How much does it really cost to make your clothes?

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The hashtag #WhoMakesMyClothes? first appeared in 2014 as part of Fashion Revolution, the fashion activist platform created by Carry Somers and Orsola de Castro in response to the collapse of the Rana Plaza building in Dhaka, Bangladesh. The square, which housed five garment factories, crashed to the ground in less than 90 seconds, killing 1,134 people and injuring more than 2,000. Many victims made clothes for British, European and American fashion brands , as revealed when the labels of these marks were found amidst the ruins.

fashion revolutionThe call for greater transparency within the global textile industry, stronger legislation and better working conditions now has supporters in more than 90 countries. And its Fashion Transparency Index – an annual report that assesses the performance of 250 of the top fashion brands on ESG (environmental, social and governance) policy and implementation – continues to highlight industry gaps. . In 2019, for example, only six brands (high performers include Adidas and Patagonia) achieved more than 60% transparency when evaluated on their social and environmental efforts.

Flowers and plants in the Textile Garden include iris, valerian, fennel, false indigo and marigold © Alexander Coggin

A pastel bath in the garden

A pastel bath in the garden © Alexander Coggin

Much of the platform’s success is based on collaborations with designers, organizations and influencers, and most recently Somers has worked with environmental filmmaker James Levelle. I find them at this year’s RHS Chelsea Flower Show, in Lottie Delamain’s Silver-Gilt award-winning textile garden, done in collaboration with Somers to showcase plants and flowers used only to make or dye textiles, and designed to raise awareness of the environmental choice.

Ms. Somers’ interest in water pollution and the effects of microplastics was boosted in 2020: “I participated in an all-female research expedition to the Galápagos Islands to measure levels of plastic microfiber pollution in the Pacific Ocean: 34.8% of microplastics come from the fashion industry, and brands were doing little to address the problem. It became really apparent while I was there that we can’t just remove pollution from the oceans – we have to do something on land to stop it reaching our waterways.

James Levelle and Carry Somers in A Textile Garden for Fashion Revolution at the Chelsea Flower Show

James Levelle and Carry Somers in A Textile Garden for Fashion Revolution at the Chelsea Flower Show © Alexander Coggin

Somers met Levelle at last year’s COP26 conference in Glasgow where he was presenting his film Race for the future, documenting his journey – without fossil fuel – from his home in Hackney, Chile. As part of his social experiment, Levelle found himself on a tall ship crossing the ocean. The two compared notes and bonded over their concerns about issues with textile production, which the two had witnessed first-hand.

Levelle describes his work as “adventures with a purpose”. “There has been no better educational experience than learning from indigenous peoples, whether in Latin America, Africa or Asia. I was very lucky to gain this understanding, but then I had to ask myself, “How can we bring this knowledge home?”

He and Somers are both concerned about water pollution and its impact on the water supply not only around major modern textile centers such as Bangladesh or Pakistan, but also in historic cities in the UK. . Somers is currently conducting research with the universities of Keele and Loughborough on the waterways of industrial towns in the Midlands and North – once the engines of British textile production – as part of a citizen science project called Restorying Riverscapes.

Made in collaboration with Somers, silver medalist Lottie Delamain's textile garden features plants and flowers used to make or dye fabrics

Produced in collaboration with Somers, Lottie Delamain, Silver-Gilt Medal, Textile Garden, features plants and flowers used to make or dye fabrics © Alexander Coggin

A watermill on the River Churnet in Staffordshire, 1969

A watermill on the River Churnet in Staffordshire, 1969 © Alexander Coggin

His area of ​​interest is the River Churnet, which runs alongside the former textile town of Leek in Staffordshire – once proclaimed the most polluted in Europe – where analysis of sediment and water samples will trace historical changes and environmental. They hope to reconstruct the experience of workers during the city’s industrial heyday to show not only the changing levels of pollution and the ecological damage that has plagued the region, but also how bad they – and the landscape – can be. resilient. They will use the data and compare it to contemporary production hives in Asia to show how positive changes can improve lives.

It’s become a personal quest for Somers, who lives nearby. “It is an important heritage city. William Morris spent two years in Leek experimenting with dyeing and printing with local dyehouse owner Thomas Wardle. It was really interesting to read Morris’ take on the city because he saw the best and worst of the textile industry there – even calling the factories ‘temples of overcrowding’,” she says. “He referred to the damage to the landscape, poison to the air and water pollution. But he also saw how easily they could be overcome if things were done responsibly.

As part of the project, the team conducted experiments around the impact of modern fabrics on the environment. To study microplastics, they washed eight lab coats and found that the clothes released 5ml of synthetic and cotton microfibers in a single wash and dry cycle. “Imagine all the laundry on your street, in your town — and the millions of microfibers produced every week,” says Somers. “Yet our Transparency Index reveals that only 21% of brands disclose efforts to reduce microfiber pollution.”

“We believe the nightmare of fast fashion production is happening thousands of miles away in India, China or Bangladesh,” Levelle adds. “It’s out of sight, out of mind. But by diving into the beautiful cold rivers and lakes of the Peak District and scientifically analyzing the chemicals and pollutants in the ancient mud, we can tell the story of Britain’s almost invisible industrial past. We discover both the local origins of modern textile production and its toxic legacy hidden in our landscape.

Somers hopes the awareness will bring real change. “With Restorying Riverscapes and our Textile Garden, we want to sow that seed of curiosity,” she adds. “We want people to look at their labels, choose their fabrics and fibers carefully, and recognize their power as citizens to make a difference.” It’s a call to action for anyone who loves clothes – and the environment.

For more information and to find out how you can volunteer, visit fashionrevolution.org/restorying-riverscapes

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