Textile swatches pinned to a board. Life Solved logo and episode title.

A Fashion Revolution Week Special

  • 13 April 2021
  • 24 min listen

Your shopping habits, buying choices and the clothes you wear might be impacting human rights, the environment and our supplies of finite resources.

The fashion industry cannot continue to operate the way it currently does.

In this episode of Life Solved, Dr Elaine Igoe shares stories from her innovative fashion design, community and sustainable production projects at the University of Portsmouth.

April is host to Fashion Revolution Week, a global initiative that sees industries and academia unite to share knowledge and address critical problems in fashion.

We also hear from Leila Choukroune, Professor of International Law, on human rights in fashion supply chains.

Dr Matthew Anderson, Senior Lecturer in Business Ethics, highlights some exciting new business models and market opportunities emerging within the circular economy.

And Rory Miles from the Centre for Enzyme Innovation tells us how new technology might help break down unrecyclable waste materials left over from years of fast-fashion.

You can listen to Life Solved on all major podcast players, whether via Apple, Spotify, Google Podcasts or other apps. Just search for 'Life Solved' and press the subscribe button.

Episode transcript:

Anna Rose: You're listening to Life Solved from the University of Portsmouth. This series is full of groundbreaking new ideas as we hear from the Portsmouth researchers we've caught in conversations on their lunch breaks. At Portsmouth, our scientists, researchers, theorists and academics are used to combining ideas from across different fields to come up with solutions to some of the biggest problems facing our world. Our love affair with fashion has lasted centuries, but given the pressures of modern society, how can we make sure clothes production meets a modern agenda?

Elaine Igoe: You know, we kind of see clothing as this sort of an inanimate object that just exists for us. You throw it on each day. And we may have a favourite shirt, we may have a favourite dress or a favourite pair of shoes. They wear out and we get rid of them.

Anna Rose: Today, Dr Elaine Igoe tells Emma Fields and John Worsey about the Portsmouth project to reinvent our relationship with clothes and create sustainable fashion, too. And we hear from researchers across the university who are leading a conversation on how we can rethink economies, human rights and technology.

Rory Miles: I suddenly started to pick up other people in the university also really interested in bringing forward solutions and actually linking them together and having these interesting discussions on that space.

Elaine Igoe: PO1. Locals know it as the postcode for central Portsmouth. PO1 is also the name of Dr Elaine Igoe's project at the Fashion Textiles Material Features Research Group.

Elaine Igoe: We're working with local organisations looking at their waste issues and thinking about how we could use some of that waste in order to create Portsmouth made, Portsmouth designed clothing – hence the label. So actually moving away from the idea of kind of the traditions of fashion trends more into the idea of developing clothing which we cherish and keep for a long time. We're aware of who's made it. It's a place-based social enterprise initiative which revolves around the idea of not only designing and producing sustainable products but also upskilling and educating the local community.

Anna Rose: The goal is to create clothes that are sustainable, fashionable, and that their users know where they came from and maybe even who made them.

Elaine Igoe: We want to kind of have sort of small capsule collections.

John Worsey: Yep.

Elaine Igoe: Which again, have been hopefully created again, because we want to support not only sustainable in terms of environment, but also people. So we want ethical production. So we're supporting upskilling, we're supporting education through the manufacture of these clothing and not just contributing to the huge, huge problem of waste created by fast fashion and the current fashion system.

Anna Rose: And fast fashion is a big problem. This industry generates more carbon than the flights and maritime shipping sectors together. Consumers are buying more clothes than ever before, but not keeping them as long. And all this adds up to a huge impact on our environment, not to mention the harmful social impact of some international production processes. Elaine explained how fashion students are challenging convention and sharing their skills with local producers with the aim of creating a thriving local industry.

Elaine Igoe: They're designing in a way that really demands of them a different way of thinking. So beyond just getting fabric off of the roll, which is a conventional way of approaching design. They're thinking about deconstructing products, rethinking the way that different materials have been used in the past, and putting them into new contexts in fashion and textiles. And also thinking about the products that they're designing, should have a connection to the consumer so that they're going to keep them for longer – they'll mend them.

Elaine Igoe: So the students are using this as a kind of challenge for them as designers. And ultimately we want to move towards the students becoming almost design consultants. So they create some designs which we then are hoping to develop some contacts with community groups and organisations to offer new skills within the local community of sustainable practises, sustainable manufacturing and design in the local community, whether that be the deconstruction, sewing skills, design skills, negotiation skills. And so that will also be educating the local community as consumers as well. So hopefully, by being brought in and being part of a discussion about reusing waste in order to make fashion and textile items, as consumers themselves, when they're making those choices about how to spend their money, they're making more informed choices as well.

Anna Rose: And thinking differently about how products are used isn't the only challenge.

Elaine Igoe: The idea of, yep, sending back your products, you know, there are huge businesses already doing that where you can return your item after you've had useful wear out of it, and then the company will be re-mending it and selling it or recycling it in some way. But that's kind of one kind of transition towards better futures in fashion textiles.

Elaine Igoe: You know, the-- some really innovative work is going into kind of new fibres and biomaterial and innovation at the scale of the fibre. I'm really thinking about that in terms of the circular economy, the whole life cycle of the garment from its moment of creation and who is making it and the ethical base for that through to the materials that it uses, the impact that it has on its life cycles, and wearing it and washing it. So we are seeing kind of youthful trends towards buying second-hand and vintage clothing. A lot of the work that we've done in support for the Fashion Revolution campaign here at the university has included things like clothes swaps, which are encouraging students and staff and the community to come in and swap their clothes for free. And often that results in some really nice conversations about where that person bought that item.

Elaine Igoe: We're also interested in making sure that designers are working upstream. So not just at the point of producing a product or dealing with a waste issue, but actually looking at practices earlier on. So, for example, are there ways that fashion brands or-- or, to be honest, kind of any sort of organisation really could use a designers eye to minimise waste and to really think about their kind of social impact if you like. But the actually remembering that material products, whether it's a car, a coat, a building, they're designed objects and often designers for a long time have been disconnected to the context, the impact that those products that we've been part of producing have in the world. And kind of reaffirming the designer's relationship to their products and making them have a bit of responsibility for the impact that those products have or those objects have in the world is really important. And-- and again, throughout the education here at the University of Portsmouth, that's what we're trying to encourage them to remember.

John Worsey: Yeah.

Elaine Igoe: So, you know, it can feel very exciting to design this beautiful garment that looks amazing and makes the person feel great, but we have to remember we're designing something that goes beyond that feeling of making someone look or feel great. That this product exists off of their back as well, designed for that purpose as well, for that existence beyond just making someone look great. Yeah. Educating designers about their responsibility, their social and global impact is really important.

Anna Rose: Sustainability goes hand in hand with reducing the amount of waste that's actually being produced along the supply chain of an industry. But the success of all this depends on challenging buyers to embrace a new ethos.

Elaine Igoe: You know, this industry has to change because it can't continue operating the way that it does. Well, I think you kind of touch on that idea of how fashion is sold to us as well has to change. So you know that-- the idea of seasonal trends which come and go, that's become so compressed and such a quick turnaround. And we're seeing kind of high street brands with new product in their shops constantly. And online brands, particularly, don't have the cost of the retail store.

John Worsey: Yeah.

Elaine Igoe: With a really high turnover of new products and that just isn't-- is literally unsustainable.

John Worsey: Yeah.

Elaine Igoe: And I think also consumers have come to sort of a saturation point with that. The use of polyester and plastic-based fibre is enormous and has an enormous impact on the existence of microplastics within the marine environment through laundry. Actually, fashion has a huge part in exploring how we can reduce that environmental impact. So, yeah, we're kind of not scared to take on a bit of a challenge.

Anna Rose: Leila Choukroune is a Professor of International Law and director of the University of Portsmouth's Democratic Citizenship theme. She told us how her focus can complement Elaine's work on the international level.

Leila Choukroune: As you know, Elaine is more of a designer. She's looking at how you make clothes really. And I'll be looking at the environment within which clothes are made. So for me, it was interesting to look based on the fieldwork I've done with many partners on the ground in India and Bangladesh and Pakistan, in Africa to a lesser extent, to look at how these clothes are made from a human rights and a legal perspective. And in doing that, we've come across a number of labour issues, labour violations, including the question of slavery.

Anna Rose: Where Elaine is interested in local production and upskilling to educate a community of fashion consumers, Leila's interest is in the human rights angle of textile and garment supply chains.

Leila Choukroune: In Bangladesh in India, a large sector of the economy is dedicated to the protection of clothes. Our clothes, what we wear on a daily basis, is extremely important for the economy in Bangladesh in particular. And as sad as it is, where we also find a number of work environments which do not respect labour laws and human rights at all. In Bangladesh, you have extremely modern factories, some sort of model factories, if you wish, respecting all international laws, working with international, well, buyers for years. And at the same time, you have and that's the problem of the supply chain, you have small sweatshops, small individual workers hidden in houses in the villages that you might not know about and where it's extremely difficult to respect national and international law.

Leila Choukroune: To give you just a few simple examples, think about women. Most of the workers in the garment industry are women. Think about women who are not allowed to take breaks to go to the toilet, for instance. So imagine you working for 12, 14, maybe 20 hours a day sometimes, and you're not allowed to take a break. That's a major violation of your rights. The right to health, the right to life. I can give you other examples. Working hours. You're going to work for 14 hours, 20 hours. It's much more than the legally allowed number of hours you're supposed to work for. So you see, there are very simple examples that you can find and unfortunately, these examples are very frequent of human rights violations.

Anna Rose: With complex and convoluted supply chains in place, sometimes it's not possible for buyers to know whether these violations have taken place in clothes production. Leila explained why we use certain language to describe this.

Leila Choukroune: So we often use the term modern slavery to describe practises in the garment and textile supply chain. Actually, this is not exactly the right word or the right expression to use. If you think about the concept of slavery, we refer to a condition in which one human being was owned by another or is owned by another. There is this notion of property in slavery. It's not disappeared, it's not a thing of the past. You find different examples of modern slavery, but often they are closer to forced labour, human trafficking, child labour. So it's not that a person is on a search by someone else.

Anna Rose: Leila is working with Elaine and across disciplinary range of researchers to lead a deeper and more informed conversation through Fashion Revolution Week, a series of talks and events the University is participating in this April.

Leila Choukroune: But the good thing with the fashion revolution is that it brings to the general audience the problem we find in the fashion supply-chain really. So I think one of the sort of action and also awareness that could bring-- the fashion revolution could bring is that things are extremely complex. For instance, often you hear let's buy locally and we are going to solve the fashion problem. It's better to buy locally. Well, actually, it's not exactly like that because you see, if you buy locally, you also put a number of women from Bangladesh, from India, from other countries out of work. So if they are out of work, they are more vulnerable to a number of things, including, you know, violence, including why not prostitution, including, well, simply poverty. So buying locally is not necessarily the solution, because we are integrated, we are interconnected. And there is no such thing as going back to the 19th century and everything is produced in the UK. It would never be like that. So buying locally might be a solution, but just a small drop in a notion of complexity related to the fashion supply chain, really.

Leila Choukroune: So I think the biggest solutions are going to come from international awareness and international coalition and organisation. Because problems have to be addressed absolutely everywhere in the world in a coordinated manner and in the same fashion, really.

Anna Rose: So how can the economic perspective join with human rights and a sustainable production angle? Matthew Anderson is a senior lecturer in Business Ethics here at the university. He works with Elaine on a range of projects and right now is working with small and medium businesses on growing circular economy projects.

Matthew Anderson: A circular economy is around building an economy which is restorative and regenerative by design.

Anna Rose: Matthew says the fashion industry has particular issues when it comes to building a sustainable economy, many of which he saw exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Matthew Anderson: I guess there's a number of challenges. So you've got global supply chains, so a lot of production happening in countries like India and Bangladesh. You've got the transport miles linking up from sites of production to consumption, and you've got big social issues as well in terms of working conditions. And that was really sort of brought to the forefront during-- during the recent pandemic. So we did some work for the UK government looking at the impacts of-- of Covid on issues such as modern slavery and how they were amplified. Buyers cancelling orders with very short notice and not paying. Requiring discounts from-- from suppliers where orders were still in place, so reductions of 40 to 70 per cent. And then looking at how inventory is put into subsequent seasons. So where orders were cancelled, actually because they missed the sort of autumn season that that stock was then warehoused and kept for later this year. So I guess the big issue around the pandemic was working conditions and wages to workers. We've got bigger other sort of sustainability issues.

Anna Rose: But there are some positive business models offering a new way of working, some of which can add value to activities in the global south, others which use waste more effectively and some that enable more people to access the market.

Matthew Anderson: The shirt I'm wearing now is a circular economy shirt produced by a company called Rapanui on the Isle of Wight. So it's actually made of 50 percent new organic cotton and 50 percent recycled cotton. When this shirt gets worn out, you can return it to the company. It'll be shredded down, made into new yarn, and then sent back to the factory to be made into-- into another shirt. And I think that has also quite interesting implications for understanding the supply chain as well. So the yarn goes back to the factory in India. So you've got some-- you've got some sea miles there, which-- which is an issue that probably needs to be addressed. But it means that the brand is now kind of more reliant on one particular factory because they need to find someone who's prepared to use their waste product as the material for manufacture. And because the yarn is a little bit different, they then have to run the machines a bit slower. That relationship becomes really important. So and I think that's one of the interesting things about circular economy, is it kind of changes our ideas a bit about where-- where value sits in the supply chain. So when waste starts to have a more of a value, it also means that as long as you've got a manufacturer that's prepared to use that that waste products, your your supply chain starts to look a bit different.

Matthew Anderson: Rapanui they're open source technology, which allows anyone to set up a micro-enterprise. And this is something that we've doing with students on our courses so they can set up a website on their platform, on Rapanui's platform, and produce circular economy T-shirts with their own designs on. They're then printed in the Isle of Wight, sent off to customers in paid packaging without plastic. But again, potentially this enables kind of anyone with an Internet connection to access UK markets.

Matthew Anderson: There's other-- other circular economy sort of services around kind of renting sort of clothes. The jeans I'm wearing are my jeans and I have them on a lease scheme, so I pay a monthly amount. So I don't own the jeans. As part of the contract, they'll repair them if they're damaged at the end of a year. I get to make a choice of whether I keep them and pay an additional fee or return them for a different pair. From a consumer perspective, it's an interesting model. So the idea is, is trying to increase the utilisation of clothes. So you don't have five or six pairs of jeans in your wardrobe that you don't wear. You have one pair that if-- if it gets damaged, then the company will repair for you.

Anna Rose: Matthew mentioned creating value from waste and products. Let's hear about another University of Portsmouth project that's helping turn discarded textiles into useful materials. Rory Miles works at the centre of Enzyme Innovation. You might have heard about this department's work in our episode of Life Solved, where John McGeehan joined us to talk about developing bacteria with plastic-eating enzymes.

Rory Miles: Plastic is really complex, and every single industry is slightly different, if not majorly different, in how they tackle problem plastic and where that originates from. The potential of having better recycling technology for textiles is potentially a game-changer in this space as well. I guess for some background space, a lot of clothes at the moment which are unsold even after putting the clothing into sales like a lot of brands do, they usually end up in massive warehouses, having never left their origin with majority of clothing being produced in Bangladesh. So actually, it's considering at the end of life, a lot of these unsold clothes either never leave the warehouse or will be incinerated or actually they'll be put into lower value items such as mattresses. And so actually it's thinking about how can we turn that waste into value? And that's, I guess, where actually plastic degrading enzymes could have that purpose in actually converting this legacy waste, as we call it, into valuable products or more clothing, for example.

Anna Rose: But breaking down waste using enzymes requires complex technology. Rory says it's important we don't undervalue some of our most fundamental resources.

Rory Miles: Often textiles are not just pure plastic. There's also often cotton in there and other different types of plastic. So almost we need a solution for each type of those plastics to tackle the entire thing. And I think it's important for us to consider in the work we're doing is actually not losing the value of cotton. Cotton is used in the majority of clothing, but there is a finite supply of cotton. There's only so much cotton we can actually produce on the land we have and we've already reached that limit. So actually, the-- at the moment, as it stands, we cannot produce any more cotton for more clothing. The recycling rates in most for the world for clothing is really low. To actually make it an economical process, we need to have the incentives there for consumers to actually recycle their clothing rather than either leaving them in the wardrobe or wearing them to the point of end of life or actually just throwing them in the rubbish because it's such a loss of resources if we're not recycling our clothing.

Anna Rose: So how does that fit together with other projects here at Portsmouth?

Rory Miles: We by no means want to give people a reason to partake in fast fashion. I think there's a space and a time for recycling. And actually, this is almost what we're discussing with Elaine Igoe at the University of Portsmouth in the fashion team, because they do a lot of work in upcycling and actually it's almost upcycling of end of life clothing into brilliant works of fashion are amazing. But then I guess really it's the role of recycling at the end of life. So when you've worn this amazing piece of clothing to the end of its life, then that's probably the time you want to bring in recycling. But it's really kind of, I guess, your last resort in this whole process, rather, that we don't want to contribute to continuing this take, make, use, dispose. My colleague Luisana Avilan has been really interested in doing some really cool early-stage research into how plastic degrading enzymes can break down textiles. When I realised this interest, I suddenly started to pick up other people in the university also really interested in bringing forward solutions and actually linking them together and having these interesting discussions.

Anna Rose: Thanks to the team, for sharing the bigger picture on how our fashion industry looks set for revolution. These diverse perspectives emphasise just how important it is to pull together strands of ideas from many different departments. In this way, we can find solutions that span entire economies and can have impacts far beyond our own lives and wardrobes.

Anna Rose: You can follow their work at port.ac.uk/research and find out more about Fashion Revolution Week on our portal. Do you share your thoughts via social media. You can get in touch and share this podcast using the hashtag Life Solved.

Anna Rose: Our magazine Solve follows University of Portsmouth research when it's put into practice. It's full of news and stories on our world-leading advances and the changes these are making to lives and futures across the world. Thanks for listening.

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