London-based journalist Lucy Siegle covers ethical living topics for The Guardian and is perhaps best known for her book ‘To Die For: Is Fashion Wearing Out the World?’. She’s also one of the producers of ‘The True Cost’, a documentary film which examines Fast Fashion and the often dismal realities of industrial-scale apparel manufacture.
William Ingram works a world away from the propulsive thrum of a modern factory. He is one of the founders of Threads of Life, a fair trade business that promotes the conservation of traditional weaving cultures in an attempt to alleviate poverty in rural Indonesian villages.
The Kindcraft recently caught up with Siegle and Ingram at the 2015 Ubud Writers & Readers Festival, where they were paired for a panel discussion about “Story and Sustainability in Cloth”. In our conversation with them, we found that these two iconoclasts are each wondering if traditional craft can survive – and perhaps even be a critical element to reforming how our clothes are made in an age of accelerating disposability.
Between the documentary and the book, I think your concerns about Fast Fashion are well understood. But I wanted to check in with you on what your thinking is now – updating from where the book left off in 2011…
Yes – so that doesn’t even have Rana Plaza in it because it hadn’t happened.
In light of everything that has happened since, what do you find to be the most pressing priority now? Is it factory safety? Is it slowing down the calendar?
It’s factory safety for me, definitely.
Because I can’t sit here today and, with any firm conviction, tell you that Rana Plaza is not going to happen again – any day from now. So that, for me, is obviously a massive issue. Writing the book before Rana Plaza, a lot of people thought I was making it up or being hyperbolic about the issues in the supply chain. So Rana Plaza is the most horrific illustration of all the things we were talking about. It’s pretty much a textbook example of all the pressure points in the supply chain.
There was a report that came out a couple of months ago that quite clearly says that there hasn’t been enough work happening fast enough to stop it from happening again.
So the system is still broken – that’s where I am at the moment. What I am doing is working more with lawyers to find a legal remedy. And I was very lucky because I was part of an offshoot from Oxfam called “The Circle” and there’s a lot of high-profile women lawyers who’ve come to me and asked “How can we help? Let’s look at this.”
That’s really the next stage for me – Because they talk tough. It’s not just a few placards… this is looking at trade law and such…
Enforcing agreements and encouraging new signatories?
Not just encouraging because what we’ve had so far is a very brand-led response to Rana Plaza, which I don’t blame anyone for. It’s a very natural thing to do. And a lot of the brands stood up and came forward this time and said “We were there. We’re going to do work on the ground immediately.”
But then we had a problem with compensation being so slow. The truth about compensation after a disaster like that: If it’s slow, people die because they can’t afford the medical treatment afterwards and people kill themselves. That’s the truth.
So we’re without two things: We’re without a solution, which means that this will happen again. And we’re without a blueprint that, if it did happen again, we could just put it into motion, straightaway.
What about the notion of slowing things down from the demand side? How do we do things like slow down the fashion calendar or tell the story of garments which are meant to last for a long time? Is there a priority for you on the demand side of things?
It’s the story of pressure for me. A very big name – the head of a luxury design house – quit this week. He’s not been in the job for that long. He was the kind of wunderkind for the whole industry.
What has happened? These people are being driven into the ground at both ends of the spectrum. Is that a sustainable system? You’ve got people who are paid a fortune and head of a luxury house who are in a terrible state and you’ve got workers in the supply chain dying. No one is having a good time.
You’re pumping 80 billion new garments a year into the world. Designers can’t sell anything now, because there’s no story attached to their product.
[TURNS TO WILLIAM] Except for your makers, because they have a unique story. You’re the flipside…
Within the local traditions what we see is that without somebody holding the very top part of the pyramid in terms of quality and story and cultural integrity– that the local tradition… the quality drops. The prices go further and further down. So even on a very local level, just someone holding that space and it being a part of the local dialogue…
Can you unwrap that a bit? What do you mean by “holding that space”? Like what? Opening a cooperative?
The dead wear textiles to identify them to their ancestors and, through the ancestral relationship, you’re connected to the land.
The pressures in the system, which are the same pressures that you were talking about – the pressures of globalization and commoditization – all look to flatten that whole system. It looks to take all the creativity and individualism out of it and just homogenize it.
The governments have been going gangbusters at that for 20 years. And we don’t connect with what the government is doing, because we’re sort of like the antithesis of they are doing. We’ve found these champions in these communities, women that say “This is important to me. This is who I am. This is my ancestry and this is my calling.”
Traditional life is under pressure across the board throughout Southeast Asia and this is another manifestation of that. For example, weavers we’ve met in Northern Thailand and Laos are really crying out for a path to the market because they want to sustain their tradition and they’re under so much economic pressure to do other things.
Especially when you’re dealing with craft, if it doesn’t get passed along to the next generation…
William and I come from a country [Great Britain] where all our textile heritage has gone, pretty much. And where you’ve got pockets of it left, there’s nobody passing it along.
I went to a sewing room in Leicester recently: There’s an amazing woman, Jill, who still makes stuff for Marks & Spencer. She’s 75 and she can’t retire, because there’s nobody who knows how to use an overlocker.
What I extrapolate from what you just said, which I find very profound, is that it reflects my message that fashion culture is really, really vulnerable. If you don’t fight for it and you don’t put the systems in place, it’ll go that way tomorrow.
It’s the inner life of it that gets abandoned and, once that’s gone, it’s unrecoverable.
Coming from different ends of the spectrum, what do you both think about the idea of changing “design culture” towards something that’s slower – or towards offering garments with more of a story?
My personal fascination is with that intangible culture, the inner life of it, which sort of turns the creative process on its head: It’s not about expressing your individuality; It’s about expressing the depth to which you’ve aligned yourself with the value system of your society and its connection to the Earth.
You’re considered an artist by the degree to which you’re dear to tradition, not by the degree to which you elaborate upon it – which is a diametrically opposite process.
Yeah… so that’s an issue! [LAUGHS]
It’s hard to have what we call in the fashion world “innovation” because we prize a certain sort of innovation: Which means “commercial” – and you’re not talking about commercial innovation. You’re talking about a renewal, basically.
But it’s a good place to dialogue. This has been a very useful conversation!
So much of what you’re both talking about is that sort of foundational element of tradition underneath the work.
Going back to “design thinking” and how we begin to shift the design culture: How do we get garments and apparel which have better stories, better manufacture, into the hands of people who aren’t yet curious about it or who don’t even know…
[LAUGHS] William has to do a diffusion range…
[LAUGHS] You’re going to have to explain that to me!
That’s a fashion thing where they, like, dump half the value of something so they can sell it to the masses. I’m joking! I don’t want him to do that!
I’ve had several arguments with Donna Karan about that. She’s come in to our store and said “You are holding these people back! Why don’t you let my designers come in and help and change what they’re doing to get a wider market?” And I say “It’s not what they’re interested in doing and it’s not what the model that we’ve got set up will achieve!”
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.