Fast fashion is once again under the spotlight as today we mark the fourth anniversary of 1129 garment workers being killed when the building they worked in – Rana Plaza, in Bangladesh – collapsed on them. Paulette Crowley spoke to Theresa Grantham from Seed to Self, who is on a mission to make fashion a force for change.
You describe yourself as a fashion warrior. What got you started in the rag trade 30 years ago?
My background is in haute couture – I worked for Yves St Laurent and Chanel, and was the group GM for Saks in NZ. During my time at SAKS I began to question the rise of the fast fashion industry.
How did you wake up to what was happening in the fashion industry?
I had gotten out of fashion, bought an art gallery and then ended up going to India, where my father was from. On his deathbed he said, ‘I want you to go to India – you need to find out about your roots’. It took me some years but it happened very magically. During my time there I was deeply affected by the poverty and environmental impact that plastic and fashion has on that country. I’d been in fashion and I wanted to utilise all the knowledge I had, but I wanted to look at the impact of the fashion industry was having on the planet.
Fast fashion is so cheap and there’s a perception that sustainable fashion is expensive. How can we resist those ‘bargains’?
If you can get two t-shirts for $5 then I would be asking, who suffered to make them? Make a t-shirt and find out how long it takes. How much would be paying yourself to make this? Would you like to be paid 10 cents an hour?
We need to question why clothing is really cheap or really expensive. If there were no sales, they wouldn’t have to spend money on marketing – just sell the product and say, this is the true price.
What do you say to people who believe garment workers in India are better off with their jobs rather than being unemployed?
They’re getting paid but what are the conditions they’re living in? It’s slave labour and it’s keeping them in poverty. These people are living in the city, they don’t live long lives, they’re working 18 hours a day. I’ve seen them – they sleep on the streets. Does that make them feel good about themselves?
How can consumers behave more consciously when it comes to fashion?
I don’t like the term ‘conscious consumers’ because that implies that you gobble and consume far too much. I prefer the word citizen, as it implies that you give back. I also don’t use the term sustainable a lot. I prefer to refer to it as responsible fashion.
My advice is to try to buy less, give stuff away or sell it. When you go into a cheap fashion store, ask questions like, where does this come from, how was it made, who made it, where did the cloth come from?
We just need to not consume so much and ask ourselves this: what is it inside ourselves that make us need to have so much?
What is Seed to Self all about?
Seed to Self is a project-based charity that encompasses fashion – Red Orchid – and an educational arm, which works with fashion students to trace the history of garments they design and create. Project Matatika (which means ethics and honesty in Maori) takes students in the last year of the Bachelor of Fine Arts and Design degree on a value chain assessment. They find out where every part of the garment they’ve designed was made – even down to recycled elements. They find out what is environmentally friendly and sustainable. They can then challenge the organisations they go on to work for. We have to have changes to the fashion industry at an organisational level.
We also work with people in India literally at the grassroots level. We know who planted to seed, we see the cotton being grown, ginned and what [sustainable] dyes are used before it’s turned into a garment. I know every intimate detail of this dress [she points], right down to who painted it, who stitched it – we trained them to stitch properly.
Seed to Self also leads ‘“journeys” to India for organisations and individuals interested in the fashion story. Tell us more about that.
The journeys – in October 2017 and April 2018 – are about gearing for change in the fashion industry. Anyone attached to the textile industry can come, or anyone who’s interested. We had one based in North India, which was (is) craft-orientated, and in the South India one we (participant will experience of whole cotton chain) went into the cotton fields to planting the seeds. We get to experience the whole chain. We want people to get down and dirty, and live and experience the people’s lives in the villages.
We seemed to have lost so much of our natural frugality and recycling nature in just a couple of generations. What was it like for you growing up?
When I was a child we recycled everything. Like everyone, I’ve turfed clothing into the bin without thinking too hard, but it was always in the back of my head, if this was my mother she would be taking off the buttons, taking out the zip, unpicking it, and keeping all the good bits. It would them be made into something else and be absolutely fantastic.