Change Agent: Carry Somers

We talk to the co-founder of Fashion Revolution Day

Carry Somers with Panama hat makers. Picture / Supplied.

The co-founder of Fashion Revolution and founder of fair trade Panama hat brand Pachacuti is behind a campaign to reconnect consumers with the makers of their clothes, following the 2013 Rana Plaza garment factory collapse. We spoke to the UK-based Somers about her passion for a transparent fashion industry.

Why are you so passionate about creating an ethical fashion industry? 
I don’t think it is about creating an ethical fashion industry, but rediscovering it. The rampant rise of fast, mass-produced fashion has made us lose touch with those values that were associated with fashion, even in our parents’ generation — handmade, traditional skills, artisanship, re-using waste fabric. The reality is that sustainable fashion really is fashion. It’s everything else that isn’t.

How did you first become interested in ethical clothing?
On a research trip to Ecuador in 1990 for my Masters in Native American Studies to study textile production, I was shocked by the inequitable trading patterns I witnessed. Seeing the weighing scales, an international symbol of justice, being loaded with wool on one side and then seeing the producers being charged a price which bore no resemblance to the supposed cost per kilo, I felt a sense of outrage at the clear discrimination before me.

Quechua speakers with only rudimentary Spanish and low levels of numeracy were at the mercy of the middlemen when it came both to buying the wool and selling their finished garments. I had a fully funded PhD ahead of me, and if I hadn’t picked up Anita Roddick’s [Body Shop founder] autobiography and read it in the garden one sunny day, I would undoubtedly have continued in academia and my life would have been very different.

But I didn’t. I read the book from cover to cover that day and decided that if one woman could make such a difference in the beauty industry with no experience, there was nothing to stop me from doing the same in the fashion industry, at least in my summer holiday! After the summer, I gave up my PhD to focus on supporting communities and keeping alive traditional skills in the Andes.

READ: Slow Fashion by People Tree founder Safia Minney

What do you suggest to people on a budget who would like to dress ethically?
We’re not asking people to boycott their favourite stores, we need to change the fashion industry from within. By asking the brands and retailers “Who Made My Clothes?” we can put pressure on them to be more transparent about their supply chains.

In terms of the price, three quarters of those questioned in a YouGov/Global Poverty Project survey said they would be likely to pay an extra 5 per cent for their clothes if there was a guarantee workers were being paid fairly and working in safe conditions. It has been estimated that putting as little as 25p (about 50c) on to the cost of a garment made in Bangladesh would provide the producers with a living wage and pay for factories to meet fire and building safety standards.

How do you dress yourself? Do you find it hard to source everything ethically?
It depends on your criteria for “ethical”. I buy mostly timeless, investment pieces which I know I will keep in my wardrobe for the next 10 years; I share clothes and accessories with my daughter; I support young designers who often produce locally and ethically because of the scale of their emerging business and I buy a lot of vintage — all of my handbags are vintage.

Talk us through a day in your life...
Most of my time is spent at my computer. At this time of year, I’m usually working a 16-hour day, so there is very little time for much else! However, there really is no such thing as a typical day. I have been spending several days a week in London for meetings and events. I’m speaking at the European Parliament in Brussels next week. Fashion Revolution is my full-time job now. I have handed Pachacuti over to my husband and staff to run.

READ: Educate Yourself with These Stories on Ethical Fashion

Tell us about some of the changes brands have made since last year’s Fashion Revolution Day?
Last year, Fashion Revolution took the brands by surprise. Tens of thousands of people around the world wore an item of clothing inside-out and called on brands to tell them Who Made Your Clothes? with our hashtag becoming the No1 global trend on Twitter. Brands and retailers were challenged to take responsibility for the individuals and communities on which their businesses depend.

The message was clear but, unfortunately, very few brands replied to their customers. Replies mostly indicated the country where their clothes were made, adding that they adhered, of course, to the highest working conditions. Hardly any brands replied to the WHO made your clothes? This year we have more brands on board, and are hoping for better responses and to build real connections between fashion-lovers and the people who make their clothes.

READ: 5 Tips for Shopping More Consciously

What do you say to people who ask “why should they care / bother” about changing the way they dress?
Surprisingly, no-one has ever asked me that question. In a Eurobarometer survey in January, 85 per cent of respondents believed that it is important to help people in developing countries and 69 per cent believed that tackling poverty in developing countries also has a beneficial influence on citizens.

What else can people do aside from wear their clothes inside out on Fashion Revolution Day and message the brands? What can be done on other days during the year?
Fashion Revolution Day is just the start of the campaign. It doesn’t stop until we get answers. Personally, every time I buy a new item of clothing, which admittedly isn’t that often, I always contact the brand on social media to ask them #whomademyclothes?

How do you keep motivated to continue fighting such a big cause?
I love the diversity of this work as I never know what’s coming next and working with such a fantastic team has been a great privilege.

You have stated that you believe the change needs to come from within the clothing brands — how can we help this change come about?

On Fashion Revolution Day, April 24:

1. Take a selfie showing your label. You can turn an item of clothing inside-out to make more of a statement.

2. Follow the brand on social media

3. Upload your photo to social media with the message: I want to thank the people who made my clothes. @brand #whomademyclothes?

4. Help make our message louder. Nominate three friends to do the same. I was told by an industry insider that for every person who took an inside-out selfie and contacted the brand last year, the brands took it as representing 10,000 other people who thought the same way, but couldn’t be bothered to do anything about it. We have incredible power as consumers, if we choose to use it.

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