UCRF – Member of the Month – Olga Johnston

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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 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. 

>Thank you very much for your insights Olga!

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