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March 8, 2021

Interview: Helen O’Carroll on the true cost of your clothes

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Have you ever wondered ‘Who made my clothes?’

Have you ever wondered ‘Who made my clothes?’

Social enterprise Fashion Revolution has joined forces with local businesses BAY Active, Green Square Apparel, and The Shire Seamstress to host their annual event at The Brewery this Friday. Alongside Annette Duffield from Green Square Apparel and Satisha Young from The Shire Seamstress, Helen O’Carroll from Bay Active is one of the organisers who is extremely passionate about making ethical fashion.

Helen, as a designer yourself what turned you on to being conscious about environmental issues to do with clothing production? How is that reflected in your clothing line?

The shift started for me when I had retail stores. We were selling iconic Australian brands and our own brand, so knew the realities of costs associated with production. With the advent of fast fashion about 15 years ago, I started buying cheaper brands for the store thinking we were all winning. Prices actually went way down with the ‘quick to market’ products, but I realised over time we were not winning for the right reasons. For example, simple maths tells you that it’s just simply not possible to sell a pair of jeans for $49 unless they’re made in conditions of slavery. The fast-fashion model relies on the continual movement of bulk, cheap product made to impossible deadlines. The quality of these fast-fashion brands is marginal, and therefore they fall apart very quickly. We’re losing the skills or motivation to mend, so we throw it away and go out and buy more. When we ‘throw it away’ the ‘away’ bit is the earth! 

Was it hard to create ethical fashion?

Yes but not prohibitively. Because we had made the commitment to be 100 per cent transparent, we needed to make sure we had all of the information from field to finished product so that was a lot of research and development. The factories we work with are externally audited and certified. Finding GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard) certified organic cotton with the touch I wanted was tricky but organic was not negotiable. Fashion is not the easiest industry but it’s what I’ve always done, so jumping through hoops is sort of second nature to me.

There is a shift back to production onshore; we do all of our sampling here in Byron, pre-production in Sydney, and have produced our bulk in Fiji in the past but have been working with a great team in Sydney, so our next collection will be done onshore. We’re also currently sampling in a factory in Cambodia with women from extremely marginalised backgrounds. These are the areas of the industry we are interested in partnering with, where we can drive change via our product. The ultimate satisfaction for us is that it’s not just the end user who benefits from our collections, but everyone in the supply chain.

Can individuals make a difference? How do we create real change?

The only way things will change is if we start asking our brands ‘Who made my clothes?’ Support apps such as Good on You that audit and offer transparent information on brands and their supply chains. Support Fashion Revolution and Baptist World Aid for the tireless work they do. We need to be prepared to buy less but pay more so the makers are not squeezed to impossible deadlines for a pittance.

Australians are now dumping 25–30kg of textiles per person every year. So as a country, that’s 500,000 tonnes every year, 400 per cent more than at this time about a decade ago. Bearing in mind that most of fast fashion is made of plastic; the earth just cannot break it down.

Tell me about the social enterprise Fashion Revolution and the businesses who have joined forces?

Fashion Revolution is a global movement that came into being after the collapse of Rana Plaza in 2013, where 1,038 people lost their lives and thousands of others lost their loved ones, became incapacitated and/or unemployable. It was an enough-is-enough moment for a couple of people to start this movement in the UK. It shines a light on the industry and forces us to think about the realities of what we are contributing to and offers tools for us to make change.

The partnering businesses in this event are BAY Active, a women’s lifestyle brand of basics, active and yoga apparel. BAY Active is made with certified organic cotton, organic linen, bamboo, Merino and regenerated fabrics in an ethical, transparent supply chain. Green Square Apparel is a dedicated end-to-end manufacturer experienced in Australian and offshore production. They offer a range of ethical and sustainable solutions and services in the fashion and apparel industry. The Shire Seamstress is Satisha Young, whose passion is re-fashioning. After decades in the industry, Satisha saw an opportunity to inspire people to mend, reinvent and better care for their clothing; she is motivated by the social and environmental impact of the fashion industry.

What is the film The True Cost about? Who are the designers leading the way?

The film is a story about clothing. It’s about the clothes we wear, the people who make them, and the impact the industry is having on our world.

Tell me about the people on the panel for the Q&A.

We have a panel of change-makers who have committed their careers to the mitigation of humanitarian and environmental fallout within and outside of the fashion industry.

Sally Townsend from Outland Denim – A denim brand that employs women who have been rescued from the sex trade who have changed their lives and those around them via the opportunity of training and employment. The CEO of Outland Denim was a welder in a previous life and could not bear to see this continue under his watch, and decided if there was something he could do save just one girl, he would do it. They now have a full-scale operation in Cambodia with a team of about 38. Outland Denim have just been awarded an A+ by the global ethical index Baptist World Aid.

Carlie Ballard is CEO of the brand Carlie Ballard. Carlie is inspired by the beauty and heritage of artisanal handwoven textiles. Carlie is also a sustainable-fashion advocate and a founding director of  Clean Cut Fashion Association, Australia’s Ethical and Sustainable Fashion Association. The CCFA is the Australian fashion industry body addressing the future of fashion through sustainable and ethical practices.

Karl Goodsell is the CEO of Positive Change For Marine Life, founded in 2012. PCFML’s mission is to empower local communities across our focus areas to ensure practices and systems are geared toward conserving vital marine ecosystems, while creating viable livelihoods for the people who depend upon them.

Be at the Byron Brewery on Friday from 6pm for The Fashion Revolution!


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