Written by Greta Vaivadaite
It’s not always glitz and glamour when it comes to fashion. There is an ugly reality behind the perfectly stacked shelves and rows upon rows of aesthetically styled photos on online shopping giants. The blunt truth of the fast fashion situation is anything but pretty. How do we slow down this wrecking ball of a problem in which our unquenchable thirst for more drives this consumer culture into a vicious cycle? Some fashion gurus say that the situation is getting better with the increasing adoption of thrifting, but others argue the situation is only getting more grim. Social media and influencers promote a culture of disposable one-time wear outfits – god forbid anyone sees you wearing that same outfit twice; it seems like there is some tainted influencer manual that states you can only post one photo of you in the outfit before it becomes last season and tucked away in your closet forever. So, who better to clear up these crimes against fashion if not the sustainable fashion police herself – Kelly Drennan. Embark on the conversational journey that takes us back to the birth of Fashion Takes Action and to the vision of fashion’s future led by this change agent who was ahead of her time.
Greta Vaivadaite for A\J: What is the story behind Fashion Takes Action?
KD: I was a stereotypical fashion addict – my closet was bursting at the seams.. Then I became a mother, and soon after watched An Inconvenient Truth – and with 2 little ones I felt it both depressing and motivating to watch. I had no idea what the future of the planet was going to be for them. I knew then that I needed to do something. That was really my first ‘aha’ moment where I was like, ‘okay, what do I know and how can I make change?’ I produced theGreen Gala in 2007, as an event that I thought I would do once a year to raise awareness, and funds for an eNGO – Environmental Defence at the time. However I realized in the early days of planning it that I couldn’t really show sustainable clothing on the runway unless the entire event was sustainable. To this day, it’s still the most sustainable fashion show… I think in the world.
It was even carbon neutral through offsetting. There were no sustainable shoes available at that time, so I had my models go bare-feet. The location at the Brickworks in Toronto was completely crumbling with brick and broken glass, I couldn’t have them walking barefoot. I decided to bring in 1800 square feet of sod so they could have a soft runway made from grass. But then I thought, ‘Well, that’s wasteful if I don’t have a use for this grass afterwards’ – so, I donated the grass to Toronto Parks & Rec. For hair, it was electricity-free hair styling which meant back-combing and braiding. I didn’t intend for it to turn into anything other than an annual gala-style fashion show event, which I held again in 2008. Long story short – that’s the birth of Fashion Takes Action – these events created a buzz and I realized the need to bring the fashion and sustainability worlds together.
GV: According to you, what is sustainable fashion?
KD: First of all, it’s important to note that nobody’s perfect. Perfection doesn’t exist in this space and we need to be celebrating progress more than we do. It could mean locally made, and if not locally – then fairly made. Even though it’s local doesn’t always mean that it was made fairly. Source from sustainable materials, anything from organics through to recycled content. It could be upcycled or repurposed – taking something old and turning it into something new and better. Vintage, second hand or thrift – as a consumer, that’s my number one favorite way, as well as swapping. It also means, slow fashion, and supporting a brand that’s not mass producing, and that’s making quality garments instead. You could even argue that durability in some ways, is sustainable, because it’s really about keeping our clothes in use for as long as possible. Now there’s also just as many solutions for those problems, and you’re like, ‘Ahh, where do I start?’ And that’s why we created something called the Sustainable Fashion Toolkit for that very reason. Our toolkit is really there to help the industry to save time and make sense of all the resources that are available.
“Perfection doesn’t exist in this space and we need to be celebrating progress more than we do.”
GV: What is the revolution you are hoping for in the fashion industry? Are we there?
KD: We’re not there, we’re a long way away. I think ultimately, it’s about circularity. We created something called the 7 R’s of fashion and we actually do a workshop on this as part of our youth education program. Reduce, reuse, recycle, obviously, being the ones that most people know when they think about the waste hierarchy. We’ve inserted repurpose, repair, rent and resale. Ultimately, we’ve got to stop buying as much as we’re buying. And then trying to keep this stuff in use for as long as possible. We wear 20% of our closet 80% of the time. Instead of going out and buying something new, first look in your closet and think, ‘I bought this for a reason. What was that reason?’
And maybe I don’t like this piece of this part of it anymore, so let’s fix that instead of buying something new, right? From an industry perspective, we’re really trying to advance circularity. Circularity starts right from the design phase. We know that the synthetic items, made from polyester, spandex, nylon, and acrylic, are just like a single-use straw or plastic bag. And it’s getting people to think about our synthetic clothing, like those other plastic items. Why do we care more about making sure these straws and bags don’t end up in the landfill? And we don’t think twice about our Lululemons ending up in there, once they’re well used and the fabric is pilled. The technology is there, somebody just needs to come along with a load of money and scale the heck out of this! The fashion industry and the government need to come together and realize the value in this.
GV: In your opinion, is the problem getting better or worse? Who is leading this change?
KD: I think it’s getting better. By 2028, according to ThredUP the second-hand market is going to be double that of fast fashion. I think millennials and Gen Zs are really leading this movement. They’re making thrift cool again. Also, say what you want about H&M, but they’ve taken a lot of risks and demonstrated leadership, which at the same time puts them in vulnerable positions. They might do something good and try to communicate what they’re doing, but then get raked over the coals for it or for “failing” in other areas. This is harmful in many ways. Because it sends a message to other brands that are thinking about doing more sustainability focused work, ‘well, maybe we shouldn’t try this, or at least if we do, we won’t talk about it’. It comes back to that whole concept of progress over perfection. It’s almost like some brands are afraid to speak up about what they’re doing because it’s not yet perfect.
“They wake up every day and they put clothes on. They’re not waking up every day and going out and driving a hybrid vehicle.”
GV: What is the most critical initiative you are working on now and how do you plan on achieving it?
KD: Our school program, ‘My Clothes My World’ – which we started in 2014. It’s for students in grades 4 to 12, and nobody in the world (that we know of) is talking to that age group about the impacts of fashion. Research shows that if you can actually engage young people, who are future consumers and future climate leaders, around these topics, then we’re playing the long game. It might take awhile, but when they are finally out there, spending money, they’re going to remember what they’ve learned and hopefully think long and hard about their purchase. And it comes down to that knowing, once you know something, you can’t unknow it. As adults, it’s so much more difficult to change behavior, because we’ve got habits and routines. With kids, when it comes to climate action education, fashion’s a relatable topic. It’s fun and relatable. They wake up every day and they put clothes on. They’re not waking up every day and going out and driving a hybrid vehicle.
I now have Kelly’s words ingrained into my head as a voice of reason in the name of the environment (and it’s better for my wallet too..) when trying to decide if I really need a top that looks like three other ones hanging in my closet. I want the next runway show I’m watching to be as sustainable as the Green Gala was in 2007 or I won’t be impressed. It’s time for those in the world of fashion to step up in their best thrifted shoes and demand more. If there is one thing I learnt from the fashion industry itself is that those in it are not afraid to be bold, loud, proud and different.