Igniting A Fashion Revolution: Interview With Carry Somers, Founder Of Fashion Revolution
Meet Carry Somers, Founder Of The Fashion Revolution Movement
Carry Somers’ career did a 180 degree turn when she traveled to Ecuador and witnessed the weighing scales for local wool. Outraged by the price paid to farmers, she walked away from her PhD program and set out to revolutionize the fashion industry. Carry cut her teeth launching a radically transparent line of alpaca knitwear, but it wasn’t until a factory collapsed in Bangladesh in 2013 that she felt compelled to launch a movement.
Fashion Revolution was born out of a deep desire to demand transparency from brands large and small, what Carry believes to be the first step toward systemic change within the fashion industry. We are so honored to share more of her own story along with her advice for how every individual consumer can help demand change.
Tell us the story of how you got started. What inspired your own interest in sustainable fashion? When did you decide to launch Fashion Revolution?
In 1990, on a research trip to Ecuador for my Masters in Native American Studies to study textile production, I was shocked by the inequitable trading patterns I witnessed. Seeing the weighing scales in front of me, an international symbol of justice, being loaded with wool on one side and then seeing the producers being charged a price which bore no resemblance to the supposed cost per kilo, I felt a sense of outrage at the clear discrimination before me.
I had a fully funded PhD ahead of me, and if I hadn’t picked up Anita Roddick’s autobiography and read it in the garden one sunny day, I would undoubtedly have continued in academia and my life would have been very different. But I didn’t. I decided that if one woman could make such a difference in the beauty industry with no experience, there was nothing to stop me from doing the same in the fashion industry, at least in my summer holiday! I returned to Ecuador and gave the two co-operatives the financial resources to buy raw materials in bulk and, with no background in design, produced a series of knitwear patterns which proved so popular that they sold out in six weeks. Seeing the tangible difference this made to the producers’ livelihoods made me realize that I couldn’t possibly continue with my PhD and I gave it up to concentrate instead on improving the lives of more producer groups.
On 24 April 2013, 1138 people were killed and 2500 injured when a factory complex collapsed in Bangladesh. We believe this is too many people to lose from the planet in one factory on one terrible day without that leading to revolutionary change in the fashion industry. That’s when Fashion Revolution was born. Four years on we now have teams in over 100 countries around the world.
You have a truly global vantage point of the fashion industry. Where are you seeing the most innovation in terms of social and environmental responsibility?
There are many exciting innovations happening at the moment, from the development of new, bio-based textiles made from waste materials or grown in the laboratory, to innovations within the supply chain, such as the Better Buying platform, a dialogue and rating platform that is being created to highlight areas for improving purchasing practices.
We are also really encouraged to see so many brands now publishing their factory lists, which will ultimately lead to greater social and environmental responsibility. We have now counted 152 major brands who are publishing their first tier suppliers. We believe that transparency is the first step in transforming the fashion industry, making visible the invisible threads which join us, the consumers, back to the garment workers, the weavers, the dyers, the mill workers and the farmers. Their stories are woven into the garments we wear every day—we want to hear those stories.
We’re thrilled to hear that some larger labels are publishing their factory lists, but we still see so much innovation coming from smaller and more nimble companies. How have smaller brands helped influence the overall sustainability of the fashion industry?
Smaller brands will always be more nimble and be able to lead the way, partly because they are often led by entrepreneurs who don’t have to convince investors of any new, innovative direction they are taking. Many big brands are changing, it is just a slow process and we need to see this speed up; all brands urgently need to look at their own business models and purchasing practices. Currently, brands are not widely disclosing their efforts to address crucial issues such as living wages.
What role does the consumer have in creating change within the industry? How much weight do our choices really pull?
We are asking people around the world to show their label, post a photograph on social media, tag the brand and ask the question #whomademyclothes. By doing this, we are applying pressure in the form of a perfectly reasonable question that brands and retailers should be able to answer. I was told by an industry insider that for every person who asked a brand #whomademyclothes on social media, the brands took it as representing 10,000 other people who thought the same way, but couldn’t be bothered to do anything about it. We have incredible power as consumers, if we choose to use it.
But transparency needs to be more than a trend. Ultimately, we believe that the whole fashion industry needs a radical paradigm shift. This means business models will need to change and a multiplicity of solutions will be required. Transparency alone does not represent the sort of structural, systemic change we would like to see for the fashion industry, but it helps to reveal the structures in place so we can better understand how to change them.
We’re incredibly grateful for this campaign to demand transparency and the momentum it’s gaining. What other trends should conscious consumers support and/or keep an eye out for?
In terms of new innovations to support transparency, conscious consumers can expect to hear a lot more about blockchain in the next few years. Blockchain was first used to power the currency Bitcoin and is expected to revolutionize the finance, property and food sectors replacing traditional contracts, paperwork and identification methods. Blockchain is a digital record of information that opens up the supply chain for everyone to scrutinize. It provides a unique platform for applications involving multiple parties with little trust in each other; for example, fragmented fashion supply chains. The information on the origin and supply chain journey of a product can be accessed and verified by end buyers using their smartphones, replacing the current printed communication and labels. This can empower better purchases by giving consumers a true choice that they can exercise.
What tips would you offer to someone who wants to begin curating a sustainable wardrobe? Where should they start?
Our #haulternative guide is a great place to start. Instead of the traditional fashion haul, where you go shopping and post a video of what you’ve bought, we asked people to try a #haulternative; a way of refreshing your wardrobe without necessarily buying new clothes from upcycling to swaps, from DIY to finding gems in charity shops.
What have you found to be the most effective ways to refresh your own wardrobe without buying new clothes? How do you stay inspired while maintaining a small footprint?
It’s not that difficult for me as I love vintage clothing and like nothing better than rifling through the rails at Clerkenwell Vintage Fair, or one of the many fantastic vintage fairs we have in the Manchester area near to my home. I actually don’t buy many clothes at all and when I do buy new I’d rather spend money on an investment buy I know I will love and keep on wearing for many years. I also share a lot of clothes with my daughter. Sienna will borrow my Alexander McQueen dress or my Pringle mini skirt for a term and then when she comes back from University we will swap—she’ll borrow something else and I’ll get my clothes back, so they are always well worn!
Kassia Binkowski is a Contributing Editor at The Good Trade and the Founder of One K Creative. She grew up in Madison, WI and traveled her way around the world to Boulder, CO which she now calls home. Nestled against the Rocky Mountains, Kassia supports innovative organizations from Colorado to Kathmandu tell their stories of social change through writing, photography, and design. Kassia is an eternal optimist and forever a backroad wanderer.