Constructive Activism For Fashion Justice

4 Dec 2020
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Interview with Dr.Hakan Karaosman, Chief Scientist atFReSCH, UCD. 

Dr. Hakan Karaosman is a sustainability management professional and award-winning researcher focusing on fashion supply chain sustainability. He is currently leading an action research project, FReSCH (Fashion’s Responsible Supply Chain Hub) at University College Dublin in partnership with the European Commission Research Executive Agency. He has several collaborations about sustainability, climate change and transparency with organisations including the UN, NGOs, fashion companies and media platforms. 

He shares that his first introduction to the fashion industry was at his youngest age as his mother was an embroider. Hakan grew up in a home that was, according to him, part of the supply chain and he fell in love with the fashion industry. “The crystals, the patterns, the fabrics, the silk, everything was so glamorous; but the conditions were not glamorous. My mom was almost doing everything, we were bringing the dresses back to her agent. The only thing missing was the label, I had no idea who these dresses were for.” 

The fashion industry is rapacious and labour intensive. What the industry has failed to acknowledge is that it only exists through people and we cannot avoid people in the global south and in manufacturing countries, he states. It is not only about privileged countries or communities but it is all about us. Us encompasses each and every one of us all over the world.

“The world is a global village and we need to ensure representation for everyone. It is time to bring those voices to the spotlight, and work on ensuring justice for everyone.”

“The theoretical concepts of the globalisation and supply chain revolution were completely misinterpreted and misused, we lost control. It gradually resulted in social inequalities as negative impacts are exacerbated across upstream supply chain levels.”

Though estimates vary, earlier research shows that between 8 and 10% of global carbon emissions are generated by the fashion industry. There are between 100 and 150 billion items produced every year. To illustrate, fashion production has been growing dramatically and unsustainably, as we are now producing 60% more than what we used to 15 years ago. 

Even though the landscape seems to be changing; as an instance, there are more questions raised about social and environmental practices of fashion companies; evidence is absolutely needed. We need to be seeing the progress fashion companies are making in terms of their sustainability performance in and across supply networks. Transparency is fundamental and transparency is different from sustainability, states Hakan. Transparency is crucial because we absolutely need evidence into the state of environmental and social justice.

“There is no excuse for not knowing what happens behind the scenes in and across your supply chain. What costs less to consumers costs more to the earth. Most of the time, financial growth comes at the expense of workers and we must stop that. When something is so cheap, convenient and accessible, we shall remember that there is always someone paying the price.” 

Being exposed to inequalities in the fashion system during his young age made him stand up for what he is standing for: equality and inclusion. “My beginnings and where I come from made me aware that we should preserve all sorts of natural, financial and social resources and that we should cherish love and acceptance and kindness.”

When he came across the concept of sustainability in 2010 whilst pursuing his masters on environmental and energy management, Hakan wanted to understand what he could materially do in order to act upon the solution for inherent contradictions and systemic problems the fashion industry was facing. 

While pursuing a corporate career, writing reports on carbon footprint and social responsibility, the Rana Plaza disaster that happened in Bangladesh in 2013 pushed him to take actions in order to change the discourse. He left the corporate world and started his double degree PhD program from the European Commission to ask questions and to use scientific research as an instrument to catalyse change. Since 2013, he has been pursuing scientific research on environmental and social justice in and across fashion supply chains.

“With the Rana Plaza disaster, we all saw how harsh the reality was. We, once again, saw that fashion does not have to happen at the expense of people. Fashion Revolution has been an amazing movement to enable all of us to collectively join forces to ask one essential question: who made my clothes? The True Cost has been a monumental milestone exposing the behind the scenes reality across fashion supply chains.” 

For more than seven years, he has been investigating fashion supply chains from the perspectives of justice, power use and relationship mechanisms, especially at lower tier supply chain stages. “When I first started, people thought I was crazy as no one wanted to talk about the behind the scenes of supply chain operations, but I was determined to get my voice heard by bringing scientific evidence and knowledge”

Hakan perceives Sustainability as a dynamic concept. We need a healthy environment in which safety, health and justice are ensured for everyone.

When we talk about Fashion we cannot avoid talking about workers.”

“We don’t see what happens throughout these interconnected chains. We, therefore, need evidence into the state of supply chain sustainability. When I talk about fashion supply chains, I talk about these real people that make this industry so profitable.”

According to Hakan the industry needs radical and systemic change for which a mindset shift is crucial. “The fashion industry needs more inclusivity, representation and fairness. And we, all stakeholder groups, are equally responsible to make that happen” 

Upon asking Hakan how the industry can improve and what the steps should be taken, he answers that first and foremost, solutions must be jointly created. “Everyone across the industry must be heard and transformative actions must be undertaken. Hence, suppliers must be integrated and they must be provided with technical, relational and financial resources to be able to act upon the solution.” Top-down approaches or brand-led initiatives do not work because we fail to understand the real-life struggles and challenges faced by our supply chain members. Therefore, we need trust-based, honest and longitudinal relations. “When you start building relations based on kindness and empath, things change.” 

Some common problems that we should address: 

  1. There is a need for representation. NGOs, trade unions and associations must be included in order to build proper and sustainable supply chain solutions.
  2. There is no common language. We need to create a concise and solid knowledge base that is to be shared and understood by everyone. 
  3. Transparency in the supply chain is required for which evidence must be provided. Scientific measures and targets are absolutely essential. 

Hakan’s Tips to consumers: 

“Create your lifestyle around sustainability. Change starts from within. Don’t wait for brands or the governments to take action. Be part of the solution. We all need to be part of the solution.”

  1. Equal responsibility: Create this collective voice to bring more demand to this conversion. Use your voice to ask questions, demand transparency so as to understand what happens across the fashion industry. Brands will feel pressured to look for the answers they don’t have.
  2. Be more aware of what you are putting on your body.
  3. Check the material composition of the items you buy. What are the healthiest options you can put on your body?
  4. Don’t consume more, we already have enough. Don’t get this impulse purchase habits that today’s fashion model has been adopting for some time.