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Ethical Fashion: Sustainable by design

Last month’s Sri Lankan Design Festival shone the spotlight on how fashion can lead the way in sustainable manufacturing.

An ambitious collaboration of design, clothing, sustainability and contemporary craft, the Sri Lankan Design Festival (SLDF) in Colombo brought together all these elements to showcase the best of the island’s fashion industry to an international audience.

Spearheaded by the Academy of Design in Colombo, the festival, which ran from October 10-12 and is now in its fifth year, combines runway presentations with a series of forums and conferences to present its message.

Four years after the end of the long and damaging civil war, local manufacturers and designers are confident the island can build on its reputation as an ethical producer and premier sourcing hub.

Sri Lanka has the highest clothing exports per capita in Asia but it was the particular benefits that sustainable and ethical practices can bring - right across the supply chain - that provided the key theme of the four-day event.

One of the recurring messages was that sustainability has to be made ‘cool’ - and with its high levels of consumer engagement, the fashion industry is in a strong position to achieve this.

Speaking at SLDF, development director of the Danish Fashion Institute and chair of the Sustainability Summit Jonas Eder-Hansen pointed out that in the wake of the Bangladeshi factory disaster in April, more consumers are beginning to ask questions about where their clothes come from and how they are produced.

This new awareness needs to be built on and then passed down the supply chain, from the point of design all the way through to retail staff.

However, the possibility of a recognisable global standard of practice that would apply for producers across the board internationally - a point of some debate during the event - was not seen as practical by some of the speakers.
Tom Smith of Sedex, a non-profit organisation which advises on responsible and transparent supply chains, said you cannot apply the same standards to a factory in east London as you would to one in Bangladesh. The context is different and new ethical issues are appearing all the time. “The integrity of the building [in Bangladesh, for example] and its structural state have not previously been on the tick list,” he says.

While many consumers may still be ‘chasing the cheap needle’, there has been a 57% increase in the number of audits since the Bangladeshi disaster, according to Kumar Mirchandani, chairman of Sri Lankan clothing manufacturer Favourite Group.

Nikhil Hirdaramani, whose family owns Mihila - the first carbon-neutral factory in Asia - said he and many other manufacturers are suffering from ‘audit fatigue’, having had 205 third-party audits between the start of the year and October this year.

Smith agreed that audits alone do nothing if they aren’t acted upon: “Compliance should not be about just ticking a checkbox, it is important to advise, educate and follow up.”

There may well be a more ethically aware customer out there, but she also wants her fashion updated - and fast.

And with brands such as Zara offering 20 collections a year, producers have to be prepared to meet consumer expectations to keep up.

An “agile supply network” is needed, according to Kurt Cavano, chief strategy officer at supply chain platform GT Nexus. The US, for example, has three times more shopping space than it needs to serve the number of actual shoppers. Whereas even with its growing middle class, India simply doesn’t have the stores. So in the future it can just build what’s needed to suit the needs of its consumers.

“We’ve seen the desire of consumers to lead more sustainable lifestyles,” said Lucy Shea, chief executive of Futerra, an organisation which advises businesses on how to communicate a sustainability message. “Fashion can lead the way - it’s a powerhouse of development, empowerment and activity.” And the consumer will buy into the idea if you make it fun.

Special guest Janie Schaffer, co-founder of lingerie retailer Knickerbox and former chief creative officer of Victoria’s Secret, took delegates through her conception and delivery of the Knickerbox concept, which launched in 1986.

She identified the market gap when she was working at Marks & Spencer as a buyer.

“A successful brand needs a compelling story which takes it beyond just being a commodity,” she said, and cited Burberry as an example of a company that has got it right. Sustainability can be built into a brand, Schaffer said, but quality is still needed.

Summing up the general tone of the event, Cavano said that in such a rapidly changing retail and technological environment the push for sustainability is “a gauntlet we are all running”.

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