The TH Interview: Kate Fletcher Author of Sustainable Fashion & Textiles


Kate Fletcher is a highly respected pioneer in the eco-fashion industry. She has worked on developing sustainability in fashion and textiles for over 15 years and has advised many of our favourite eco labels. As well as devoting time to her own research projects, 5 Ways, Demi, and The Perfect T-shirt, she has worked as a consultant to brands such as Marks & Spencer, People Tree and The Salvation Army. Most recently Kate has published her first book 'Sustainable Fashion and Textiles: Design Journeys', which we reviewed here. The book grapples with the importance and complexity of eco-fashion and takes our understanding of this subject to new levels. Kate Fletcher's work has served as an inspiration to many people and not least to myself, as I was lucky enough to have her as one of my tutors at Goldsmiths College. It's all credit to Kate that I have spent the last three years writing for TreeHugger! In this interview I asked what motivated her to write a book now, what developments she has seen over the years and what the future holds.You’ve been working in the eco-fashion industry for over 15 years, why did you decide to write a book now?
In the last few years there has been unprecedented interest in environmental and social issues in fashion and textiles. During this time, I have been inundated with requests for sustainability-related information from everyone from company executives to designer makers to fashion students. I think this has been because, until very recently, there has been a great dearth of information, ideas and vision on sustainable fashion and textiles; and most people’s view of the role played by design in bringing change was limited to choosing one material over another.

I felt compelled to write 'Sustainable Fashion and Textiles: Design Journeys' partly to provide people with the information that they were seeking and also to celebrate the potential of design as a positive force for change towards sustainability in fashion and textiles. If you like, to give people facts and figures while also stretching their imagination.

There was also another reason why now seemed like the right time for this book: not only is there more interest than ever before in sustainability issues in fashion and textiles, but this interest is being matched by a growing sophistication in thinking. Many sustainability themes in fashion and textiles are complex and dynamic. In recent years my experience of them has formed into a more definite shape – a shape I felt would work well as a book that would capture sustainability’s complexity and the power and creativity of design. These themes help define sustainable fashion and textiles in a new way and help open up new creative opportunities for the sector.

What do you think about the other ‘green’ fashion books that have been published alongside yours in the last year?
I think they are great – each book adds further momentum and dynamism to these issues and they have all taken quite different approaches so far! There is so much that needs to be said and done in sustainable fashion… we need all hands to the pumps!

How did your training in academic research affect the way you approached the structure and writing of your book?
A great deal of my academic work has taken place in sustainable design and I think this had a profound impact on the structure of the book. Many of the ideas that the book explores have been around for a good many years in sustainable design circles, and what I have done is to look for places where fashion and textiles could really make these ideas their own. This brings a fresh approach and means that many of the issues, projects and ideas covered are not bounded by the way things are done in today’s industry. That doesn’t mean to say however that today’s industry is not a key part of this book – quite the contrary it is central to it - indeed the first chapters in particular have this as their focus.

I’m also very grateful to my research training for giving me a deep appreciation of the importance rigor, integrity and reflection… these things help distil complex ideas.

Who did you write this book for? The consumer or the designer?
I suppose the target audience is the designer and the industry professional. But these people are of course, also consumers. So I suppose the answer is: both!

One of your first acknowledgments in the book is to Lynda Grose. Many eco-designers have named her as a great inspiration. How did you connect with her and why is her work so important?
Lynda and I have been chatting and sending things back and forth over the years and when she saw my book proposal she was so effusive and energized that it really acted as a spur for me to get on and do it. Her work has been consistently pushing the boundaries of what people know and value in sustainable fashion and she has a deep understanding of the nature of things. I have been so fortunate to have had her insight and input into the book and in all the other great projects that have happened since.

What first inspired you to start working on improving sustainability in the fashion and textile industries?
Well I loved fashion and I was very political (but then I grew up in an inner city in Thatcher’s Britain… who wouldn’t be?!). And I loved trees. The spark that ignited in me was about promoting a sense of justice (social and natural).

What positive developments have you seen in the industry since you started?
There are so many… improved supply chain transparency, codes of conduct, restrictive substance lists, banned chemicals, new tougher legislation, new fibre developments, sustainable fashion courses, eco collections, Esthetica (and so the list goes on). But perhaps the single most important change is that people are actively talking about these issues and are beginning to ask questions about the goals and rules of the industry… what do we want the industry to be? Who do we want it to serve?

At what point and why did you decide to follow a more research led career path rather than going into industry?
A series of chance encounters and being introduced to Kay Politowicz, head of textiles at Chelsea College of Art & Design, where I ended up doing my PhD.

What difference does the recent rise of interest in environmental issues over the past few years make to your work?
I think it has made a substantial difference - we are now seeing an openness or an ability to ‘hear’ the messages like never before. Although having said that, even though sustainability issues are ‘everywhere’, I think that people are still a bit confused about what it means in fashion and textiles.

The rise in interest has also made it financially possible for small companies to make a go of producing sustainability collections which were, not so long ago, considered to be fringe, almost hobby activities. So the rise in interest has made things so much more real.

How do you think we can ensure that the eco-fashion trend becomes integral to production systems and consumer behaviour rather than just a passing fad?
The way to make sustainable fashion last is to change fashion and infuse it with sustainability values and priorities. If sustainable fashion becomes assimilated into the mainstream which is otherwise unaffected, then it will have achieved little.

Where do you see the most potential for change in the industry? Production? High-profile designers as role models? Journalism and books? Or does the power rest in consumer behaviour?
One of the things that I have begun to understand about changing complex systems like fashion and textiles is that change comes from surprising places – sometimes from opposite directions than that which you expected. So I think the answer to this question is that we must rule nothing out and continue to work at all levels to foster change. I do think however that the biggest changes don’t require big budgets… it can be a simple shift in thinking.

What projects have you been working on since you finished your book and is there a next volume planned?
Since I finished the book I curated an exhibition at the Garanti Gallery in Istanbul entitled Fashion for Sustainability. The show explored fashion as a positive force for change towards sustainability. It combined the products, processes and voices of global brands, independent designers, pressure groups and garment workers, presenting them as a new type of fashion activism. Fashion for Sustainability was part exhibition, part open learning environment and gives a glimpse of a new agenda for fashion based on change.

In complete contrast to that I did a consultancy project for an exciting new sustainable fibre and clothing standard in the US, Leaf Certified. And I have given numerous talks and presentations.

In answer to the question about whether there another volume… well I hope so. There is so much more to do!

:: Kate Fletcher

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