“We’ve created a monster,” states Tamsin Lejeune as she talks about the environmental and ethical nightmare that is fast fashion.
Lejeune has been on the frontline in the fight for ethical fashion for almost 20 years, beginning in 2000 when she launched her own ethical fashion label (called Juste), something which was harder than she expected. “I found that I wasn’t the only one who was struggling to produce sustainable clothes,” says Lejeune.
Ethical Fashion Forum
Her response was to set up the pioneering Ethical Fashion Forum in 2006, with the aim of raising both social and environmental standards right across the fashion industry.
Lejeune has since gone on to launch Common Objective in 2016, an online platform and business network which connects fashion companies to suppliers, buyers and experts to help them make fashion in a more sustainable way.
“We’re not a campaigning body but aim to support the fashion industry to do business better,” says Lejeune. “We want to work with the worst offenders in the fashion industry and not just companies who are on board with the issues of sustainability.”
A key part of Common Objective’s carrot-not-stick strategy is their CO10, an annual award to showcase fashion companies that incorporate sustainability into their business model.
Current winners include Stella McCartney and Ethical Apparel Africa, a network of ethical production facilities across Africa. “The aim of the awards is to reward businesses that are taking a leadership role and to encourage others to follow suit,” says Lejeune.
A move to renting?
However, whilst less than 1% of all fashion is currently made sustainably, Lejeune remains defiantly upbeat: “The fashion industry relies on some of the most creative people in the world, so finding an answer to fast fashion is a great opportunity for them to come up with designs and solutions.”
One of the most promising of these solutions, which Lejeune believes has the potential to be a massive gamechanger, is the growing movement for renting rather than buying clothes outright.
At first glance renting clothes may seem a tad mad but given that young people – the fabled millennials – have no problem with the idea of renting and sharing stuff, Lejeune thinks that this could well be the future. “Sure, we’ll need a huge shift in attitudes but look at when Net-a-Porter started nearly 20 years ago, nobody thought that people would buy fashion online, but it’s now one of the world’s biggest fashion brands.”
The success of the US-based clothes rental business Rent the Runway and a myriad of other similar start-ups, both in the US and here in the UK, such as Wear the Walk confirms that there’s a willing market for this revolutionary alternative to fast fashion.
But why is it taking so long to solve the problems created by fast fashion compared to issues such as plastic pollution, to which industry and government are now actively responding? “To begin with, fast fashion is so compelling it’s almost like an addiction that’s hard to give up,” says Lejeune. “Plus, the issues are far more complex than banning a single-use plastic shopping bag from a supermarket.”
“People don’t see how fast fashion immediately affects them in the same way that you can see plastic litter on a beach or research that’s showing that we’re increasingly eating and even breathing micro-plastic.”
Lejeune says that key to reining in the fast fashion monster is leadership from both industry and government, and she is scathing about the recent government decision not to adopt the recommended 1p charge on new clothes to help clean up fast fashion: “For me this demonstrates weak leadership,” says Lejeune bluntly.
So, does Lejeune believe that we’ll ever have a genuinely ethical fashion sector? “I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t believe we could change the entire way that the fashion industry operates.