By Shehan Perera – Content Manager, Social Enterprise UK
If you were asked to think of the most polluting industries, what would be the first thing you thought of? Energy? Transport? Agriculture? Most of us are aware that the world’s continued reliance on fossil fuels is a key driver of the climate emergency and that we should be taking fewer flights, but did you know that the fashion industry is estimated to be the second most polluting industry globally? What’s more there’s probably no other better example of how social and environmental harm link together and the ways in which exploitation and inequality play out across global markets.
From garment workers in the global south to exploited workers in Leicester low pay and precarious working conditions are a common element of the fashion industry, spurred on and exacerbated by the pressure to keep prices low and production levels high. Around 75 million people are employed through the entire fashion value chain which stretches from American cotton fields to Chinese processing mills, Bangladeshi garment factories to British warehouses and distribution centres.
Human rights abuses are commonplace across the supply chain and the global scale of the sector both in terms of the distance goods travel, the volumes of raw materials needed and the processes required to turn these into finished products, result in fashion accounting for around 10% of all carbon emissions. That is more than the emissions of all international flights and global shipping and demand for new products is only ever increasing. At the turn of the millennium an incredible 50 billion new garments were being made, by 2020 that figure had doubled.
The pursuit of profit, a race to the bottom on wages, consumer demand for cheaper goods and vast global supply chains have created a social and environmental nightmare but how do we even begin to transform such an extractive, exploitative sector?
From better regulation to unionisation of the work force, there are many ways in which to the sector can treat workers better and protect our planet but what is ultimately needed is a fundamentally different way of doing business. This is where social enterprise comes in.
It will take a lot of work to transform an industry as large as fashion but as ever social enterprises are showing us that another way of doing business is possible. Here are just a few of the social enterprises doing things differently and taking on fast fashion.
Birdsong is a social enterprise which looks to challenge the fashion industry at every stage of the production process with a model that firmly puts people and planet first. Founded by Sophie Slater in 2014 with the slogan ‘dress in protest’, the business sees fashion as a tool for social change. It has taken a stand against the systematic abuse of women in the industry and the obsessive pursuit of trends resulting in fast throwaway fashion.
Birdsong works with women facing barriers to employment in the UK paying a real London Living Wage to the artists, printmakers, seamstresses and painters in works with. These include organisations such as Fabric Seamstresses a textile manufacturer which works with women who have been long-term unemployed and a community knitting group of older women. With 60 million women worldwide aged between 18-35 working in the garment industry for less than even a minimum wage, Birdsong is ensuring that workers rights are at the heart of its business model.
But how does Birdsong challenge the environmental damage wrought by the fashion industry? Part of this is down to the materials it uses with all materials being compostable, naturally derived fabrics (such as Tencel or Organic Cotton) or reclaimed fibres. Organic Cotton is sourced only from factories that have met strict social and environmental criteria and bamboo, sourced from a supplier using a sustainable closed loop system, is used in many products due to it being easy to farm in a sustainable way.
The global fashion supply chain often involves multiple countries with materials being transported to different locations for processing, product creation and final point of sale. All Birdsong products only travel between 2 countries – from where the material is sourced to where it is cut and produced in London cutting out around 14,000 miles of air travel for each garment.
Being a social enterprise means taking a different approach to how the fashion industry works. Unlike most manufacturers who react to and create demand through churning out thousands of products, all Birdsongs items are made to order. This combined with the long-lasting quality of each item means their products are both better for the environment and better for the workers sourcing and manufacturing the items in our wardrobes.
Birdsong have also created their own manifesto for a new fashion industry including ideas such as investing in fibre recycling, rent controls for social enterprises and a shift towards syndicalism over monopolies. Read their manifesto here.
With a proud logo proclaiming “people and the planet before profits”, Manchester based WAWVA Clothing is on a mission to create well designed garments which have a minimum impact on the planet and a positive impact on those involved in their creation. Sourcing sustainable materials from ethical producers is at the core of their business model. Interestingly from 2017 all their products have been completely vegan and in 2018 they also started working with recycled materials for their clothes.
Products are manufactured at factories which have met the social enterprises’ ethical credentials. In Portugal WAWWA sources items made from organic cotton from a family-owned factory which has its own spinning mill. All staff a paid a living wage and with the support of WAWWA the factor is now mostly powered by solar energy. Similarly in India the factory WAWWA works with is embedding ethical practices across its operations being a Fairtrade supplier and also supporting women garment workers through providing them with credit cards to help safeguard their earnings. WAWWA even works with a producer in Bolton, Greater Manchester, which producers their outdoor clothing range.
What if fashion can be used to re-grow local industry? That is the question social enterprise Community Clothing seeks to address with its mission to create jobs in the UK’s textile making regions.
With politicians from all main parties recognising the urgent need to ‘level-up’ the economy so wealth is created and distributed more evenly across the UK, Community Clothing is showing how a social enterprise can be at the heart of this process. The business works with 28 partner factories across the country such as spinners, weavers, knitters, dyers and garment makers creating sustainable, well-paid jobs in some of the poorest regions in the UK. What’s more it is helping revive the textile industry which was once at the heart of regional economies.
Their business model is about 100% local garment production, allowing for minimised transport costs and importantly a hugely reduced carbon footprint. All garments are made from sustainable, natural and biodegradable materials which Community Clothing sources from long established growers and producers. Interestingly the business manages to keep costs to the consumer affordable through selling direct to consumers, cutting out wholesale and retail costs. The business was founded by entrepreneur Patrick Grant, who has now achieved national fame being a judge on the Great British Sewing Bee.
We’re delighted that Patrick will be joining us at Social Enterprise Futures for a session looking in more depth at some of these issues on 15 November Sign up here.