The Fabric of Life Series was designed to highlight people and projects working to save species and ecosystems threatened by the fashion industry. It aimed to provide a better understanding of the threats that the current fashion supply chain presents to people and nature, introduce innovative solutions and organisations that are addressing these threats and provide opportunities to become part of key campaigns, support nature conservation & fund change-makers. In this piece, Jessica Sweidan, Founding Trustee of Synchronicity Earth, tells us more.
Q: What was the rationale for focusing on fashion through the Fabric of Life series?
JS: With Fabric of Life, we wanted to create space, alongside experts, to dive deep, and reflect on how our everyday choices are directly related to nature.
In a way, fashion is a brilliant metaphor for our current relationship to nature. On the one hand, it shows how rampant consumerism – our desire for more – has had a profoundly negative impact on the natural world: wetlands polluted, ancient forests levelled, major bodies of water dried up through overuse of chemicals for treatment and dyes, wood pulp for fibres like viscose, and our beloved, but very thirsty, cotton. These impacts – unless brought to the fore – remain in the back of our minds.
On the other hand, there is growing awareness about fashion’s negative impacts, and a desire to change. Designers, retailers, mills – everyone along the supply chain – is having to (or will have to) alter their approach, or process.
For me, fashion tugs on many aspects of what needs to change across society – across the globe – if we really want to realign ourselves with nature. And, the same metaphor can be applied across most embedded human systems – like food, finance or even education.
Q: What did the Fabric of Life series consist of?
JS: We offered a variety of formats to try to keep things as interesting as possible. We had everything from high-level panel discussions on consumer culture, to hands-on experiences with innovations in fabric technology; a tour of the Fashioned from Nature exhibition at the V&A was followed by a discussion with curator Edwina Ehrman. We also spent an evening at Deborah Milner’s couture studio, exploring the complexity of being truly sustainable when working with high design and the finest of fabrics. Whatever the event, we tried to draw the conversation back to nature: what does it mean for biodiversity?
Q: It sounds like the series was a learning experience for everyone involved – from your perspective, what do you think our relationship with fashion tells us more broadly about our connection to the natural world?
JS: I think it shows us that we take much for granted. Where once our footprints were small by virtue of much simpler lifestyles, now industry, travel, technology and wealth, have changed all that. We are operating way beyond our means, often without even knowing it. Over-consumption has become normalised, and our values and identities have changed in the process. We’ve lost sight of the origin of things – of where everything we eat, touch, put on our bodies, use – comes from. Simple connections have been disrupted.
Now I say this, and I think there is a movement towards seeking value. Change is afoot – and it fills me with hope.
Q: When people think of fashion, they don’t necessarily think of forests or freshwater. Do you think there is a general lack of understanding of where our clothes from, or do people just not care?
JS: I think very few take the time to think about where our clothes come from. Systemic, ‘join-the-dots’ thinking is, very sadly, not the norm. Whether that is by choice, or a result of (lack of) education, I don’t know. I also think that there is a general (convenient) belief that responsibility lies in the hands of business or government – which is true, of course, but it negates individual responsibility. We live in a demand culture. Up until recently, supply has always felt endless, but over the past two decades the combination of rising wealth, rising population and the power of what we might call ‘fast fashion’ driven by social media, has created an exponential increase on the demand side. Now, it’s catching up with us – the pressures on the supply side are wreaking environmental havoc. It’s time to join the dots and re-examine our habits.
The language of ‘hidden costs’ is really interesting. I find that the moment we take the time to consider the details, to expose the hidden costs – say of cotton’s impact on freshwater – we feel empowered because we have learned something. Creating many more opportunities for that kind of empowerment, is how our systems will move. That’s how we shift people to care.
Q: What do you hope people will have gained from attending these events and discussions? Have you seen evidence of change among people who participated?
JS: Oh – so many things! I hope people will have a better understanding of the complexities of the whole industry of fashion and use that burgeoning knowledge to examine other aspects of their lives. I hope people will take more responsibility for, and ownership of, their choices and ideas. I also hope that people will feel like they learned enough to feel confident having conversations about these issues and spreading the word – and becoming ambassadors to their friends, families and communities.
The feedback has been very heartening – I would say that everyone who participated feels better equipped to tackle these issues head on and has been altered in some way. One woman was notably moved after visiting the Future Fabrics Expo, hosted by our partner The Sustainable Angle – she simply had no idea that forest fibres had anything at all to do with fabric. Her reaction was distinct – almost incredulous. She felt wronged by society, by life, that she was only learning this now, as an adult. Needless to say, she is exactly why I do this. I want to reach people. These might seem like small changes in the grand scheme of things – but taken together, they add up.
Q: How does this work fit in with the core work that Synchronicity Earth does to address high priority but neglected conservation challenges?
JS: Synchronicity Earth funds the gaps – areas that urgently need our attention, but often do not have our attention. This kind of engagement or awareness raising work aims to highlight those areas that need our attention, by showing how the things that we are more engaged with – like fashion and food – are directly linked. Our biggest challenge as an organisation focussed on halting the loss of nature, of biodiversity – the fabric of life – is attention. With all the wonder and beauty that makes up the natural world, one wouldn’t think that holding people’s attention, and getting people to care – and act, and give – would be so difficult. But it is. By ‘bringing it home’ and making it relevant, my hope is that we can start to create a groundswell of support for our work. The more support we receive, the better suited we are to support our partners on the ground, across the world, who without organisations like us, might remain in the gaps.
Q: What kind of influence do you think conservation and environmental organisations can have on such a huge industry – on its stakeholders and its shareholders – and how?
JS: I think the point is that NGOs are having a major influence on industry – fashion and otherwise. I don’t believe that industry and its shareholders are so naïve to not know that certain change is inevitable – it’s more like a matter of when they will have to adapt. NGOs help accelerate adaptation; they play a crucial role.
Campaigning organisations like Greenpeace do an enormous amount of in-depth research and investigation before calling out a manufacturer or a well-known brand. By the time they are shouting from the streets, businesses are more than well aware of what’s at stake.
NGOs are like the sand in an oyster – the grit. Without organisations like Fashion Revolution, who would be addressing the human rights abuses in garment factories? Or take our partner in the Fabric of Life Series, Canopy – they are actively engaging with industry to address environmental threats at every stop along the fashion supply chain and achieving great success.
I would only add that we need much more support for quality NGOs, which is of course, one of the primary reasons Synchronicity Earth exists.
Q: Did you have a personal highlight from the series? And what next?
JS: That’s a tough question. The curator in me was delighted to be able to deliver incredible expertise across the six months. I also always love watching people learn – and seeing the pennies drop. Hearing the gasps, and the shudders when new knowledge lands, almost shifting people, physically. I am also thrilled that we are forging new alliances with businesses like Kering and having deeper conversations with other major brands about their impact on biodiversity.
As the Fabric of Life series evolved, something became very clear to me: to conserve the natural world, we need to operate on two time-frames – the short and the long term. In the longer term, businesses have to clean up supply chains, and individuals have to change their behaviour. There are tangible signs of long-term change and generational consciousness shifts already in our field of vision. However, there is a significant gap for funding and attention in the short term. It is imperative that we protect intact nature and restore vital ecosystems, now. As David Attenborough said recently “what we do in the next 20 years will determine the future for all life on Earth.”