Sustainability in the fashion industry is no longer an afterthought for fashion businesses large and small, believes Hilary Alexander.

Where once, sustainability was something of a side line, these days it is rapidly becoming a main event. In the last few weeks in London alone, People Tree — one of the earliest and best-established sustainable British brands — has partnered with BBC Earth to highlight and raise awareness of how conscious consumerism within the fashion industry can work towards improving the planet's oceans and wildlife. This partnership involves a capsule collection of T-shirts and bags, all made from 100 percent GOTS certified organic cotton, launched on March 1st and inspired by Blue Planet 11.

Meanwhile, Graduate Fashion Week ambassador Henry Holland, has announced a commitment to sustainability with his latest venture: partnering with Speedo to create a capsule collection made from recycled fishing nets to mark World Ocean Day in June.

Travellers Coat from Zarif Design, courtesy of EFI Afghanistan, supported by the European Union

Travellers Coat from Zarif Design, courtesy of EFI Afghanistan, supported by the European Union

Just announced at London Fashion Week, Bethany Williams is the latest winner of the Queen Elizabeth II Award for Best British Design. The south Londoner believes
that social and environmental issues go hand-in-hand in helping provide design solutions to sustainability. Bethany works with communities and charities devoted to homelessness and drug rehabilitation, collaborates with food and book waste programmes, and her clothes are entirely sustainable — right down to the buttons, hand-crafted in the Lake District from trees planted by collaborators.

Sustainability has long been a major focus at Graduate Fashion Week, which features a number of awards recognising responsible or “considered” design, in association with the likes of Swarovski and Dame Vivienne Westwood. In addition, another GFW Ambassador, the designer Christopher Raeburn, is a pioneer of sustainability, whose name is a byword for the quality, creativity and ingenuity of the "remade garment." 

It was entirely appropriate, then, that Martyn Roberts, managing director of Graduate Fashion Week, and myself, recently sat down with the man who could be called Mr Sustainability — Simone Cipriani — who founded and manages The Ethical Fashion Initiative (EFI), a flagship programme of the International Trade Centre, a joint agency of the United Nations and the World Trade Organisation. Our aim was to open up a sustainability dialogue between his organisation and that of the Graduate Fashion Foundation.

Internally Displaced Person spinning silk yarn in Herat province, courtesy of EFI Afghanistan, supported by the European Union

Internally Displaced Person spinning silk yarn in Herat province, courtesy of EFI Afghanistan, supported by the European Union

Tracing embroidery at Zarif Design, courtesy of EFI Afghanistan, supported by the European Union

Tracing embroidery at Zarif Design, courtesy of EFI Afghanistan, supported by the European Union

Mr Cipriani is a remarkable man who has made it his life’s mission to build a more responsible, considered and sustainable fashion industry by turning fashion and design into a vehicle for poverty reduction and the empowerment of women throughout the developing world. It enables artisans living in marginalised conditions in Africa, the Caribbean and Asia, to become regular suppliers to international fashion and lifestyle brands.

The Ethical Fashion Initiative has worked with numerous major brands, including Adidas, United Arrows, Sass & Bide, Stella McCartney, Mimco, Edun, Laurence Airline, Brother Vellies, and Dame Vivienne Westwood — one of the Graduate Fashion Foundation’s Lifetime Patrons — who as early as 2012, visited the EFI's Nairobi hub in Kenya.

A project analysis in the EFI Manifesto, with the New Zealand accessories designer Karen Walker, for example, shows a breakdown of the skills involved and the ingenuity employed in creating her "Boho Filigree Tote": locally-sourced Kenyan cow leather, East African-farmed cotton canvas woven in Kenya, freehand three-colour screen print, recycled brass bells made out of recycled car engine parts, and hand-crafted cotton pompoms and flower appliqués done by female self-help groups.

Returnee from Pakistan dying raw silk scarf, courtesy of EFI Afghanistan, supported by the European Union

Returnee from Pakistan dying raw silk scarf, courtesy of EFI Afghanistan, supported by the European Union

The EFI Initiative has evolved to work with emerging African designers to promote their talents internationally and, as a result, to support more clothing and accessories with the Made in Africa label,  and has also set up a training centre for African migrants and for refugees, in Italy.

Martyn was delighted to be able to point out that the winner of the Hilary Alexander Trailblazer Award sponsored by Swarovski, at Graduate Fashion Week 2018, was the Tanzanian designer, Evelyne Babin. The BA graduate of UCA Epsom employed local, natural materials including hessian, kanga and banana leaves, and traditional Kilimanjaro village embroidery techniques in her prize-winning final collection. Evelyne was subsequently invited to show at Africa Fashion Week in August last year.

We are hopeful that Mr Cipriani will be able to visit this year's Graduate Fashion Week, June 2nd to 5th, at the Truman Brewery in Shoreditch will feature our second Considered Design Showcase. This will celebrate the talented BA fashion graduates who have used sustainable and ethical methods to create their final-year work. 

Graduate Fashion Week is constantly working to make sustainability an integral element of everyday life, both in terms of fashion education and the industry as a whole — a goal which goes hand-in-hand with the aims of the Ethical Fashion Initiative.

Words by Hilary Alexander