The Union of Concerned Researchers in Fashion (UCRF) was formed in 2018 by Kate Fletcher, Lynda Grose, Timo Rissanen and Mathilda Tham (in alphabetical order).
The formation of the Union was brought about by the realization that
over the last thirty years sustainability in fashion has been an industry-led
movement and as such, has been constantly framed within business, without
asking questions about the nature of business itself.
We recognized that this has severely narrowed approaches to fashion and sustainability, has widened the divide between commerce and the capacities of nature to support commercial activity and has resulted in more, not less, degradation of clothing makers and the earth.
We questioned if business was truly capable of making the changes necessary to transform the industry and saw a need to steer a smarter better debate about fashion and sustainability.
We also recognized that researchers’ tradition of: seeking out truth; critical discourse; full disclosure; ontological thought, was desperately needed, and that researchers were better equipped to hold trust for the common good and the sector more broadly (of which the industry is one part).
We aim to
provide language, action and modes of working that are precise in their
critical identification of issues and open ended in their responses,
rather than muted by corporate risk analysis and closed to all but that which
is actionable within the current sector.
The UCRF reading group opened its digital doors on 30th April 2021. With the participation of 17 attendees, the first gathering explored how to create an activist knowledge ecology in order to foster critical thinking and build collective consciousness. Reflecting on the UCRF’s manifesto and code of conduct, we discussed how to diversify the voices and ensure social and environmental justice in and across fashion value chains so we could move beyond resource depletion toward a paradigm change.
The group will continue facilitating an inclusive conversation by approaching fashion from multiple facets and disciplines that can then inform, influence and inspire a diverse range actors to undertake actions. The group will adopt a tidal schedule to accommodate participation from all time zones.
Thank you to those who were part of the first meeting of this exciting and informing group – and let us know if you would like to join or if you wish to receive further information.
UCRF is running a ‘Member of the Month’ feature on this blog, where a member, selected at random from the membership database, is sent five questions to give us all an overview of our members. Our eighth participant is Olga Johnston.
>How would you sum up your research / practice?
I am an educator, journalist and a stylist, focusing on activating sustainable & circular fashion discourse and action in Russia since 2017, which, I guess, makes me a ‘pioneer’ of sustainable fashion in Russia. I’m based in Berlin but work across both western and eastern Europe.
I focus on Russia for a few reasons. Firstly, Russia is a large fashion market. Positively impacting the full spectrum of how fashion is defined, produced and consumed in Russia, as the world’s sixth largest economy @ PPP, will generate multiple positive outcomes for the planet. Secondly, and more generally, encouraging and inspiring Russian producers and consumers to think, strategise and act/invest in terms of sustainability and net positivity is absolutely key to achieving planetary sustainability. Russia is the world’s largest country and holds stewardship of the world’s most significant freshwater and forest resources together with uniquely vast endowments of flora and fauna. Thirdly, I am Russian and am deeply aware of and inspired by the potential of my country not just to neutralise but to reverse environmental destruction at planetary scale, yet Russia’s positive contribution to date is a miniscule fraction of what should be possible. For example, as recently as 2017, google searches for “Sustainable Fashion” in the Russian language yielded zero results. I started my educational project “Redshift in Fashion” in order to change that. I have had some success – googling “sustainable fashion” in Russian now, in 2021, returns over 4,000,000 of results (still behind over 565,000,000 results in English). I believe the Redshift project has been partly responsible for generating an explosion of interest and activity in Russia in this area, as well as growing interest from the West.
In 2017 I delivered, jointly with the Moscow-based designer Nikita Kalmykov (brand “Atelier Odor”) our very first lecture on sustainable fashion and design in Russia. To date I have lectured in a number of universities across Russia: Moscow State University of Technology and Design Moscow, British School of Art and Design, Moscow High School of Economics, ITMO St Petersburg National Research University of IT, Mechanics and Optics, Southern Federal University, Rostov, Omsk University of Design and Technology, and Vladivostok State University of Economics and Service.
This year together with the leading Russian private fashion school “Fashion Factory” I have launched the first Russian language course about building a sustainable fashion brand. This involved designing the curriculum, finding Russian designers as tutors, creating and teaching the main body of the course content.
>How do you address fashion and sustainability in your work?
As an educator I find it very effective to emphasise that fashion is not a product but a process that has the beginning (material stage) and the end (which we try to avoid and make it a closed loop of ‘endlessly’ circulating non-toxic resources). All along this process – the life cycle of a garment – we encounter ecological and social problems which we should substitute with ecological and ethical solutions. And I show how to do that at every stage of the lifecycle and every point in the supply chain. Another point I stress is the need for system thinking. I use principles of deep ecology to show the interconnectedness and ‘oneness’ of things. Part of the challenge of making fashion sustainable in Russia lies in making sustainability ‘fashionable’.
>What are the conflicts you have encountered around fashion and sustainability in your work?
My original focus on Russia was itself rooted in a conflict. In 2017 I asked myself questions to which there were no answers, such as: Is Russia purposefully excluded or self-excluding from the global discourse on sustainable fashion or has Russia simply been ‘forgotten’ and dismissed by mistake? Why were Western consumer brands in Russia failing to implement the very sustainability practices that defined their global positioning and ECG stance? What are the reasons for either? What are the solutions? How can we overcome this gap that if left unresolved with could be detrimental for the world and its efforts in achieving SDG by 2030? How can Russia contribute to the global sustainable and circular fashion industry? Can it provide investment, carry out research into alternative fabrics and present its technological solutions to the world?
Today, there is a new set of conflicts, for example within Russia’s newly formed sustainable fashion community. Some of them believe in a Slavophilic special Russian way or path and resist ‘western’ knowledge. Some ‘learnt’ to use ecological ideas for greenwashing. The idea of circular economy still does not figure highly on the Russian economic agenda.
Another Russia-specific issue is the absence of accessibility – Russian language academic education in the area of sustainable fashion and a total absence of textbooks on the topic. Only a fraction of students and teachers speak English at a level sufficient to be able to access the existing volume of knowledge.
The translation of the existing material is lagging behind. The book “Cradle to Cradle” by M.Braungart and W.McDonough was translated into Russian and published only as recently as August 2020, 12 years after it first appeared in English.
>What do you consider the key sources and cases when it comes to fashion and sustainability?
I am using academic publications by members of UCRF as well as the ‘usual’ online resources, such as Ellen MacArthur Foundation, Mistra Future Fashion, CFDA, Ted Ten, BOF, etc.
>Could you recommend some less known sources or cases you think should be more widely shared?
I like materials created by Redress Design Awards, I participated in translating some of them into Russian, and today it is the best Russian language resource on sustainable design available for free.
If you are interested in sustainable Russian brands, I recommend to check out Sane Fashion (available in Russian only). It is a new platform and also an app rating sustainable Russian fashion brands and connecting them with consumers. I worked on creating its rating that is constantly being revised and updated. This platform also provides information on second hand stores and textile take back points across Russia.
I always recommend SFA course to anyone new to the topic.
Looking forward, the Russian sustainable fashion movement requires support in order to grow in scale and scope. The most important driver here would be in “training the trainers” – equipping Russian fashion educators and decision makers with the inspiration, initiative and instruments to educate and train the upcoming generation of Russian fashion entrepreneurs and creative talent.
For this reason I have started putting together a very rough and raw concept of an online Redshift In Fashion Forum in order to bring together the world’s leading researchers, thinkers and doers in sustainable fashion with Russian sustainable fashion activists, educators and policymakers. We would look at a few days of online activity covering best practices, case studies, innovative ideas, fashion value chain concept reinventions and other solutions in a global virtual forum with full online translation and simultaneous interpreting support. The idea would be a dynamic exchange of concepts, ideas and creative energies between Russia and the world. You are the world’s leading community of knowledge and research in sustainable fashion. Could I interest you in working with me to develop and launch this concept?
Additionally, I will be delighted to answer members’ questions regarding Russia’s sustainable fashion developments. Also delighted to receive advice or ideas on promoting sustainable fashion in Russia and welcome initiatives that through partnership can help move the situation forward in Russia in academia, fashion production and consumption. Personally, I am interested in contributing the Russian angle to any research activities about culture-specific attitudes to fashion and sustainability. Please feel free to reach out.
How to accelerate sustainability from the integration of unheard voices?
April 7, 2021, the first UCRF Local Assembly in Buenos Aires took place with 23 participants started with to opening questions:
Why is the process towards sustainability in textiles and fashion so – so – slow? Who are the voices we are not listening to?
Some of the reflections:
Fashion is a very permeable industry for people who want to do business, explore their creativity, without any specialization, only trying to find low prices of production, and earn money while enjoying designing. The industry and this way of approaching fashion supports inequality, and unsustainable fashion.
The industry has on the one hand the large conglomerates that need to always have positive results. However, on the other hand, it has a consumer, after pandemic 2020, who had time to question themselves, so now, the door opens again to different possibilities. It is also slow because it is immeasurable, the environmental, the economic, and the social aspects are very complex, the value chain is in different countries and transoceanic, while the triple impact of the industry is very heavy.
Fashion belongs to the industry, and the industry is the one that is not sustainable. And those who are not heard are precisely those who make sustainable fashion, those voices are lost. The social sphere is indicated as the most serious problem in the fashion system. Different stages: Stage of production of the raw material, and second stage, the making of the garment. Look for the local, find the balance in the crops, raw material that is not plastic, seek that plastic is no longer used. The greenwashing of the circular economy, which is not enough to address the problem in a real systemic way.
Education, lack of training in sustainable design issues, lack of professional training, even in the initial school levels of sustainability issues. Consumer education. Finding the point to transform the industry, business models. Educate towards sustainability at all levels. Industry permeated, the social permeates industry, industry slows down processes, it cannot stop and start over. When basic needs are barely met, can a consumer choose? Detached from native people, from the feeling that is aligned with nature and the values that would lead us to act from another side.
Society and culture of consumption, where more is preferred for less price. There is a change, a progress, but still everything is thought from this logic. Lack of consumer education. The consumer who does not demand different ways of doing.
What is missing are the voices of Artisans, there is a lack of workers in the industry, an active role is missing to be able to move towards sustainable and more transparent practices. Community focus.
Deep lack of sustainability knowledge. As a student, there are no training spaces in sustainability. There is a lack of support for the teacher to educate himself. Teaching work very undervalued. We do not listen to those who produce from other contexts, at other times and in other ways. How we connect and how we promote our training towards other ways of doing things?
Need to rid off the 3R and recycling. There is an intention to educate on these issues, but it is very superficial. Recycling is not the solution.
Entrepreneur networks, give space to those who work in sustainability, generate construction spaces. It is necessary to listen to those who do innovation.
The LATAM region is a very rich region in resources and they are undervalued. We do not have figures in the sector that allow us to map these issues.
The artisanal is also woven into an economic perspective, the introduction of synthetic anilines in the twentieth century depleted a great wealth of knowledge and years of dyeing knowledge. Today, artisans to respond to the demand apply anilines, although spaces are beginning to emerge that seek to continue contributing from nature. The change in scale leads the artisan to seek to accelerate their processes.
Living in India, I have seen the suffering with which garment workers walked hundreds of kilometers back to their villages after Western brands refused to pay for the goods they had ordered in the weeks and months before Covid-19 hit. The workers would have died of hunger in the cities. They walked home to the village to at least have a roof over their heads.
The major brands in the US and Europe cancelled and/or refused to pay for orders estimated at 16.2 billion dollars between April to June 2020. These were orders that were contractually agreed but because of lockdown and pandemic restrictions closing retail, were no longer wanted. This has meant huge economic losses for exporters in developing countries that produced these orders, massive amounts of ready stocks that will finally need to be disposed of, and most importantly, tens of thousands of workers not paid for work done and the enormous unemployment that has ensued. It constitutes 1.6 billion dollars of wages not paid. Women constitute 85% of the workforce and unemployment puts them at a greater risk of domestic violence and sexual abuse.
In Fashion Revolution week, maybe it’s time to consider this. On April 24th 2013, the Rana Plaza factory collapsed in Dhaka, Bangladesh killing 1134 garment factory workers and injuring 2500. The fashion world may have gone into a shock that day, exposed for the first time perhaps, to its shameful underbelly. This day may have been announced as a day of revolution. But of what value is this, if eight years down the line, extremely rich and privileged brand owners, contrary to their claims, do something so colossally worse and that too, so blatantly and shamelessly? They ruthlessly turned their backs on the very supply chain that earned them their wealth. Is there no accountability? Can they be allowed to get away with this?
We at UCRF, have been supporting Pay Up, the most successful campaign that was launched in this regard. It is up to each of us to think and decide how we can contribute. We seek long and lasting change, for workers, for Earth, for us all.
This Earth Day let us reinvigorate relationships with the earth.
Despite the ecological violence that is systematically metered out to earth systems by human activities, the earth still contains the deep codes which are necessary to sustain life. We can learn from these codes. We can also bring them into our contemporary lives. At UCRF we recognise that we must act to make life, including our fashion life, ecologically rich and diverse.
On this day of special focus on earth and earth systems, we offer two perspectives, one from the Northern hemisphere’s spring and the other from the Southern hemisphere’s autumn.
The April day is gorgeous, there is a clear sky and there is a small warmth in the sun – an amount that seems surprising given I am in the high ground of the north of England. As I follow a contour through a field with sheep and thistles, the call of curlews bounce off the hills and the ceiling of the sky. The curlews are on the wing, in pairs, their large, speckled brown bodies moving, loose and easy. Against the sky, I can pick them out but with the land as backdrop, they disappear, their camouflage complete. It is a feat, like the flick of a switch. Seen. Unseen. As I climb over a pass, a single curlew calls out and then flies up in a tussle with a crow. The curlew chases the crow and her white chest flashes as she dives and swoops on it, mobbing it, like she is a hawk. Two birds in one: languid brown wader and white dart. Both parts of her live in this stony, coarse reed, grass-tussocky valley. The land is rich in life but it’s not prototypically pretty, easily overlooked if postcards are your business. KF
Shortly after returning to Sydney, Australia, I went for a run in Centennial Park. It takes a moment for me, a birdwatcher, to recalibrate my eyes, ears and psyche to the avian inhabitants of Gadigal country. The landscape and the soundscape are distinct and I’m rusty after a decade away: I’m keen to greet my neighbours. On this August run a flash of luminous white catches my eye: a crested pigeon with leucism that gives him a shiny white back. (I assume he’s a he; his mate is usually close by.) I say hello, take some photos and keep running. The following week he is sitting on a fence circling the running track. He looks at me and coos quietly as I run past; again I say hello. Over subsequent months I’ve greeted him on many runs, always in the same spot. Just as often he’s not there and I feel his absence. This morning, thinking about this writing task during my run, I see him and I pause. He runs to me, seemingly as delighted to see me as I am him. I chat to him for a couple of minutes and he circles me excitedly. I get on my way, he returns to dancing with his mate. This relationship of eight months has me grateful to be part of earth. TR