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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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UCRF – Member of the Month – Elizabeth L. Cline

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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 twelfth participant is New York-based author and journalist Elizabeth L. Cline. Elizabeth is a well-known expert on consumer culture, fast fashion, sustainability and labor rights in the apparel industry, and has lately turned her expertise towards strategic organizing and campaigning for labor rights in fashion with the landmark #PayUp campaign.

Elizabeth L. Cline (Photo by Keri Wiginton)

>How would you sum up your research / practice?

I am a generalist and a critical thinker within the fashion and sustainability research landscape. Once an idea becomes mainstream and then normative, I think it’s time to push back on it and investigate it. In recent years, I’ve enjoyed researching how misinformation circulates within sustainable fashion for the Transformers Foundation’s Cotton: A Case Study in Misinformation report, the most profound takeaway of which is that our society worships data and denigrates context to our own peril. We believe that the more and better data we have, the more problems we will solve and the better we’ll solve them. But data is also easy to manipulate and misunderstand. More to the point, problems are often just as often caused by power imbalances, entrenched interests, racism, sexism and so on, and thus it’s always important to consider qualitative information and to be comfortable with the gray area. I also really enjoyed building on the research of Roland Geyer, a researcher at UC Santa Barbara and the author of the Business of Less, about the connections between living wage and climate change for Forbes. To contradict my earlier point about data, labor is never calculated as a sustainability metric, even though it’s one of the largest economic inputs, and Geyer argues that it gets left out because labor has no environmental impact. Thus, labor doesn’t get measured because it’s too green, which is backwards! If we’re going to keep measuring things in order to understand how sustainable they are, labor needs to be measured.

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

As an advocate and a human being, I think the most important thing we can do to make the world more sustainable is to address poverty and economic justice. Even the UN even agrees on this point, and yet so many people leave labor and human rights out of their environmental goals.

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

I would say there’s an underlying tension within sustainable fashion in general where the community needs a better understanding of how financial markets, corporate structures and capital accumulation work. So many press headlines are like, wow, a brand grew again this quarter even though we told them not, too. Some of the most widely-circulated sustainable fashion expectations–that companies make less clothing and slow profit growth–are simply not possible without overhauling our economic system. Perhaps we can focus more energy on reforming corporate structures and Wall Street.

Secondly, sustainable fashion needs to retool its agenda based on voices in the developing world. The issues that often get pushed to the top of the pile in the developed world (like which material is green, which brand is greenwashing, and which fast fashion brand is the most wasteful) don’t necessarily have democratic buy-in from the entire fashion system. What do garment workers and consumers in Bangladesh, Pakistan, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and China want and what do they consider sustainable fashion? Some of the things I hear often from workers in garment-producing countries are that they want jobs, better wages, a clean environment, less pollution, and for the rich-world to do its part in the transition to green energy.

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

Until the fashion industry is delivering year on year gains in wages to communities in the supply chain, the whole sustainable fashion project is a failure. As long as we are going to continue down this path of industrial capitalism, where people absolutely must get paid for their labor in order to survive, pay is the number one most important issue for fashion. Secondly, because fashion is the industry that either traps countries in the horrific early stages of capitalism where environmental degradation is the norm or allows them to move forward into something more humane, fair pay is again the number one most important issue. When people get paid fairly, they can invest in a clean environment, in factories that don’t pollute, in clean energy, in climate resilience, etc. And if people want to toy with post-capitalist economic ideas, those too should have democratic buy-in from the full fashion system.

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

The story that I co-developed with Roland Geyer on the climate impact of living wages for Forbes. His is a provocative and powerful theory (that the best way to tackle climate change is to pay living wages) that needs buy-in from researchers and economists to test out.

>Thank you very much for your insights Elizabeth!

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.