Since 2016, Fashion Revolution has been organising for change across the industry, with a global network working on the most critical issues at the root level. We caught up with co-founder Orsola de Castro to reflect on that work and where we go from here.
Meet Orsola de Castro, Co-Founder of Fashion Revolution
Each April, Fashion Revolution Week brings together activists, organisers, citizens, and policy makers around the world for urgent conversations on transforming the industry from the bottom up. But the theme for 2022 seemed a particularly significant reflection on the state of fashion.
This year, the movement went back to its roots with the theme “Money, Fashion, Power”. It’s the same theme as Fashion Revolution’s first zine, which it published nearly a decade ago. It’s a telling sign of how little has changed and how urgent these issues are for our collective future.
We recently sat down with Orsola de Castro, co-founder and creative director of Fashion Revolution, to reflect on where the organisation has been and where we need to go from here.
De Castro is an internationally recognised leader in this space. Her career started as a designer with the pioneering upcycling label From Somewhere, which she launched in 1997 and ran until 2014. In 2013, she and Carry Somers founded Fashion Revolution with the vision of shaping a global fashion industry that conserves and restores the environment and values people over growth and profit. Today, Fashion Revolution is a decentralised network of over 90 chapters, which organise and mobilise around key fashion issues at the local level.
Throughout our conversation, de Castro brings to light the sweeping changes needed to move fashion forward; the institutions of power monopolising wealth in the hands of a few billionaires; and how there currently is no such thing as “sustainable fashion”. This may sound overwhelming, which it is—but de Castro offers us some tangible ways to reshape how we view our own position within this exploitative system.
8 Q&As on Fashion Revolution Week 2022 and beyond
Q: What was the significance of Fashion Revolution choosing this theme for 2022?
A: We started Fashion Revolution Week because we realised the importance of a living, dignified pay for the entirety of our network and the fact that the whole of our network responds and identifies with this topic.
The theme this year is significant because “Money, Fashion, Power” was actually the title of our first zine, which we published in 2016. We think it’s important for people to understand that this topic is really our foundation.
In a way, we want to show our network how advanced we were then and continue to be. Since the beginning, we’ve been tackling these conversations before they were discussed openly by the media.
Since the beginning, we’ve been tackling these conversations before they were discussed openly by the media.
Q: Can you discuss how Fashion Revolution makes sense of the institutions that perpetuate the power and wealth imbalances within the fashion industry? Why they are so difficult to dismantle?
A: We have several approaches to the industry in the sense that we say we challenge the mainstream, but we champion the radicals. There are many young brands that we have supported, for example, with our Fashion Open Studio, which is now going to become a fully open source for the benefit of the global network.
However, when it comes to the mainstream industry, obviously our main instrument of change is via the Fashion Transparency Index, which we utilise as a tool to scrutinise brands and what they are and are not disclosing.
As Fashion Revolution, we have always been very forthright in championing transparency and acknowledging that it is not the end, but the beginning; it is not an end solution, but the very start of a new culture of scrutiny and accountability in the fashion industry.
For us, the real strength of the organisation is that we are not a centralised team. In fact, we are a global team of 90+ local chapters that are looking at fashion from their respective countries. That’s what makes us different. The power of Fashion Revolution is that we listen to not only the requirements of individuals, but also the industry on a global scale.
Ultimately, there’s no presumption that we know what needs to be done, but instead an assumption that we need to listen to the experts in those fields that know what they need in order to thrive.
Q: Sometimes it feels like things are only getting worse in the industry. Are there any examples of success you can point to with your work as a sign of progress?
A: Absolutely. Our team in India, for example, was instrumental recently in a battle for artisans to be paid, unfortunately in this case, only a minimum wage. Despite this, it was a huge increase on what garment workers there were previously making.
On a more macro-scale, some of our teams are very effective when it comes to education and others at political communication.
As I mentioned before, there really is no centralised character in Fashion Revolution, but now an overarching identity of the country coordinators that create little wins for our combined big wins.
There is too much to tackle as individuals. We can only do this collectively.
Q: As you know, Good On You is in the business of accountability, access to information, and consumer empowerment. Are there certain actors or institutions that have been enabling the fashion industry in its opaqueness? Who else needs to be brought into the conversation and held accountable?
A: It’s a really difficult question to answer because really everything needs to change and no one is really doing enough, including us and every other activist on the planet. There is too much to tackle as individuals. We can only do this collectively.
It’s only the power of this collective that’s going to change things because the entirety of this culture is built on the opposite of the collective—the power and wealth of a few individuals at the top. It is the entire system that is based on principles that are wrong: we do not treat each other as equals in society.
The actors that are missing from this conversation are those that were never respected in the first place: folks working on the ground, the supply chain workers, and the individuals being affected socially and environmentally by the impact of this industry. In the end, the industry and mainstream has spoken way too much and delivered far too little. We need transparency to be mandatory and for the fashion industry to be 100% regulated.
Q: What does Fashion Revolution think about “sustainable fashion?” What are some ways consumers can be part of the solution rather than the problem?
A: Really there is no “sustainable fashion.” It is either unsustainable fashion or fashion. We need to stop talking about “sustainable fashion” and start inverting the concept because a large percentage of what we buy is unsustainable. Period.
The industry and mainstream has spoken way too much and delivered far too little. We need transparency to be mandatory and for the fashion industry to be 100% regulated.
Q: Recently, there have been important conversations centred around “degrowth.” What is it, why is it important, and what are some tangible steps that move us in this direction?
A: Degrowth really talks about balance and common sense. We’ve made too much and we frankly don’t need it so let’s stop producing so much—that’s degrowth. Obviously, in practice, it’s far more complicated, but really that’s the essence of it.
In the realm of the fashion industry, it’s about producing less because the majority of what we produce is unnecessary. Speed has killed skills, so we need to bring back those skills in order to create balance.
Ultimately, no one should or can sustainably produce with the kind of pressure we are currently placing on supply chain workers and the planet. It is unsustainable. We need to redistribute prosperity throughout the supply chain rather than growing at the top.
Fashion is not frivolous. It’s a multibillion dollar industry that employs millions and destroys resources.
Q: Many people often feel disempowered to participate in these conversations because they don’t think they can make a difference, especially when power is concentrated in the hands of a few. How can people get involved and feel empowered?
A: The easiest thing in the world is to start with your wardrobe. Fashion is not frivolous, but a multibillion dollar industry that employs millions and destroys resources. So, it has a massive impact on Earth, people, and livelihoods.
Everything that anyone can do is about agency as fashion is profoundly individual. So, while something works for me, it may not work for you, but everyone can start with caring for their wardrobe. We need to start thinking about the clothes that we own in a different way.
For more specific examples, I’d recommend starting with my book, Loved Clothes Last, as it has plenty of ideas on how to do this for all kinds of people. You may not be interested in fashion, but ultimately you have to get dressed, right? Those clothes can be the beginning of your change in an informed way.
It’s not about going on a sort of “crash diet”, but making lasting, behavioural changes that can be carried on throughout your entire life.
Q: How can we begin to move beyond the overconsuming, throw-away culture that fast fashion has normalised?
A: I’d say remain a clothes keeper. Truly, the only antidote to a throw-away society is to keep. The only way we can respect the people who have made our clothes is to honour the clothes they’ve made, even if it is fast fashion.
In other words, your SHEIN top still warrants repair even if it is SHEIN. Repair everything because repairs are the first step towards reparations and healing our society.
The only way we can respect the people who have made our clothes is to honour the clothes they’ve made, even if it is fast fashion.