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About the Union / Blogroll

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.

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An Open Letter on Textile Fibre Indexes

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Blogroll / Open Letters

At the crux of the ecological and social crises are many conflicting ideas about how to address challenges in order to affect change. As the fashion and textile sector as a whole seeks to navigate this perplexing terrain, strategies and technologies put forward as pathways to sustainability must be approached critically. 

We, the Union of Concerned Researchers in Fashion (UCRF), a diverse collective of more than 225 specialist fashion sustainability researchers and practitioners from around the world, is focused on systemic change, driven by a goal of long-term social equity and ecological health of all species including humans. As part of this we seek to contribute to discussions about fibre indexes, their use and some of the effects that we can anticipate. These discussions have become more contested and important in recent times with the moves of the European Union (EU) to ascribe different textile fibres environmental weightings and the increased promotion of the Higg Co’s Material Sustainability Index (MSI) and associated product label and the subsequent banning of this label by the Norwegian Consumer Authority for misleading claims.

Systems theorist Russel Ackoff famously noted, “It is better to do the right thing wrong than do the wrong thing right”. It is the view of UCRF that current indexes have been measuring the wrong thing, with methods that are not objective, scientifically robust and independent and a purpose that is too ‘shallow’, i.e. not focused on the underlying needs: social justice and ecological flourishing. Using inaccurate indexes and/or flawed data in a context characterized by power imbalance and the economic growth logic will give license to overproduce while perpetuating detrimental economic, societal and environmental consequences for those located at upstream supply chain stages. As such, expending effort and financial resources for ‘doing the wrong thing’ has a ripple effect that influences the fashion and textile sector as a whole, skewing activities towards the wrong purpose. 

UCRF calls for transformation of the sector by a systems shift to (in Ackoff’s language) doing the right thing which serves the long term health of the planet – centring the earth in all our tools and commercial activities. Indexes have a role in this, where they serve the re-calibrated system goal. Inevitably there will be mis-steps on this journey, but the overall direction leads towards planetary flourishing.

Evidence for current indexes being focused on the ‘wrong thing’ include:

-Global LCA data used by the fashion industry does not recognise contextual factors. This leads context-specific local actions to be omitted.

-Local actions tend to be smaller scale and are therefore rejected by indices which focus on global scale. This creates a system of exclusion and leaves successful projects finely tuned to local conditions out of the discussion.

-Current indices compare results and generalize random conclusions, leading to misleading claims. If we do not recognise and evaluate distinctive methodological characteristics in terms of sampling, boundary conditions, and contextual factors we cannot compare and cite these numbers as the global representative of market claims.

-Generalized indices tend to direct the fashion sector to solutions (organic, recycled, low impact) without first asking pertinent locally based and context-specific questions. Is organic, for example, the right solution in a region where toxicity is not the issue and water scarcity and labor are the issues? 

-Furthermore, indices tend to be used as market-based solutions, directing companies towards that which is marketable, rather than towards real change/repair/regenerative agendas for blighted regions.

-Current indices focus on a single product (though not the actual impact of that product) and fail to capture the volume produced, which more accurately reflects total actual impacts.

-They also fail to capture total business growth and the gap between ‘sustainable’ and ‘normal’ products. In doing so they reward companies for developing a few ‘sustainable’ garments, rather than shifting business as a whole.

-They measure only that which is accessible and measurable, missing opaque areas in fragmented and segmented global supply chains, of which there are many. 

-They fail to include the garment use phase and therefore continue to incentivise overproduction of new garments.

-They fail to include worker-centric needs and viewpoints, essential to building a comprehensive and inclusive roadmap forward. 

In mid 2022 we sit at a critical juncture and wish to counsel use of both imagination and detailed local knowledge in the development of a sector-wide dialogue about change. We, the Union of Concerned Researchers in Fashion, have ideas and expertise in how to proceed. We also recognise that no group can do this alone and we are open to be part of this dialogue.

UCRF – Member of the Month – Nada Koreish

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Member of the Month

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 eleventh participant is Nada Koreish.

>How would you sum up your research / practice?

That is a tough one! My research and practice is based heavily on my unique experience. I am intrinsically linked to my research and the generations of multicultural designers that have come before me. My focus is on our cultural identities of postcolonial peoples, and how that has been translated through the language of fashion. We the once colonised, we are the future of our design and art worlds. In an age where globalisation has blurred and distorted lines of communication, can we decolonize our fashion system and have an equal seat at the European fashion table? My key words would be : DECOLONIALITY, FASHION LANGUAGES, CULTURAL IDENTITY,

>How do you address fashion and sustainability in your work?

I am always embracing the human and cultural side of sustainability. How to create ,maintain and continue our legacies, craftsmanship, making processes in a globalised world? How can the woman who lives atop the Atlas Mountains be free to teach and create her organic woven fabric? How can the beaded bedouin gown, be sold as a haute couture garment? THIS is how I address the ideas of sustainability in my work. It’s by preserving, respecting and elevating the regions intricate work, whilst addressing any issues of waste that may occur.

>What are the conflicts you have encountered around fashion and sustainability in your work?

There are colonial barriers, old mindsets, and lack of drive to be part of a collective that wants to give back and uplift the community, people in our design region need money, like most of the world. And sometimes the bigger picture is always a bit difficult to explain or see, even for myself and my collective, I guess we are our own worst enemies! Sustainability is looked at predominantly from an environmental perspective, but there are so many facets to it. That ultimately all connect to the ultimate goal of preserving, sustain , being better!

>What do you consider the key sources and cases when it comes to fashion and sustainability?

I think slow factory’s work is incredible, and Aja Barber’s work. They both look at sustainability from every angle. Celine Semaan is a true visionary and I highly recommend the slow factory free seminars.

>Could you recommend some less known sources or cases you think should be more widely shared?

I do not know about ‘less known’ but I recommend, consumed by Aja Barber and the texts on the fashion and race database.

>Thank you very much for your insights Nada!

Nine years since Rana Plaza

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April 24, 2022, marks nine years since the devastating Rana Plaza building collapse in Dhaka, Bangladesh. The artwork ‘A Recipe for Disaster’ by Safa El Samad is part of Sent by Sophie Lanigan; it is also viewable here. It invites reflection on the global fashion system: what has changed since the tragedy, what remains, and in what ways must we remain vigilant?

The UCRF board thanks Sophie Lanigan and Safa El Samad for their important work and for the permission to republish ‘A Recipe for Disaster’ here.

Drawing of the collapsed Rana Plaza building by Safa El Samad. The poem by El Samad is incorporated into the drawing.
'A Recipe for Disaster', poem by Safa El Samad.

Earth Day 2022

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The theme for Earth Day this year is “Invest in Our Planet”. This seems very fitting, considering how the world’s economy has shifted and changed over the course of the past couple of years. With a pandemic sweeping all nations across the globe, it is imperative to take an in-depth look at how our priorities, from a climate and human context, have witnessed massive transformations because investing is not merely monetary.

Mother Earth and her wellbeing are slowly but surely making their way to centre stage. Although new obstacles, in the form of greenwashing and faux transparency will continue to emerge, we must acknowledge that these are weak attempts for distractions. Think of it like a Band-Aid covering an open wound, works for a short amount of time and is no way efficient. As a matter of fact, it is a momentary illusion. Therefore, silence makes us accomplices to the atrocious greed of capitalism, which we must move against.

In terms of making, promoting and selling, the fashion industry business climate is undergoing a facelift, that remains imperfect. UCRF recognises the dire need of a direct, honest and realistic response plan from the fashion industry, to minimise the normalised ecological damage and blatant human exploitation. Business practices and manufacturing processes need to be questioned, debated and updated. It is by embracing science and listening to all of the lives involved and impacted, that the possibility of change increases.

Although we are running out of time to stay atop of the global climate crisis, this Earth Day begs to ask how are we willing to invest in it today. Connecting to our roots and looking back at our ancestors, will allow us to rediscover nature from behind the fog of capitalism, making it an effective catalyst for collective action and redirection of funds.

Communique from the Oslo Local Assembly on Textile Fibres

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Blogroll / Local Assemblies

A twist on the usual UCRF Local Assembly format, this themed Local Assembly concentrated on textile fibers. Points for discussion could be tabled by any UCRF member in advance or raised on the day.

Theme: Textile fibres, key themes and challenges. 

20 minutes to discuss each theme. Participants: 10.

Sorting through the questions at the themed Oslo Local Assembly exploring fibre themes and challenges Photo credit: Lea Gleisberg.

Question 1, submitted by membership: How can we, in our expert organization, act against pesticides export for global south cotton plantations?

The assembly quickly realized how little we know and understand around this issue, even if some present had delved into the theme from different vantage points. Thus, it is difficult to recommend actual interventions. Could our recommendations anyway quickly become seen as a top-down approach rather than a bottom up one? Taking the local growing systems more seriously, engaging in the power dynamics were suggested. But all in all, we wondered: How can we actually help? Suggestions welcome.

Question 2: Ease of fit made possible through adding ‘stretch’ – which inherently is a problematic fiber mix – how do we move beyond convenience?

The lack of fit for clothing is one of the three main reasons for clothes going out of use, and with the ready-made industry’s lack of good sizing, one ‘quick fix’ to alleviate the problem is adding a percentage of spandex into the material mix. This, however, decreases the possibility of recycling and shortens the life-span of clothing, as the spandex has a short life-span. In other sectors, not textiles, there is an on-going discussion how to develop waste-stream systems that capture the materials for biodegrading (outside of industrial composting), if and when one uses biodegradable alternatives. If the EU decides in PEF to add criteria for repairability, one could suggest that spandex becomes a no-go for all textiles, as it makes any material impossible to repair. The only exceptions would be products such as compression tights and sports-bras. This would force a re-think.  It was discussed that obtaining “good” and comfortable fit in garments of woven textiles without 1-3% elastane requires a more detailed design, patternmaking, and sampling process at minimum, if not a thorough revision of “standard” sizing to better accommodate differences in body shape. Currently, the “give” of elastomeric fibres conveniently overcomes poor fit to the individual body, facilitating the rapid production of large volumes of identical goods for diverse populations.

Question 3: What does a future without synthetic fibers look like?

As some of the present could remember a time when synthetic fibers did not permeate our lives, it was easier to paint the picture for some than others. Make a list of what apparel we can accept the use of synthetics in – only where the properties are really needed – and also perhaps develop a strategy that identifies why choices are made: Is it because the material is cheaper? As oil and gas companies are ‘no longer drilling for energy, but for plastics’, it’s a question of keeping an eye on who stands to gain here. As the association between circularity and growth, and synthetics is so close, how can we break this ‘truth’, as synthetics in a circular system inevitably leak. So we need to say ‘no new plastics’ enter into the system, perhaps put forward Michael Braungart’s ‘from now on, only accept synthetics made from captured greenhouse gases’. This would bring the price-point up to the level of the most expensive natural raw materials and therefore ‘even the playing field’. https://www.voguebusiness.com/sustainability/can-fashion-crack-carbon-negative-fabrics There is also an emerging idea of a fiber diet (explored in https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-3-030-88300-3_7 

Question 4: How can we collectively act to build more criticality into EU’s PEF?

During the morning, some of the participants had been in a workshop arranged by the European Environmental Bureau for NGOs on PEF and LCA methodology. As the critique that was raised during the workshop was not really picked up on by the moderator (who also leads the technical working group for apparel and footwear in PEF), this was a disconcerting experience that in many ways how-cases the lack of democratic process and the level of bureaucracy inherent. (The session was taped, so we can share it at a later date, but here is Veronica Bates Kassatly’s contribution https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-oLsD6X9fjo.) Putting our frustrations aside, the discussion centered on what means could be most effective in being heard and put forward the trepidations that this will be another tool for the global north to impose demands on the poor and marginalized rather than taking responsibility for a mess largely created by the global north. The Norwegians present have tried more or less everything: op eds, academic journal articles, participating in the working group, at the launch of Make the Label Count, social media, etc.; without really getting heard. All though, 65 EU politicians have signed two separate letters to the Commission and in Norway a lot of sympathy has been garnered through the one op ed: EU threatens the Norwegian bunad (national costume). The agreement was that we need to find similar locally-resounding issues that showcase what we stand to lose, perhaps in light of cultural sustainability more than anything. Again, ask the question: Who benefits and whose interests are being denied? And contingent on the answer, follow up and ask if this is what we actually want? It is clear, also that PEF is all about choosing between products on the basis of slight (according to PEF) ecological gains based on global average data, rather than actually reducing consumption and production; so not at all aligned to UCRF’s main goals. The images from Chile’s desert of wasted textiles may actually have caused a slight shift in consumer attitudes. The powerful image that shows the true consequences of our over-consumption. 

Question 5: How could we learn more about how people value and use different fibers?

We have in many ways lost touch with the materiality of fibers, they have become a pawn in some sort of gaming-system instead. It’s about esthetic qualities and price, and anything else is too complex. Such surprising things as tariffs on different fibers and fiber-mixes may even come into play, more than how they feel on our skin, how they drape, etc. A study on food labelling was brought up, and how origin (or the labelling of protected origin) is one of the few relevant labelling schemes that actually makes a difference to consumers. There is also this idea that sustainability is expensive, rather than seeing other, non-purchasing alternatives. Complexity scares people. To really show design-students where the clothes they design end up, one of the participants takes her students to spend a day at the sorting-line of a thrift organization: Is this where you want ‘your’ clothes to end up? Discovering other ways to interact with clothes, in the community, sharing and taking more care of clothing – a way forward? 

Photos: Lea Gleisberg