Tamsin Blanchard: Fashion Sustainability Post-Pandemic

WORDS: Joshua James Small

This Cover Produced Zero Waste, BRICKS Voices #2, May digital cover with Tamsin Blanchard, Designed by Joe Joiner

2020 has presented the world with a challenging yet unique moment of pause. While business as usual remains an uncertain prospect, it is important, now more than ever, to find a new constant. Following the success of Fashion Revolution Week, BRICKS contributor Joshua James Small talks to Tamsin Blanchard about the success of a digital Fashion Open Studio schedule and the prospect of reviving British manufacture through localisation.

Joshua James Small: Tamsin, as special projects coordinator at Fashion Revolution, Could you please explain what Fashion Open Studio is to anyone that isn’t aware?

Tamsin Blanchard: Over the past few months, I’ve been putting together the Fashion Open Studio in partnership with Fashion Revolution. Fashion Open Studio has been running for the last three years. We’ve celebrated the fact it was physical events. It has always been about having a hands-on experience with the designer, holding workshops, and seeing exactly what goes on in the studio.

JJS: How did you find the shift to digital then, and did you prefer it?
TB: I absolutely loved it because it felt incredibly connected. It enabled us to reach a huge audience, massively exceeding anything we had done previously. We also had the advantage of Niamh Tuft joining our team. She had worked at the British Fashion Council previously and was responsible for the international fashion showcase. Niamh brought with her a whole world of designers.
We went out to 14 different countries from Fashion Revolutions global network, putting out a call for submissions. We then selected 24 designers from the global network to take part. It’s provided a completely different view on what fashion can be. We had a studio tour with Tom Trandt of Moi Dien in Vietnam. There was a vibrant program in Iran, which was obviously quite a challenge. We also had incredible designers joining from Nigeria and Zimbabwe.

JJS: I would say it’s been the most globally diverse and inclusive schedule for Fashion Revolution so far. Digital has enabled a large majority of designers to take part. People have been able to get on board with events that they might have been limited to geographically. Because of this year’s success, would you consider a digital-first strategy in future?

TB: For sure. I’m looking forward to combining the physical and digital, and it’s something we had already been thinking about. We want to open up the events, and make them more accessible. The maker community is huge, and not one that necessarily engages that much with fashion. The point of Fashion Open Studio is that it is inclusive. Because we have a broad global audience at Fashion Revolution, engagement can come from both dedicated activists and your everyday person.

JJS: Seeing the digital schedule made me we wonder about work-life balance. We’re a working society that leaves the building, but never truly leaves the working day. As an advocate for ethical practice, how do you think this can coexist in a digital space?

TB: Obviously, Fashion Revolution week is one week in the year when we go all out, so work-life balance admittedly goes out the window for the teams. It is a large issue, however, for much of the wider fashion industry. This is not just garment workers working overtime, but also design studios who are often asked to work far beyond regular hours. Speaking as a working mother of two children, I think going forward, digital will allow for flexibility. I realise that this is a privilege, but for those who can work flexibly, it allows you to work to a time that suits you. Obviously, though a standard 8-hour working day is the goal.

Society relies on a system that unfortunately exploits the workers who make our clothes. Hopefully, things will change as we come out of this period. Hopefully, the industry will slow down.

Tamsin Blanchard

JJS: Yes, definitely, it’s about balance and realism. I’ve noticed other showcases make similar shifts, such as London Fashion Week, which is now taking a digital approach in June, and Helsinki Fashion Week, which has always had a strong digital focus. I still wonder though if the idea of working a humanly structured day, might dissipate if we are to put more emphasis on digital?

TB: I think we need to realise that working digitally does not translate into working 24 hours a day. We have to build parameters. If you look into any fashion week around the world, the schedules are completely gruelling. Often your first show is at 8 am, and the last show might not finish until 11 pm, which is just insane. Somehow we think working this way is completely normal. This is something we could really rethink.

JJS: It would be a case of working out boundaries. I must say though, Fashion Open Studio’s digital strategy seemed to work quite well.

TB: One of the benefits of last week was that we tried to record as many of the events as possible. This is so that when events were happening in other parts of the world in the early hours of the morning, people are able to dip into them as the weeks and months go on. Fashion Revolution was obviously formed through a digital campaign, with the ‘Who Made My Clothes’ hashtag. We have always been driven by social media, and that’s what has allowed us to grow enormously. With country coordinators in over 70 countries now, it is quite a phenomenon. Social media allows us to give everyone a voice. They can interact with brands, and encourage better ways of working.

JJS: Fashion Revolution was born out of the Rana Plaza disaster of 2013, but 7 years on we’re still discussing the same sort of issues regarding the treatment of garment workers. Jonathan Safran Foer says that ‘knowing is only knowing’. What he’s referring to, is that we can talk about issues of ethical practice, the climate crisis and so forth, but talk is just talk. Discussions are carried out daily, but I was really interested to know whether you think discussions, inclusive of that at Fashion Revolution, are having real impact?

TB: I think through talking about issues, we communicate to people and engage them in these topics. I agree though that there is a huge amount of talk. We have reached a peak with panels. However, I also think when Fashion Revolution started in 2013, transparency wasn’t something that people talked about. It is now a key target for most brands, and is part of most sustainability programs. I believe this is a result of Fashion Revolutions campaigning. We’re not a talking shop. We want to inspire people to take action and do something.

We try to give people the information and educate through facts. Our latest fanzine is actually called Action Required. There is a lot of frustration that things aren’t changing fast enough. This fanzine is based around the Sustainable Development Goals, and the idea is to highlight how the Fashion industry can engage with these different goals.

JJS: It is very much a catch 22 because if these issues aren’t discussed, people wouldn’t be aware. Do you think then, in the past seven years, you have seen enough real change?

TB: Oh god no! We still need this fashion revolution to happen. Nobody is remotely complacent at all. I think things have changed, but we need to keep pushing. As we’ve seen, this pandemic has put a focus on the treatment of garment workers. These people are losing their jobs without any healthcare. They didn’t have the luxury of stockpiling food as the pandemic spread. Society relies on a system that unfortunately exploits the workers who make our clothes. Hopefully, things will change as we come out of this period. Hopefully, the industry will slow down.

Make fashion an experience, not just a transaction.

Tamsin Blanchard

JJS: Likewise, I hope for a slower industry. It is interesting though that fast-fashion chains, including Boohoo, are actually seeing a year-on-year rise in sales, even peak pandemic. I understand that these chains rely on a digital strategy to disseminate product, so I can only assume that the pandemic has affected what they sell, not how much they are selling. Taking into consideration that 10,000 items of clothing are sent to landfill every 5 minutes in the UK, do you think that consumer habits will ever change?

TB: I want to know who the people are, that are still purchasing from Boohoo because they are the people that we need to be reaching to change behavioural habits. I know it’s a very different thing, but we had a couple of workshops from a brand called SOUP Archive, who are a collective of designers based in Berlin. They spend a lot of time reinventing what it is to get dressed. What they do creatively is probably not what your average Boohoo shopper is looking for, but I feel there is potential for creating a different kind of buzz. Make fashion an experience, not just a transaction.

JJS: Absolutely. People are realising that pieces can be re-worn, and garments can be fixed. Speaking of fast-fashion chains, you recently spoke to factory owner Shafiq Hassan for Vogue, where he referenced the factories in Bangladesh as the ‘weakest link in the supply chain’. Collective society is only as strong as our weakest members. I’m interested to know whether the COVID-19 induced level of empathy will transform how we see other sectors of society? For instance, a garment manufacturer might now consider the human behind the production, in the same sense that we are considerate of the elderly and vulnerable in our community.

TB: Orsola De Castro actually spoke on something similar the other week, talking of society rethinking who our heroes are. Shafiq Hassan was just so angry and emotional about the current predicament. Often the factory owners are painted out to be the bad guy, but they are working on such tight margins because brands want things cheaper and cheaper.

The whole system is built on colossal volumes, and ultimately it is the garment workers that pay the price. How can we treat people this way? Most garment workers are currently being given a month of half pay. The following month they will get a quarter of their pay, which takes their earnings down to £20 a month. After that, there’s nothing. And this is a practice from what is considered decent factories. There are many who have had contracts terminated entirely.

JJS: It’s unacceptable. So do you think there will be any change post-pandemic?

TB: Yes, I do. Hassan actually said that brands that have cancelled orders wouldn’t be able to work with them in future. There needs to be a different business model. We’re heading into a global recession, so there will be an enormous contraction in peoples spending habits. I think the industry has been given a moment where it can realistically rethink. I hope that brands will learn from this. Putting shareholders profits before the workers aren’t going to have benefits long term.

JJS: Do you think there will be potential for us to shift manufacture to the UK then? We lost roughly 40% of our industry in the 1970s by producing garments offshore. Considering the fact that Britain is newly independent of the EU, and we’re currently in a significant period of flux, do you think there will be a desire to revive British industry?

TB: Yes. I think a more localised manufacturing model is definitely a way forward. I’m slightly sceptical as to how much the government will invest in that though. They’ve been completely incapable of galvanising the hundreds of small brands and manufacturers that have come forward to volunteer to make PPE for the NHS. It’s truly shocking. It shouldn’t have to be done on a voluntary basis, and the government should be completely coordinating this move.

What I think is interesting though, is that you are seeing a lot of small brands coming together and working this out. I think many are realising there are a lot of small factories available, and through this, they are becoming more connected. We actually had a workshop last week with Kate Fletcher and Mathilda Tham, and they’ve written a report advocating for localised production.

JJS: I would like to think that coming from this, there will be accessible and affordable ways of manufacture in the UK, so localisation is a positive prospect.
TB: It’s time now for people not to be scared of doing something different. Just because you’re not setting up your own label, and getting fantastic reviews, doesn’t invalidate you as a designer. Doing something smaller and working locally is just as important.
Look at the work that Bethany Williams is doing. She has a way of integrating positive initiatives and charities into a large majority of her work. It’s incredible, and I think there is a lot of space for people to be doing a similar sort of setups.

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