Interview with Matilda Lee, author of Eco Chic
Who are you and what do you do?
I am the author of Eco Chic: the Savvy Shopper’s Guide to Ethical Fashion and the Consumer Affairs Editor at The Ecologist magazine. I am also part of the team behind Estethica, London Fashion Week’s ethical fashion exhibition, which has been running for the past five seasons.
What do you think are the most important issues when considering ethical fashion?
Surely it is the sheer volume of clothes that get produced, consumed and disposed of. Fashion should be about craftsmanship, dedication to quality and longevity. With ‘fast fashion’ the focus is on speed, large volumes, and a quick buck, but with a corresponding decline in quality, longevity and a corruption of our emotional attachment to clothes. There is a lot of exploitation inherent in fast fashion, particularly of the environment and of human labour. Over one million tonnes of clothing waste goes to landfill every year – just in the UK – and the clothing industry is one of the world’s most polluting. There are those who claim that fast fashion has democratised fashion. Has it really? It certainly has lowered clothes prices and allowed Western consumers to buy greater quantities of clothes, but for a garment worker in Bangladesh who can’t feed his family and who lives and breathes toxic chemicals from the clothing factory all day, this isn’t very democratic.
Why is ethical fashion important?
Besides food, clothing is the one thing virtually every single person on earth consumes. From consumers, to dyehouse owners, retailers, the media, fashion brand CEOs and beyond – all of us help shape the huge, global industry that fashion has become. Ethical and eco fashion aims to make the fashion industry more sustainable, and more accountable to the people and places that depend on it. Clothing design is an art form, and ethical fashion is a creative outlet for designers taking a wider look at, and responsibility for, the impacts of their creations.
Do you think it is ever OK to buy clothes from high street stores?
Of course. I think once you start becoming aware of the whole story behind a garment, you will naturally make choices that reflect a sympathy for and understanding of initiatives that won’t harm, and hopefully help, those involved in making clothes. The high street is where the vast majority of us buy our clothes, so the biggest gains will be made when it cleans up its act. Choosing a high street store for its eco and ethical credentials is a ‘vote’ for that store. What’s important is to extend this ‘vote’ and become an activist on the issue – groups like PAN, War on Want and Labour Behind the Label are doing great work and need all the help they can get. Having said this, there is enough of a range of eco/ethical fashion out there to never set foot on the high street –the number of online and specialist boutiques is growing all the time. Try Equa Clothing, Devidoll, Adili and The Natural Store.
Who do you admire in the world of ethical fashion?
The ethical fashion world attracts talented, dedicated and inspired people. Be they designers, educators, retailers, writers or campaigners, they are people who appreciate the aesthetic value of clothes, as well as the broader social and environmental issues in clothesmaking. In terms of inspiring designers, there is Orsola de Castro of From Somewhere and Katherine Hamnett, and new designers such as Mark Liu who champions ‘zero waste’ design. As educators – there is Becky Earley of the Chelsea School of Art and Design, Mo Tomaney of St.Martin’s and Dilys Williams of LCF’s Centre for Sustainable Fashion. Retailers - There is the groundbreaking work of Safia Minney of People Tree and Marks & Spencer’s and the many retailers who are quietly trying to make their business more sustainable but don’t like to talk to the press about it! Many veteran fashion writers such as Suzy Menkes and Hilary Alexander are covering ethical/eco fashion in a very positive light – and let’s not forget the investigative work of Panorama and the Guardian on sweatshop labour.
There seem so many issues around ethical fashion, what can I do to make a difference?
First, arm yourself with knowledge. Read, watch, listen to anyone or anything you can that has something interesting and informative to say about how to make the fashion world greener and cleaner. Digest it all and decide for yourself where you fit in: is it just a question of cleaning out your closet, mending your beloved favourites and limiting what you buy? What about changing your washing habits – washing on low temperatures, line drying and limiting ironing will have a big impact and is fairly easy to do. Why not go to a clothes swapping event? Is it joining a campaign group on the issue that gets you going? Don’t forget to tell your friends what’s going on…
Where can I go to find out more?
Read my book, Eco Chic: the savvy shopper’s guide to ethical fashion tells the story behind our clothes and the who, what and how of the ethical fashion industry.
The Ecologist has a monthly eco fashion section, so do check it out. If you are a designer, I suggest getting in contact with Rebecca Earley of the TED resource at the Chelsea School of Art and looking into London Fashion Week’s Estethica exhibition.