Katherine Hamnett is one of the most important names in the fashion industry having promoted an ethical business philosophy since the 1980’s. She is most widely known for her evocative political t-shirts with big block lettered slogans, the most famous of which are ‘CHOOSE LIFE’ and ‘USE A CONDOM’ used to raise awareness about drug abuse, suicide and HIV/AIDS.
In 1989, Katharine also began lobbying for major changes in the way the industry operated. In 2005, she re-launched the brand according to some of the industry’s most strict social and environmental guidelines.
She was awarded the Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 2011 in honour of her influence and services to the fashion industry.
Here, SOURCE Contributor Alina Rätsep speaks to Katharine about some of the industry’s most pressing issues such as the continuation of the fast fashion model, the trouble with “greenwashing” and her advice for brands looking to work more sustainably.
This big block of ice across the fashion industry, in the context of ethics and sustainability, is starting to melt and we are finally seeing the uprise in the number of ethical fashion brands and CSR programmes. How does it make you feel, after your 23-year long fight for a more fair and environmentally safe fashion production?
I am very happy that this is happening, but its not happening fast enough. After 23 years organic cotton is hardly 1% of world cotton, so at this rate in 100 years it will be approximately 4%. By the same calculation it will be 2500 years till we stop using deadly chemical pesticides and fertilisers. There’s not going to be a world left unless this change speeds up.
The current economic climate is seeing many fashion entrepreneurs launching their own labels with ethics and environmental issues at heart. What advice can you give to the budding fashion brands wanting to do it right from the start?
First of all, you have to survive. There’s no place for the ‘Eco’ look. People don’t buy clothes out of pity – they buy clothes to look great. It has to be fashion and quality first, and incidentally sustainably made.
Also, there is no premium for ethical and environmental. It has to be at the same price as its unsustainable competitors, which is hard, because properly paid garmenting costs more then using slave labour. Sustainable processes are more expensive than unsustainable ones, where the true price is paid in environmental degradation.
The margin is in the retail, having your own shop or online store is the best way forward. Being able to access retail margin means you can cover increased costs, be competitive and still make a profit.
Many established fashion brands are now changing their ways, giving into the consumer demand for more ethically produced products. Whilst, undoubtedly, there is plenty of “greenwashing”, what advice can you give to those who want to do things in an effective and honest way, restructuring their companies to operate on a more sustainable and ethical level?
Don’t try and do it all at once. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Phase out the old, whilst you’re phasing in the new. Keep your customer base and cash flow running, whilst you are introducing your sustainable product.
Typically, with the good comes the bad. The rise of ethical fashion and sustainability “trends” has given way to companies who are out to make an extra dollar jumping on the “green” wagon. What is the basic knowledge you think consumers must have to avoid becoming a victim of the “greenwashers”?
Only organic cotton and recycled polyester can be considered very environmental. Bamboo is a standard viscose and a prime greenwash example. PVC should be utterly avoided. Wool is not great. Recycled cotton uses a lot of energy. Distressed denim uses a lot of toxic processing, unless stated otherwise. Nylon is not great. Fur should be avoided. Most leather uses chrome in the tanning process, which is toxic in its mining and very toxic when disposed in landfill. Customers should question everything and, if in doubt, look it up on the Internet.
At the same time, we can argue that consumers are much more aware than they used to be, and in order to impress them and convince some of them of your genuine credentials – what information should the companies provide to the consumer?
Track and trace systems like MADE-BY are very useful for this, you go to a website and enter a code, printed in the garment to see the entire supply chain.