Carry Somers co-founded sustainable fashion campaign group Fashion Revolution following the Rana Plaza disaster. She talks to Drapers about the history of the project and its goals.
In the wake of the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh in 2013, in which 1,134 people died, Carry Somers and Orsola de Castro founded the campaign group Fashion Revolution. The group set out to increase transparency in the clothing industry by asking consumers an often-overlooked question: “Who made your clothes?”
In the five years since the disaster, the organisation has spearheaded immense changes in the fashion industry, including the introduction of the Fashion Transparency Index, which rates retailers based on the information available on their processes and supply chain. Drapers speaks to Somers to find out more about what drives her interest in sustainable fashion, and to learn how Fashion Revolution is championing greater change in the industry.
What’s your background, and how did you become interested in fashion and sustainability?
I set up the brand Pachacuti, which means world upside-down in Quechua, in 1992 with the aim of supporting sustainable livelihoods for marginalised, rural women in the Andean region. My collections were sold in the world’s foremost luxury stores and we private-labelled panama hats for many designer brands. Pachacuti pioneered radical supply chain transparency and was the world’s first fair-trade certified company [with the World Fair Trade Organization].
Pachacuti had been a pilot for the EU Geo Fair Trade project, which aimed to provide visible accountability of sustainable provenance, both for raw materials and production processes.
We traced the production of our Panama hats using GPS technology to the exact coordinates of 154 of our weavers’ houses – this isn’t an easy job when only 45% of their homes are accessible by road, located high in the Andes.
Pachacuti’s weavers were delighted that this data helped correct a historical misnomer and Panama hats could now be tracked back to their country of origin: Ecuador. We then mapped the GPS coordinates of each plot of land in the coastal cloud forest where the carludovica palmata is harvested on community-owned, biodiverse plantations. Each plant can be cropped once a month for around 100 years, so it is a truly sustainable raw material.
Tell us about the history of Fashion Revolution, and its aims
Five years ago, the Rana Plaza factory collapse shook the fashion world and ignited a revolution. In the days following the [Savar building] collapse, everywhere I looked, there were newspaper articles calling for a more ethical fashion industry. Meanwhile, campaigners had to search through the rubble for clothing labels to prove which brands were actually produced there. That’s when I realised that the workers were invisible – and that the lack of transparency and responsibility in the fashion supply chain was costing lives. I knew we needed to find a way to channel this public concern into a long-standing campaign so that the victims of Rana Plaza, and all the other tragedies that have occurred in the name of fashion, would never be forgotten. That’s when Fashion Revolution was born.
Five years on, Fashion Revolution is the world’s largest fashion-activism movement. We are a positive and collaborative platform, working with citizens, policymakers, unions, NGOs, brands and retailers in more than 100 countries around the world.
Despite some progress since the Rana Plaza collapse, a revolution is still needed, as we have a very long way to go until everyone who makes our clothes can live and work with dignity, in healthy conditions and without fear of losing their life.
Last year, one of the main projects we worked on was the Garment Worker Diaries. On-the-ground research partners met with 540 garment workers in India, Cambodia and Bangladesh on a weekly basis for 12 months to learn the intimate details of their lives; 40% of the workers surveyed had seen a fire in their place of work, 60% reported gender-based discrimination, over 15% reported being threatened and 5% had been hit. Transparent disclosure makes it easier for all the relevant parties to understand what has gone wrong, who is responsible and how to fix it.
Transparency is a means to change, not the end game. It leads to greater accountability and this in turn will lead to a change in the way the industry works. Ultimately, Fashion Revolution believes that we need a radical paradigm shift and a transformation in the way in which we produce and consume clothes. Transparency alone does not represent the sort of structural, systemic change we need to see happen, but it reveals the structures that are in place so we can better understand how to change them.
What are the biggest challenges you face on a day-to-day basis?
While more brands are starting to publish their policies and commitments, we still have no way of knowing if their procedures are truly effective and driving improvements for the people making our clothes. In the Fashion Transparency Index this year, we found only 55% of brands and retailers published measurable, time-bound goals on improving environmental impact, while only 37% published human rights goals. Only half are reporting on the progress they’re making towards achieving these goals, and this reporting frequently covers only environmental goals.
The biggest challenge ahead is the creation of a common framework for the disclosure of social and environmental information. We need universal, industry-wide accountability standards that will help highlight best practice and areas for improvement, allowing both brands and their customers to see how they compare with the rest of the industry.
What’s your proudest moment in the business?
I never imagined my crazy idea in the bathtub a few days after the Rana Plaza factory collapse would turn into the world’s largest fashion movement! I feel very proud when I see the thousands of #Imadeyourclothes posts on social media, telling the stories and celebrating the work of the people who make our clothes around the world – the weavers, dyers, embroiderers, cotton farmers, seamstresses, spinners and union leaders who are now more visible through our work.
How do you stay motivated and creative?
I have just returned from speaking at Miami Fashion Week, and visiting factories and artisans in Haiti. Every time I travel, people around the world talk about how Fashion Revolution has inspired them and how we have managed to engage people in the issues around the fashion industry like no other organisation. We are making an impact and that motivates me. Staying creative is harder in a small organisation where everyone is overstretched. My aim this year is to free up more time for De Castro and myself to creatively brainstorm and strategise, as it is Fashion Revolution’s creative approach to addressing complex issues in the industry that has been our greatest strength.
What’s the first step retailers should take to start becoming more sustainable?
Transparency is the first step towards a fairer, cleaner and ultimately more sustainable industry because you can’t start to tackle social or environmental exploitation unless you can see it. We are calling on all brands to start publishing their supplier lists in a searchable format, initially at first tier, and then their processing facilities and raw-material suppliers.
In the Fashion Transparency Index 2018, 37% of brands and retailers were publishing a list of tier 1 facilities, up from 12.5% two years ago. This represents the most significant and positive increase in transparency, and the information disclosed is helping NGOs, unions, local communities and workers to more swiftly alert brands to human rights and environmental issues. Brands that have yet to disclose their supply chains are withholding a critical tool in helping to ensure workers’ rights. Transparent disclosure of suppliers is also good for business, as it helps brands and retailers keep track of any unauthorised facilities manufacturing their products, making it easier to manage risks that could harm their reputation.
What’s one piece of advice you’d give your younger self?
Trust in other people’s abilities and they usually repay that trust. Pachacuti is thriving without me – I should have left long ago!
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
“If you think you’re too small to have an impact, try going to bed with a mosquito in the room” – Anita Roddick.
Favourite clothing brand?
Favourite places to shop?
Clerkenwell Vintage Fashion Fair, Macclesfield Treacle Market, Oaxaca in Mexico for weavings and embroidery
Last fashion purchase?
Eudon Choi dress from the Harrods NSPCC pop-up, Fashion Re-told. I asked #whomademyclothes on Instagram, of course. The next day, I was at the Whitley Awards for conservation, and Eudon Choi turned around and said “That’s my dress!” and told me it was made in his London atelier
Visiting Calakmul and Palenque – Mayan sites in Mexico
Last book you read?
Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty by Daron Acemoglu and James A Robinson. I am reading Mr Petre by Hilaire Belloc concurrently, as books on economics entail too much concentration for late-night reading
Last film you watched?
Phantom Thread on the plane returning from Haiti last week
My brand, Pachacuti, was supposed to be a summer-holiday project between my MA in Native American studies and a fully funded PhD on natural dyes. Seeing the positive impact on the two cooperatives with whom I started working led to me giving up my PhD and designing knitwear, and eventually hats, for the next 20 years
Dream job? A Victorian plant hunter
What would we find you doing at the weekend?
I live in the beautiful Staffordshire Moorlands and recently moved to a house by Rudyard Lake, so weekends are spent walking our bearded collie, Romero, over the hills or along the lake and getting to grips with the weeds in our unruly garden
Click here to download Drapers’ special report on sustainability, exploring the steps retailers need to take to get closer to a circular model
My Fashion Life: Carry Somers, co-founder of Fashion Revolution