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 climate emergency is an existential threat to life on Earth. In the run-up to the COP26 climate change negotiations in Glasgow, UCRF underscores key themes that it sees as critical for the fashion sector moving forward into this new and unpredictable period:
Activate whole systems approaches The most powerful responses are those that start by considering the purpose, scope, governance, goals and rules of the fashion system. UCRF advocates that the fashion system purpose is reset away from economic growth logic and towards service of Earth in order to unleash new opportunities for all species and future generations.
Scale activity to fit within Earth’s limits As a changed system purpose for fashion is set within planetary boundaries, UCRF calls for clear commitment to planned pathways to transition to a more diverse and smaller fashion sector within 5-10 years. This is within the critical time frame of intervention proposed by the IPCC.
Question the unforeseen and very real consequences of tech-driven “disruption” While interventions into an unsustainable status quo are needed, the wholesale celebration of “disruption” has a tendency to leave its consequences unquestioned. So far, too many cases of tech-driven “disruption” have shifted agency towards platforms, made labour invisible and have stripped unions of power. If disruption is to happen, UCRF insists more pertinent questions are asked: What populations and organizations will bear the costs of the change? Who will clean up the debris of the broken system?
Build communities of change and practice UCRF is engaged in and with genuine alternatives to the current drives towards increased growth, extraction and concentration of power. These alternatives commit to leaving no one behind and sharing knowledges of how to act in fashion in a climate change world. UCRF invites others to join together in this task.
Live inside the questions The work of change is a process. UCRF advocates continuously asking critical systems questions, such as who stands to gain and who will be hurt by policies and decisions, calling out the hidden agendas in order to work for lasting structural change.
Act and embody new ways of being, doing, valuing and acting The existential threat of climate change necessitates that work is focussed on increasing the uptake of diverse ‘other ways’ in the fashion sector that break apart underlying ideologies and approaches. UCRF views that this will contribute to changing what it means to know about fashion and how to act in times of planetary emergency.
Call on courage The work of shifting to a post-growth economy is not easy and it can be challenging and fear-inducing to stand up in the face of opposition from the status quo and ideology of unrestricted growth. UCRF stands in solidarity with all those who meet resistance in their work or who are acting for systems change in difficult circumstances and against vested interests. At this critical juncture for the climate emergency, UCRF calls on all actors to choose courage and action.
In 2019-20 the Union wrote to research funding bodies around the world regarding priorities for funding fashion and sustainability research. These 31 organisations were sourced from the Union membership. The letter was signed by the full membership of the Union at the time. Initially letters were sent in June 2019, with follow up letters sent in January 2020. This initiative arose from a perceived overemphasis on research funding directed at technical solutions to fashion and sustainability, under the umbrella of circular economy. The letter called for funding priorities to be redirected towards new knowledge creation that is relevant to and commensurate with the multiple global crises we face. The letter asked for greater pluralism in funding priorities, including those which favour the long term, systems change, collaborative practice and moving beyond the growth logic.
Of the organisations, two responded, and the Union board had a productive conversation with one organisation. Four organisations responded with a form letter usually sent to funding applicants. Given the lack of response from most organisations and given that the issues raised in the letter remain, the board of UCRF is planning a follow-up to this initiative in the near future.
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 ninth participant is Anupama Pasricha.
> How would you sum up your research / practice?
My research, teaching, advocacy, and design focus on systems and holistic thinking. It spans from sustaining self, community, and planet. This article gives a glimpse of my design work. In another research, I used 3D printing as a tool to create zero-waste designs. This research followed design as a research paradigm to apply zero-waste principles to 3D printing to ensure sustainable applications of 3D technology in the apparel and fashion industry. I also serve as an advisor to a few small companies to help them become more sustainable. Serving as the Executive Director, Educators For Socially Responsible Apparel Practices (ESRAP) has been a rewarding experience as ESRAP has a positive impact. It continues to inspire me.
> How do you address fashion and sustainability in your work?
I address fashion and sustainability as an area of opportunity to change the world. I believe that fashion leads the way to bring cultural shifts and change in society. I incorporate SDGs in the discussion and focus on critical areas: justice & equity (social), and climate change, resource insecurity & circularity (environment), consumption ( I published a resource for slow consumption-See attached), and advocate for profit for sustainable brands & businesses.
As the department chair, I led the department’s curriculum transformation. Sustainability is woven throughout the curriculum and operations in the fashion department at St. Catherine University. I teach a capstone course, Sustainable Product Development, in which students are guided to apply their learning to product development. I also teach fashion and sustainability through an environmental justice lens for the university’s core curriculum. My students read, research, design, and write about different topics in sustainability. Recently my department also launched an Interdisciplinary Minor in Sustainability Studies at . We hope that it will create a meaningful opportunity for more students to learn and resolve problems in the world.
> What are the conflicts you have encountered around fashion and sustainability in your work?
We teach sustainability, and students graduate feeling empowered. But when they start working in the industry, sustainability often takes a back seat as young professionals are trying to meet the bottom line or a timeline to perform in their job role.
Fashion is all about change, whereas sustainability is more related to a constant. It is always hard to maintain a balance where change is grounded within sustainable choices.
As a fashion professor, I feel constant anxiety and pressure to look like one, which sometimes pushes me to consume more than what I need.
The conflict between need and want is a constant battle.
Our way of being and lifestyles are highly unsustainable; therefore, it is impossible to be 100% sustainable in any choice.
There is a clear intent to be better and sustainable, but there may not be a straightforward path that may lead to desired action & impact.
> What do you consider the key sources and cases when it comes to fashion and sustainability?
Bloomsbury ESRAP Fashion Business case studies, Ellen McArthur Foundation Case Studies, Conscious Chatter Podcast, Mindful Businesses Podcast;
> Could you recommend some less known sources or cases you think should be more widely shared?
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.