“Why do we just throw clothing away?” The founders of Manchester Fashion Movement talk to Northern Soul
Over the last year or so, I’ve become extremely anxious. The news is awful, social media is rife with argument and miscommunication, and the UK has been in a national lockdown for what feels like an eternity. In the digital era, when information is at our fingertips, it’s difficult to navigate the fear and negativity that we’re exposed to on a daily basis.
Recently, as part of this year’s Manchester Science Festival which focused on climate change, musician and activist Brian Eno said: “There’s so much good news around that doesn’t make it into the media. It’s not on the radar because the radar is pointed in the wrong direction.” His words reminded me that there are many people, initiatives and organisations in the North of England who are committed to having a positive impact.
One organisation that is firmly facing in the right direction is Manchester Fashion Movement (MFM), a collective looking to enable communities in Greater Manchester to better understand the impact of the fashion industry and recognise the benefits of a more responsible approach towards consumerism. MFM is the creation of Alison Carlin, founder of the Sustainable Fashion Party and AllyPally Vintage, and Camilla Cheung, founder of conceptual lifestyle brand, Wardrobe Wellbeing. The duo joined forces to launch the movement in early 2020. Their common goal? To celebrate the positive things happening in Manchester’s fashion industry.
“We came together to enable communities around Greater Manchester to better understand the impact of the fashion industry and recognise the benefits of being more responsible,” says Carlin. “[We’re] supporting people on their own journey as they move toward a more conscious lifestyle.”
Cheung describes the movement as not “anti-anything” and focused instead on “recognising the need for change and supporting those who are trying to be more responsible”. By concentrating on education and inclusivity, MFM hopes to create a judgement-free space where people can learn how to shop more consciously and back brands in Greater Manchester which are offering more sustainable goods.
“We support brands that have a social conscience,” explains Carlin. “While [the fashion industry] is not going to change overnight, eventually people will demand that brands will have better green credentials and [realise] that it’s not all about profit. It’s about how [brands] make us feel and how they’re treating people and the planet.”
“The timing was everything,” says Cheung. “It gave us the confidence to go for it. We recognised that if there was strength in us being together, imagine what could change when everyone else came together. That’s where the term ‘movement’ came about.”
However, Cheung is also keen to highlight the benefits of in-person events and meet-ups. “The movement would have been a lot easier to instigate if we could have been together physically. It is harder to do virtually, and we have had events cancelled.”
In February, MFM was scheduled to showcase an immersive fashion performance, Fashion in Transit, as part of this year’s Manchester Science Festival, in collaboration with the Science and Industry Museum. However, the festival moved online due to COVID-19 restrictions and MFM’s event has been pushed back to November. And so, alongside planning for future events, MFM is focusing on a series of monthly digital campaigns aimed at bringing people together, including Make Your Pledge, which encourages people to share one habit they would change in a bid to be more sustainable. Carlin and Cheung also curate a monthly newsletter.
In times of crisis, consumers don’t stop shopping, they simply limit their purchases to affordable pleasures. While a number of high street stores have closed down, ecommerce sales have remained solid throughout 2020.
“I think it’s about comfort,” says Cheung, “and what brings us a short burst of happiness and pleasure. It’s hard [when] we are stuck on our computers, we’re targeted, and ads pop up. But as soon as you stop looking, a jumper in your wardrobe is actually all right. However, if you’re feeling a bit ‘urgh’ and there’s a model in front of you who is wearing the most beautiful jumper and just looks so comfy, of course you’re going to go down that path.
“Until we tell brands that enough is enough, and they behave more responsibly, then I don’t think it will change and I don’t think it is on the consumers to always take the hit for that.”
This idea of systemic change via education and community, rather than placing the burden solely on consumers, is something that MFM is keen to encourage. While acknowledging that brands that are behaving reprehensibly should “absolutely be flagged”, Cheung highlights the importance of supporting firms that are aiming to be more accountable.
“We don’t want the high street to die out completely. We don’t want people to lose their jobs. We don’t want to say ‘boycott that brand’ because someone is always going to lose out. We just want [the fashion industry] to evolve and do better.”
Recently, online retail giant ASOS confirmed that it had sealed the deal to buy Arcadia brands Topshop, Topman, Miss Selfridge and sportswear brand HIIT for a total of £330 million. However, all stores will close, with just 300 jobs saved.
“That, for me, felt massive,” says Cheung. “There were probably lots of different things that went on – being online and not being reactive enough, competitors coming in and offering even cheaper products – but there’s a huge shift taking place there. It’s interesting to see what’s going to happen.”
Carlin adds: “The high street will now have to change to pull people in.”
“But maybe fewer people will be allowed in stores [after COVID-19], so the customer experience will be different?” muses Cheung. “When I worked for COS, which is my background, it was so much about the customer experience, which is something that you can’t always get on a website. I will always favour going into a store, feeling a garment and chatting to an employee who is knowledgeable about the product. I hope that now, when we are spending our money, that these are the things we want. That’s what we deserve.”
“When we spend loads of money on an item, we look after it,” adds Carlin. “But when it’s cheaper, we don’t. But someone has spent time and shown skill [making the garment], so why have we become so careless? Why do we just throw clothing away? Regardless of it being cheap, it’s still a piece of clothing that not everyone has the luxury of having.”
Much like our attitude to food production, we have become disconnected with where and how our clothing is made. We can buy anything at the click of a button. That means we don’t necessarily spare much thought as to how our clothes get from the cutting room to our wardrobe – or for the people that made them.
“It’s hard for people to think about that journey,” says Carlin. “But, again, it’s about education and communication. Everything registers eventually. But we don’t really have a choice, do we? We’re heading for a disaster.”
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the livelihoods of millions of garment workers have been impacted by the economic and social fallout. Global brands cancelled orders and many employees manufacturing face masks and PPE were found to be working in unsafe conditions. The #PayUp campaign, a mass movement of citizens and garment workers to pressure huge apparel chains to pay their garment workers for billions of pounds worth of orders manufactured prior to the pandemic, was established in response.
Attitudes are beginning to change. Mass consumption, which once seemed aspirational, now feels irresponsible and we’re certainly more mindful that the future of our planet is at stake. In May 2020, The Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) published the findings from a survey carried out as part of its work on the future of fashion after COVID-19. It found that 52 per cent of women surveyed intend to make long term changes to their fashion consumption, including a third of women who say they will be purchasing fewer items of clothing in the future. The results also suggested that the treatment of garment workers hadn’t gone unnoticed and people want the fashion industry to create better pay, conditions and job security.
One of the ways MFM intends to do this is through Orange Pages, a part of its website which provides a safe space for community members to share stories and experiences.
“It is all about changing how people see themselves,” says Cheung. “I hope that, as a movement, we can grow in a positive way. It’s about us all taking responsibility for our actions and, as soon as we start doing that, the world will start being better.”
For more information about Manchester Fashion Movement, click here.
MFM will be hosting a panel discussion as part of International Women’s Day 2021 (March 8) with inspirational female speakers, including journalist and author Tansy Hoskins, sustainable womenswear brand Chamiah Dewey Fashion, Black in Fashion and many more. The IWD campaign theme for 2021 is #ChooseToChallenge and the event will take a look at collective responsibility and how best to create positive change.
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