely. That means for the time being, I don't use zippers in any of my designs!
Design for circularity is one of our key foundations at A.BCH. The industry currently operates in a linear system of take, make, dispose (the Ellen McCarther Foundation discusses this extensively). At A.BCH we don’t put anything into the world that doesn’t have a clear purpose from start to end and that goes for everything, from buttons to labels to shipping materials. We are working towards a system that, if employed by the greater industry, would see dramatic improvements to pollution, wastage and human rights in the textile and fashion industry.
Aside from the ethical benefits, a circular textile economy would have great economic benefits for the future. It’s estimated 100 billion USD is lost each year due to our current systems inability to recapture value from fibres. The world is currently producing over 53 million tonnes of fibre for clothing each year, and with 0.1% of those fibres being closed loop recycled and only 12% entering cascading recycling, we are burning or sending to landfill around 73% of materials every year. That's an insane amount of waste, strain on finite resources and loss of money. I'd recommend reading A New Textiles Economy, where many of these figures came from (especially if you'd like to nerd out on this stuff with me later!).
On ethical fashion being expensive and therefore elitist:
I strongly believe that everyone can contribute to the real ethical fashion conversation. Not the greenwashy one, or the solo, pious ethical consumer one. The real one, where our decisions have real impacts on real people and the only planet we have.
The thing is, price does not always equate to good ethics. Just because something is expensive doesn’t mean it was made in any better conditions than a fast fashion garment and visa versa. Each person, regardless of their financial situation, has the power to decide if they will buy from a brand or not. We can all do due diligence and research (that's free), not just the people who can afford expensive clothes.
I can think of so many great ways to refresh wardrobes on a budget, from online reselling platforms, to fantastic thrift shops to up-cycling and creative mending. I also believe that clothing rental is going to become a huge part of the circular economy and the accessibility of ethical fashion. There are more and more labels coming up the ranks with affordable options. The real problem is that we have been conditioned to value clothing so little, discount culture, outlets and fast fashion have made us all think that clothes OUGHT to be cheap and therefore rapacious consumption is our right. But that is now coming at a very high cost to both people and the environment and we will need to change our approach, all of us, from business to policy makers to customers and NGOs.
If you like what you've read or you have further follow-up questions, please get in touch with me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Special thanks to Sigrid McCarthy from Intent Journal and the National Gallery of Victoria for putting on such a wonderful event. If you missed out, be sure to sign up to our A.BCH community newsletter to stay abreast of all our events, talks and workshops.