To celebrate Fashion Revolution and the progress the fashion industry has made towards becoming more sustainable, we’re asking experts in the field who we think are fashion’s revolutionaries to share some of their insight into the industry and the future of fashion.
Lilian Liu is the Manager of Partnerships & UN Relations for the UN Global Compact and leads their work on sustainable fashion. The United Nations Global Compact is a call to companies everywhere to align their operations and strategies with ten universally accepted principles in the areas of human rights, labour, environment and anti-corruption, and to take action in support of UN goals and issues embodied in the Sustainable Development Goals.
Why do you work in sustainable fashion?
The fashion industry has the power to impact the direction we are headed towards as a collective sustainability movement through our everyday choices, whether it is clothing purchases or what outfit we choose for the day. Everyday is an opportunity to take a stance- because everyday we wear clothes, and through them we make statements. As we know, the industry has major environmental, social and economic impacts. But to me, what feels most empowering about fashion is that each and everyone of us can be the activist and demand a change, because it impacts us all. The sustainable fashion movement has the potential to mobilize millions of people for a brighter future.
Tell us about one item of clothing from your closet that embodies sustainable fashion.
I have this silk blouse that I bought in a vintage store a few years ago. I’m pretty sure it’s someone’s old robe, but the fabric is this off-white, luxurious 100% silk. I use it both unbuttoned as a shirt or closed as a dress. To me it embodies the fundamental idea of sustainable fashion, being quality pieces that can be reused, revived and repurposed.
What do you think is the biggest achievement of the sustainable fashion movement?
I feel that the sector is increasingly coming together as a movement. There is a shift in mindset. There is a growing interest in corporate sustainability and the UN Global Goals. When I talk to fashion brands, it sounds like they are increasingly collaborating and sharing solutions, whether it is a list of sustainable suppliers, or tools they use to become more transparent. There are more initiatives working to advance sustainable fashion which is making the sector come together as well.
In terms of corporate sustainability, a major development is that sustainability is getting uptake in the Board Rooms. Finance is a very hot topic at the UN and in the context of the Global Goals. Investors are increasingly paying attention to companies’ sustainability performance. According to the 2015 EY Global Institutional Investor Survey, investors are using companies’ nonfinancial disclosures to inform investment decisions. In fact, 59% of the survey respondents viewed non-financial disclosures as “essential” or “important” to investment decisions. If both investors and consumers ask companies to embrace change and implement more sustainable business models, that would be a huge step forward.
With regards to making progress towards building a sustainable fashion industry, who do you want to thank and why?
In the many discussions and events I have participated in, the topic that comes back again and again is that of partnership. You need a lot of stakeholders collaborating and committed in order to make sustainable fashion mainstream – policy-makers to create enabling environments and large-scale change (i.e. UK’s Modern Slavery Act, Netherlands ban on free plastic bags), business leaders and innovators to show that it can be done (mushroom or pineapple leather, you pick!) and thought-leaders to provoke and advance discussions.
Fashion Revolution is one of those organizations that have truly fuelled the movement and mobilized citizens- and without the people, this can never work. They have made sustainable fashion topics accessible and understandable. The way that they story-tell and humanize labor and supply chain issues is also inspiring. Sometimes, sustainability narratives are about ‘helping the poor in the developing world’, whereas their stories (such as The Garment Worker Diaries) are empowering and human. Co-founder Orsola de Castro told me she has “a very good antenna for all things patronizing” and avoids this type of communication at all costs.
Tell us a story about a sustainable fashion industry in 2030 – a day in the life of a worker, a consumer, through the lens of your business, etc.
As a fashion citizen and consumer in 2030, purchasing new clothing will no longer be my default option. There are plenty of rental services and well-curated clothing libraries in my neighbourhood. I can also opt-in for some second-hand clothing, there are specialized sellers for different categories of clothing, colors or sizes, so I can easily find what I am looking for.
When I need something fixed, I can take it to one of the many tailors that can mend or personalize my clothes- this will also be much quicker and more affordable than it is today.
When I’ve exhausted the use of a piece, I can drop it off at one of the clothing recycling stations at the supermarket or local deli where it is rebirthed into actual high-quality fabric, not downcycled, donated or shipped off to a country somewhere.
In 2030, I no longer have to think twice about making a ‘conscious choice’. The alternatives for being more resourceful with our fashion are so compelling and accessible that being sustainable will be the smart thing to do.
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